The government told the Supreme Court on Tuesday it was ready to review the controversial section 66A of the Information Technology Act that activists allege is often used by authorities to muzzle free speech on social media.
Additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta said a committee had been formed to draft a new law or framework, admitting a re-look at the provision was necessary. He, however, defended the section in its present form and said it didn’t impinge on freedom of speech.
“A roadmap would be prepared after studying the aberrations and changed situations in Indian and international law. The committee would suggest measures and safeguards,” Mehta told the SC bench, admitting the possibility of the section’s misuse. He even offered to show a draft of the amended law.
The section — inserted into the IT Act in 2008 by the UPA — prescribes punishment of up to three years for sending “grossly offensive” online messages but has been in the news for alleged misuse. A 21-year-old student was arrested in 2012 for asking on Facebook why Mumbai shut down after Bal Thackeray’s death. Her friend was also held for liking the post. The top court — hearing a batch petitions that demand the provision be declared unconstitutional — refused to wait for the committee’s recommendations.
“We have to judge the statute as it stands before us,” it said, asking the law officer to define words such as “grossly offensive” and “nuisance”. The judges said such cases were handled by untrained junior police officers. “Even a legally-trained mind takes time to understand these terms. Over here a policeman books a person. Nobody knows how many years a judge would take to apply his mind. Till then, the man would remain in jail,” the judges noted.
Mehta, however, told the bench the current law didn’t gag free speech. “If someone exercises the freedom of speech, inconveniencing or offending someone, it isn’t a criminal offence,” he said.