The Supreme Court verdict striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which gave the police powers to arrest a person for posting objectionable content on the net is a major shot in the arm for freedom of speech and expression.
It was indeed an outrageous section that was inserted in the Information Technology Act during UPA-2 stint and by striking it down the apex court has done a great service to the country in support of human freedom.
The Supreme Court order followed a petition filed after two girls – Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan – were arrested in Palghar in Thane district of Maharashtra as one of them posted a comment against the shutdown in Mumbai following Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s death and the other ‘liked’ it.
Pointing out that the definition for grounds of arrest under the section were vague, the court said that the section affected the freedom of speech and expression.
Appropriately, the court refused to consider the current NDA government’s assurance that the section would not be misused and that it may be retained. Considering that the section had conferred obnoxious powers on the police to arrest anyone for sending offensive messages from mobiles and computers with up to three years in jail the government that had not enacted the ridiculous section had no business to protect it.
It was not as though the section was not being misused. There were several examples of gross misuse. A small sample of those are as follows: A Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested for forwarding caricatures on Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee on Facebook in 2012.
Businessman Ravi Srinivasan was also charged in 2012 by Puducherry Police for allegedly tweeting against Karti Chidambaram, son of then union minister P Chidambaram. He had allegedly called Karti ‘corrupt’ in his tweet.. A tourism officer in Varanasi was arrested for uploading “objectionable” pictures of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and senior SP leader Azam Khan on Facebook.
Significantly, the apex court, refused to strike down two other provisions of the IT Act that provide for blocking of sites. Under Section 79, the government can give directions to intermediaries to remove content from websites and under Section 80, police can carry out searches, enter premises. It is but fair that freedom must have its limits.