CPJ welcomes Indian Supreme Court decision protecting online speech

Manila, March 24, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the judgment by the Indian Supreme Court today that struck down as unconstitutional Section 66A of the country’s Information Technology Act. Section 66A criminalized, among other types of speech, the transmission of “grossly offensive” information, as well as information for the purpose of causing “annoyance” or “inconvenience,” according to reports. Individuals convicted under the provision faced up to three years in prison. The court held that Section 66A “arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech” and that upholding it would lead to a “total” chilling effect on free expression.

“The Indian Supreme Court’s decision striking down Section 66A is a profound victory for press freedom online,” said CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Geoffrey King. “In holding this provision unconstitutional, the court recognized the Internet’s importance as a space for the free flow of news and critical commentary, as well as the necessity of ensuring that restrictions on speech are narrowly drawn.”

In addition to striking down Section 66A, the court also significantly narrowed a provision of the law that imposed liability on Internet intermediaries for content posted by their users by reading into it a court order requirement for notice-and-takedown requests submitted by third parties. Section 66A has been invoked to silence or interfere with critical commentary in India in recent years, according to CPJ research. In May 2014, a naval engineer faced preliminary charges of violating the provision after he criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Facebook.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The third paragraph has been updated to reflect the fact that the Indian Supreme Court held that intermediary liability can only be pursued through a court order or other government order. Previously, private parties could submit notice-and-takedown orders to Internet intermediaries directly.