Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015) – A Landmark Judgement on Online Free Speech in India

Shreya Singhal v. Union of India is a landmark judgement by the Supreme Court of India in 2015, addressing the issue of online speech and intermediary liability in India. This judgement is significant in protecting online free speech against arbitrary restrictions.

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Background of the Case:

  • Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, made it a punishable offence to send ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘menacing’ information using a computer resource or communication device.
  • The provision also made it punishable to persistently send information that the sender knows to be false, for annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will.
  • The vague and arbitrary terms used in Section 66A led to much misuse of personal and political nature, with several criminal cases being instituted against innocuous instances of online speech, including political commentary and humour.
  • Section 66A and 79 of the IT Act, as well as rules made under the Act created an onerous liability regime for internet intermediaries.

Issues before Court:

  • The provisions of Section 66A and Section 79 of the IT Act, as well as rules made under the Act were challenged in the Supreme Court in a series of writ petitions by individuals, NGOs, and companies.
  • The primary issue before the Court was to determine the constitutionality of Section 66A, which imposed restrictions on online speech and the liability of intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act.

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Judgement:

  • In a 52-page judgement, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act, read down Section 79 of the Information Technology Act and the related rules, and affirmed the constitutionality of Section 69A of the Act.
  • The Court held that Section 66-A was vague and over-broad, and therefore fell foul of Article 19(1)(a), since the statute was not narrowly tailored to specific instances of speech which it sought to curb.
  • The Court also considered the ‘chilling effect’ on speech caused by vague and over-broad statutory language as a rationale for striking down the provision.
  • The Supreme Court further read down Section 79 and Rule 3(4) of the Intermediaries Guidelines, under the Act, which deals with the liability of intermediaries.
  • The Court held that online intermediaries would only be obligated to take down content on receiving an order from a court or government authority.
  • The Court also upheld the secret blocking process under Section 69A of the Act, by which the Government can choose to take down content from the Internet.

Significance:

  • The decision of the Supreme Court is of immense significance in protecting online free speech against arbitrary restrictions.
  • The reading down of Section 79 of the IT act by the Supreme Court is significant in providing clarity on the liability of intermediaries.
  • The case is considered a watershed moment for online free speech in India.

This article is part of the series “Landmark Judgements that Shaped India” under the Indian Polity Notes & Prelims Sureshots. We aim to make the articles comprehensive while leaving out unnecessary information from the UPSC perspective. If you think this article is useful, please provide your feedback in the comments section below.

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