Goodbye 66A: Clarity Thy Name is Law

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With the Apex Court striking down Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act 2000 that criminalised “offensive” messages through communication service, the proponents of Freedom of Speech are all overjoyed. Tweets kept pouring in huge numbers with hashtags #Sec66A and #66A trending nationally, celebrating the court’s verdict in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India.

Several arrests made in connection with posting content online under Section 66A had erupted widespread controversy. The confusion as to what is “offensive” and what’s not was not addressed in the impugned part of the Act. The Court exercising its right under Article 13 of the Indian Constitution that empowers, in fact imposes an obligation upon the judiciary to declare the laws inconsistent with or contravening to Fundamental Rights as void, rightly struck down the provision as unconstitutional. It, in practise, took away the fundamental right to speech and expression as granted under Article 19(1)(a).

The first public interest litigation against section 66(A) was filed in 2012, by a then 21-year-old student, Shreya Singhal. The petition said, “The phraseology of section 66(A) of the IT Act, 2000, is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards that it is susceptible to wanton abuse and, therefore, falls foul of articles 14, 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution… unless there is judicial sanction as a prerequisite to the setting into motion the criminal law with respect to freedom of speech and expression, the law, as it stands, is highly susceptible to abuse and for muzzling free speech in the country.” [Business Standard, March 25 2015]

Law seeks clarity, for the correct procedure to follow. Ambiguity mirrors weakness so far as legal aptitude is concerned. To fill in the empty spaces left by the struck-down law against the transmission of offensive messages online, there’s a push for a well-crafted, deliberated and thought-out legislation so as to deter the offence in question. Ambiguous laws and their as-it-may-deem-fit interpretations have come to wreak havoc on the overall judicial functioning of our country. We have considerable hoopla over laws against terrorism as the need of the hour. However, the question as to who is a terrorist remains unaddressed in all the anti-terror laws. Similarly, Thuggee Act of 1836 that was essentially meant to curb Thuggee activities in colonial India failed to define what is exactly meant by the offence of ‘Thuggee’. The ‘question of fact’ and ‘discretion of the court’ attitude in the legal system leaves unwarranted space for the lacunae to creep in, many a time contravening the principles of natural justice. It is for this reason that we need more explicit laws that would leave no space for filthy political implications.

The smacking down of Section 66(A) was indeed a welcome move in all respects and we hail this decision with open arms. The Court, however, in the instant case upheld the constitutionality of Sec.69 of Information Technology Act that empowers the authorities to block websites that “create communal disturbance, social disorder, or affect India’s relationship with other countries.” There is definitely a need to check the implications of such a law, but we must bear in mind that it’s a long road to justice and with the recent judicial order we are already halfway across it.

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