Indians are very active on different social networks and 88% of users share content on their social profiles and are increasingly spending time on various social networking sites. With a population of approx. 65% below 35 years of age, the user is engaged over Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest sharing video clips, jokes, pictures and various messages ranging from parliament to party, emotional to professional, social reforms to fashion trends, politics to leisure, spiritual to titillating brashness. The engagement platform is dynamic and evolving and is not only confined to the youth but has also captured the mind space of senior citizens, who use is to reminisce, opine, share their creative pursuits and belong to homogenous groups. Eventually the entire user base is bound together by various commonalities. Various topics that were uncomfortable for the common householders and issues that people turned a blind eye to, are now in-your-face more than ever and it does strike a chord with individuals. Expression that is so free-flowing can indeed bring in a wave of controversies, but the question is does our constitution give permission to handcuff the common man for having a point of view?
While we most commonly associate freedom with speech and expression, it is not solely limited to verbal communication; the ability to express ourselves through the written word or through various mediums of art and fashion all fall under the rubric of freedom of expression. Freedom of speech and expression is the most basic of all freedoms granted to the citizens of India. With the advent of IT, communication across the globe is at our finger tips and the fact that a few in power took the task of shutting the gab of the masses and arresting them and tried to introduce an act to curb the organic growth of usage of online platform for expression and messaging is indeed an invasion on human rights. Freedom of expression is the ability to openly display or communicate one’s ideas about the world to other people.
Freedom of Expression for all Indian Netizens; kudos to the Supreme Court
In a major boost to freedom of speech online in India, the Supreme Court on 24th March 2015 struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, reading down a draconian law that was poorly conceived, tragically worded and caused ordinary citizens to be jailed for so much as a comment on Facebook that annoyed just about anyone. From a cartoonist in UP to a professor in West Bengal, from a diploma-holder in Maharashtra to an MP in New Delhi, all eyes were set on Supreme Court as it decided the fate of the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act.
Pronouncing their verdict on a PIL filed against the section in a packed courtroom, which empowers the police to arrest a person for allegedly posting ‘offensive materials’ on social networking sites, a Bench of Justices J Chelameswar and RF Nariman said the section violated the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and was therefore was illegal. “Section 66-A of the IT Act is struck down in its entirety,” said the apex court bench of Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman.
“Our Constitution provides for liberty of thought, expression and belief. In a democracy, these values have to be provided within constitutional scheme,” said Justice Nariman, pronouncing the verdict.
Holding several terms used in the law to define the contours of offences as “open-ended, undefined and vague”, the court said: “Every expression used is nebulous in meaning. What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another. What may cause annoyance or inconvenience to one may not cause annoyance or inconvenience to another.” The court pointed out that a penal law would be void on the grounds of vagueness if it failed to define the criminal offence with sufficient definiteness. “Ordinary people should be able to understand what conduct is prohibited and what is permitted. Also, those who administer the law must know what offence has been committed so that arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of the law does not take place,” the court said. In the judgment, the court said that the liberty of thought and expression was a cardinal value of paramount significance under the Constitution. Three concepts fundamental in understanding the reach of this right were discussion, advocacy and incitement. Discussion, or even advocacy, of a particular cause, no matter how unpopular it was, was at the heart of the right to free speech and it was only when such discussion or advocacy reached the level of incitement that it could be curbed on the ground of causing public disorder.
“The apex courts in India have consistently protected the rights of its citizens. And the Supreme Court has once again upheld that great tradition with this decision. There are constitutional exceptions to free speech that exist. But this judgment will protect against the abuse of this vague and badly drafted law,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Centre for Internet and Society.
The petition that resulted in the landmark Supreme Court judgment that struck down section 66A of the IT Act, is “Shreya Singhal versus Union of India”. Singhal was 21 years old when she filed the petition in 2012. The 24-year-old is in the second year of law school at Delhi University’s Faculty of Law. Her petition, drafted by lawyers Ninad Laud and Ranjita Rohatgi, and argued by former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, has changed the course of freedom of speech online in India. “The judgment itself came in less than a month,” she says. “But the journey itself has taken two and a half years.”
Social Media; a contributor to India’s growth story
India has been one of the major consumers when it comes to social media. Studying the social media consumption pattern, brands in India today are much aware of the potential and value that social media can deliver them as compared to other channels. In the field of education, social media tools allow online students to share information and build a community. Students connect on real time and work on projects, exchange ideas which may be radical and analyse various outcomes. Similarly, fashion and lifestyle industry thrives on attitude, edginess and bold exhibits. Expression through various social media platforms helps brands in trending and establishing a consumer interface. There has been a surge in mobile usage, with the emergence of the ‘Smartphone Generation’, a major chunk of people access internet and social media from their mobile phones. The Supreme Court judgement rendering a provision of the IT Act as unconstitutional is a momentous victory for more than 300 million Net users in the country.
The verdict comes as a relief for both social media users as well as India operations of global Internet giants like Google. The latter will no longer be required to take down content after complaints from any party. Only a government or court order can lead to content removal.
“Internet users will be able to use online services without fear of illegal censorship or harassment, and online businesses, ranging from established international companies to small Indian start-ups, will be able to take advantage of a more conducive business environment,” IAMAI President Subho Ray said in a statement. The Internet & Mobile Association of India, which counts Google, Microsoft, eBay, IBM, Flipkart, Ola Cabs and LinkedIn as members, said the ruling will encourage more investment in the Internet sector. All is well that ends well and the re-establishing of the right to freedom of speech and expression in one’s own country will spread a wave of positivity and confidence building in a system which is much challenged.
Source: New Delhi Reporter