Centre for Internet & Society

The internet in India is freer now, but individuals could still to get into trouble for online posts, say digital media and law experts. Hailing the Supreme Court judgment on Tuesday as a landmark verdict for free speech in India, experts who have closely read the judgment say there is much to be careful about too.

The article by Kim Arora was published in the Times of India on March 30, 2015. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

The scrapping of the contentious section doesn't mean that one has a free run, cautions Sunil Abraham, executive director, Centre for Internet and Society. An online comment can still land you in jail, he says.

"The judgement in no way means that speech on online platforms will be unregulated now. You can still be charged for pornography or voyeurism under the IT Act. There are many provisions in the Constitution and Indian Penal Code that the government can use to target people it wants to go after. You can be still charged for hate speech or defamation - which is a criminal offence in India - for an online comment," says Abraham.

While lawyer Apar Gupta found the judgment to be forward-looking, he pointed to Para 98 of the 120 page judgment, which addresses Article 14 of the Constitution regarding "discrimination" and talks of the distinction between online and other media.

"We make it clear that there is an intelligible differentia between speech on the internet and other mediums of communication for which separate offences can certainly be created by legislation," says the judgment. "The court has indicated that special offences can be created for the internet. Constant vigilance is the price of liberty. We need to constantly engage with these issues to keep the internet free," says Gupta.

The judgment has been praised for making a distinction between online posts and messages that pertain to advocacy, discussion and incitement. "This is an excellent decision. The SC is saying that no matter what the medium, we stand for constitutional rights. The judges were ready to listen, and ready to share their experience of using the internet also," says Mishi Choudhary, legal director at Software Freedom Law Center, adding, "It was a lost opportunity for the Modi government. They should have gotten rid of section 66 A themselves."

Section 69A of the Act, which stands as is, allows non-transparent blocking of online content in the interest of "sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above." However, Choudhary says that since it is a narrowly-drawn provision, it ensures more safeguards.

"It will be noticed that Section 69A unlike Section 66A is a narrowly drawn provision with several safeguards. First and foremost, blocking can only be resorted to where the Central Government is satisfied that it is necessary so to do. Secondly, such necessity is relatable only to some of the subjects set out in Article 19(2). Thirdly, reasons have to be recorded in writing in such blocking order so that they may be assailed in a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution," she says.

Going forward, the government plan of action should focus on balancing safety and freedom on the internet, says Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who himself was one of the petitioners. "The final endgame has to be one where we have a new law or even a new IT Act which meets the twin objectives of a safe and free internet. The two need not be mutually exclusive," he says.

(With inputs from Anand J in Bengaluru)