Section 66A once more: 

Section 66A once more

Context

  • An expert committee appointed by the government has proposed legislation to meet the challenge of hate speech online, by amending the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Indian Penal Code and the IT Act.
  • The amendment can introduce stringent provisions, specifying punishment, to deal with cases of hate speech and use of cyberspace that spreads hatred and incitement.

What are the court’s observation?

  • The court has observed that the weakness of Section 66A lay in the fact that it had created an offence on the basis of undefined actions, which do not fall among the exceptions granted under Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech.
  • The court also observed that the challenge was to identify where to draw the line.
  • Local authorities could proceed autonomously, literally on the whim of their political masters.
  • The court refused to distinguish between traditional media and the internet in this regard, which suggests that existing laws, if diligently applied, should suffice.
  • Unconstitutional control on free speech are bound to resurface in any legislation designed to fill the void vacated by Section 66A, which had affected the lives of far too many innocents. It was a legislative crime which should not come back.

What are the committee’s recommendations?

Prohibiting incitement to hatred

  • The committee has recommended to amend IPC section 153 C. It has recommended to include in communication “spoken or written words, signs, visible representation, information, audio, video, or combination of both, transmitted, retransmitted through any telecommunication service, communication device or computer resource”.
  • Punishment : Up to two years or fine of Rs 5,000 or both.

Causing fear, alarm or provocation of violence in certain cases

  • The committee recommended amending IPC section 505 A, punishment of any person or group of persons who intentionally, on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe, uses any means of communication to communicate.
  • Punishment : Up to a year, or Rs 5000 or both.

Amendment to Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

  • The committee recommended to add sections 25 B and 25 C — creating the post of a State Cyber Crime Coordinator and District Cyber Crime Cell, respectively.

Amendment to IT Act, 2000

  • The committee has recommended an amendment to Section 78 which allows a police officer not below the rank of Sub-Inspector to investigate any offence under this Act (report specifies young police officers, directly recruited as SIs, better equipped and trained to investigate cyber offences)

How was the committee formed?

  • The committee came into existence once Section 66A was struck down by the Supreme court.

What were the issues with Section 66A?

  • Section 66A was brought into the statute by the UPA-II in 2009.
  • Section 66A had empowered the police to make arrests over what the policemen, in terms of their subjective discretion, could construe as “offensive” or “menacing” or for the purposes of causing annoyance, inconvenience, etc.
  • It prescribed the punishment for sending messages through computer or any other communication device like a mobile phone or a tablet, and a conviction could fetch a maximum of three years in jail.
  • The law was amended in 2008 and received Presidential assent on February 5, 2009.

Striking down of 66A

  • Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was considered unconstitutional in its entirety.
  • The Supreme Court took down a “draconian” provision that had led to the arrests of many people for posting content deemed to be “allegedly objectionable” on the Internet.
  • In the judgment, the court said the liberty of thought and expression was a cardinal value of paramount significance under the Constitution.
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