Author: Nikhil Kanekal
The Supreme Court of India has decided to bunch together all petitions related to the regulation of free speech online and adjourned them to the first week of January 2014 for a final hearing “on merits”.
A bench comprising justices H. L. Gokhale and Jasti Chelameshwar heard a clutch of petitions on Friday connected with the Information Technology Act, 2000 and IT (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011. The extent of free speech online, the liability of intermediaries (or platforms which host third party content), the criminal law procedure to be invoked in case of an IT Act-related offence – these are some of the questions of law that will likely be addressed by the court when it deals with these petitions.
One of the main arguments by petitioners is that the restrictions on free speech specified under the IT Act exceed those specified in Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution.
While the bench seemed to be largely in agreement with the petitioners that section 66A of the IT Act, along with other provisions, need to subjected to judicial review, the judges also cautioned that they need to balance questions of law to ensure that “the state will also have to have some power”.
Referring to recent instances of violence and panic-infused migration, the judges observed, “See what happened in Bangalore and the North East. We will have to look into (the IT Act), but very unfortunate things have been happening in some parts of the country.”
The role of digital media and online communication has been under scrutiny after reports of circulation of controversial material appeared to have sparked rioting and violence, most recently in Uttar Pradesh.
“But this has to be heard and we have to also see whether the advisory given by the central government is adequate,” said the court, in reference to an advisory issued by the government to law enforcement agencies in connection with IT Act offences, earlier this year.
Counsel for the petitioner complained that although all state governments have been made party to this bunch of cases, many of them had not yet responded to notices served through the court’s registry. The court directed all parties to complete the filing of written pleadings before the cases come up for oral argument in January.
During the hearing, it emerged that one of the petitioners, Dilipkumar Tulsidas Shah, who had asked the court to pass guidelines to ensure that police officials have a standard operating procedure to deal with complaints and reports related to Section 66A and other offences listed under the IT Act, was no longer alive. However, given that his petition raises a substantial question, the court observed that any party who wants to pursue the case on his behalf or file a fresh petition, could still do so. “Somebody else wants to come, they can – whoever is interested.”
Parties who have filed petitions include Shreya Singhal, Mouthshut.com, Dilipkumar Tulsidas Shah, Common Cause, and Rajeev Chandrashekar. Read more about the petitions here.