Is Section 66A a Leash for Free India?

Image Source: Swedishsurveyor

Image Source: Swedishsurveyor

Section 66A of Information Technology Act is drawing a lot of rebuke and criticism. Section 66A has been termed as ‘Draconian’ in the social media, meaning ‘excessively harsh and severe’, for it is restricting internet as a parallel to Print and Broadcasting media censorship.

The Indian Government, while laying down the reasons to restrict Internet freedom said that posting pictures or comments on social networking sites which hurt religious sentiments would not be tolerated. Any person caught in such act would be prosecuted under Section 66A.

As reported by The Huffington Post, The Supreme Court is hearing petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Section 66A on grounds that it violates the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 21.

The arguments are being addressed before the Supreme Court Bench comprising of Justice J. Chelameswar, Rohinton Fali Nariman and Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Tushar Mehta. Commenting on the matter, Mehta stated that since religion is an unwarranted subject, posting obscene images of gods and insulting religious texts could hurt the sentiments of people.

Section 66A prescribes a three year jail term to a person, found guilty of causing ‘annoyance or inconvenience’ through social media. Commenting over the punishment under this section, the bench said, “It is problematic that a person should be jailed under the act. How long will a gentleman remain in jail? He may remain in jail till a judge of the Supreme Court or any other court will apply the judicial mind.”

The government asserted, hurting religious sentiments is termed as ‘grossly offensive’, and such acts must be penalized. Dealing with the phrase ‘grossly offensive’, the bench referred to the judgement cited by the ASG and commented that ‘grossly offensive’ is a vague term. Its relevance changes with the change in perception of people.

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Justice Nariman, citing an example of how the vague definition of ‘grossly offensive’ could be dangerously twisted said, “I can give you millions of examples but take one burning issue is of conversion. If I post something in support of conversion and some people, not agreeable to my view, filed a complaint against me then what will happen to me?”

ASG Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court that, “There is an institutional approach and there are checks like pre-censorship for TV and films. But on internet there is individual approach and there is no checks and balances or license. Considering the reach and impact of medium, leeway be given to legislature to frame rules. On internet every individual is a director, producer and broadcaster and a person can send offensive material to millions of people at a same time in nanosecond just with a click of button.” Adding further, he said, “If the medicine is bitter then we can have sugar after it instead of throwing the medicine. People have to take the medicine as it is for their benefit”.

Nevertheless, ASG Tushar Mehta said that the Government does not want to save Sec 66A and is open to suggestions to amend the law in question.

There have been a few instances of which stand a testimony of the misuse of Sec 66A by the Government. For example,the  petition that was filed against the two girls in November 2012, when they posted a  comment on Facebook regarding the shutdown of Mumbai for the funeral of Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray.

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The issue is going viral among people as some consider it to be a step to curb their right to freedom of speech. Be it Facebook or Linkedin, people are actively posting and following the development in the case. The hashtag #No66A attracted a lot of attention on Twitter. Some mixed view tweets have been listed below.

The matter is highly sensitive and the government should put all aspects around the issue in consideration. Since India is a democratic nation, the Government should consider public’s opinion before taking any major steps in this matter. Please share your views in the comments below.

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