Taking due note of the changing media dynamics,the Supreme Court has considered the sustainability of Section 66 A of the IT act and declared it to be unconstitutional. This is a major victory for free speech campaigners. An era in which corporate ownership of media houses has increased doubts about the content of information being circulated to the public, social media, today referred to as the fifth estate, is the only platform where frank, unbiased and politically incorrect opinions can be shared.
The Supreme Court with its judgement has brought a major reprieve to social media which has now become the prime platform where a major chunk of our population shares information, opinion, facts, figures, statistics and even socializes.
Section 66A of the Information Technology act was enacted so that information which is grossly offensive, menacing and false is not circulated amongst the members of the public via the internet. The section provided for a punishment extendable up to a 3 years jail term in case of violation. The most bewildering aspect of this section was that the words grossly offensive, menacing and false had not been defined. This had led to bizarre interpretations of the section as a whole and it was being used as a tool to arbitrarily arrest innocent citizens expressing honest opinions on various social networking platforms.
Social media has attained a wide foot print in India and is an ever growing platform on which public opinion is being expressed. It is estimated that India will have more Facebook users than USA by 2017. Our country currently has the second largest users of Facebook with the figure expected to cross 100 million soon. The nation has a significant number of twitter users as well. Both the platforms play a vital role in forming public opinion on a range of issues. In the coming years social media may become the primary source of information transmission to society.
This sudden change in the manner in which the public is provided information brings about several legal challenges. The loopholes in the existing laws are being exploited by powerbrokers to intimidate, threaten and coerce citizens from expressing opinions and stating facts contrary to their party lines, motive and ideology.
Incidents such as arrest of two college girls in Maharashtra and a Businessman in Tamil Nadu by evoking Section 66A of the IT Act for writing against certain politicians and influential individuals got wide media attention. These incidents highlighted the manner in which the section was being misused. Though freedom of speech and expression are guaranteed by the Constitution of India, subject to reasonable restrictions, the constraints on free online speech imposed by Section 66A were draconian.
Arrest of a Class 11 student by the Uttar Pradesh Police under this section symbolised the malevolent intent with which politicians can curb candid public opinion against them. The section created claustrophobia in the minds of individuals willing to express their blunt beliefs.
Presently the world including India is at a juncture where there is a growing conflict between groups supporting complete freedom of speech without any regulations and the governments which want certain degree of control over the content being distributed to the public. Websites such as Wikileaks are strongly advocating for a completely unregulated media where information is available to the public without any censorship.
For the media to contribute positively towards society and progressive nation building it is imperative that the conflict between freedom of speech and its restriction is addressed. The recent decision of the Supreme Court is a reformist verdict which will contribute immensely towards enlightenment of the public and circulation of free and fair opinion of individuals without any fear.