In a significant statement on Tuesday, the Modi-led government told the Supreme Court that posting messages on social media relating to freedom of expression will not be seen as an offence. The statement arrives after the apex court had earlier warned the Centre that it would make certain controversial provisions of the IT Act inoperable if it failed to clarify its stand.
The Centre’s clarification on Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act had also come amid a spurt in arrests for ‘objectionable’ social media posts. The provision has been often invoked by authorities to curtail free speech on social media. Speaking on the matter, the Centre said that there were certain ‘aberrations amounting abuse’ of controversial IT Act provision, which allows arrests for ‘annoying, inconvenient and dangerous messages’ on social media, including ones involving freedom of speech.
As a caveat, however, the Centre said that it will continue to keep tabs on offences committed online that includes spreading hatred and other such criminal activities online. In a move to mitigate the misuse of Section 66A the Centre has set up a panel to suggest ways of safeguarding freedom of speech without impinging upon the provisions set up by law. While Section 66A provides for maximum three-year imprisonment for sending ‘offensive’ messages through a computer or communication device, Section 74 provides for two-year jail term for intermediaries hosting such content.
The apex court’s intervention has come amid a slew of petitions challenging Section 66A of the IT Act. One such petition came from a lawyer of the two girls, who were arrested in November 2012 for a Facebook post against the shutdown of Mumbai during Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray’s funeral procession. The Centre, unfortunately, will continue to perpetuate such acts till it amends this very provision of the Act. It reportedly told the court that phrases like ‘annoyance, inconvenience, danger or obstruction’ used in Section 66 A of the IT Act has ‘no correlation or connection with any citizen’s freedom of speech and expression.’ Such statements go against the spirit of those very litigations that were filed in the apex court against Section 66A.
These litigations were filed primarily because certain provisions in them were deemed to be exploitative and ripe for abuse, especially by state authorities. Unless and until these provisions are amended, incidents such as those in Mumbai will continue to occur. It will, however, be interesting to see how the government-appointed panel establishes a balance between free speech and provisions in the IT Law. Unless definitive parameters are set for Section 66A, with key amendments, free speech online will continue to face abuse.