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Censorship & Emergency impossible these days, gov't ASG tells Supreme Court, defending IT Act

The central government yesterday defended section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 saying it was to curb posting of mischievous and objectionable material on social media and websites and in no way could be construed as curbing the fundamental right to free speech and expression.

Describing the contention that section 66A curbed the freedom of speech and expression as “misconceived”, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told a bench of Justice J Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman that the said “provision neither intends nor can be interpreted to scuttle freedom of speech and expression of any citizen”.

“At the outset, it is clarified that if any provision of the Information Technology Act, 2000 is found to be in conflict with freedom guaranteed under article 19(1)(a) of the constitution of India, the same will have to be read in context of and subject to Article 19(2) of the constitution,” he said.

Article 19(1)(a) guarantees freedom of speech and expression while 19(2) says that freedom guaranteed under the former would not affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the state from making any law to impose reasonable restrictions in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

Former Google policy counsel and government affairs manager Raman Chima, tweeted @tame_wildcard from the hearing in a personal capacity:

The ASG is essentially arguing the legislatures cannot define legal standards such as “grossly offensive” in detail

Bench: US judges said “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. ASG: George Bernard Shaw said “Assassination is the highest form of censorship"

ASG: You cannot have an Emergency in India now. Censorship not possible; border-less media.

The government’s argument came while opposing the challenge to the validity of section 66A raised by Shreya Singhal who had moved the apex court following the arrest of two girls - Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan - for posting comments critical on Mumbai bandh in the wake of the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.

Thereafter NGOs Common Cause and PUCL (a consortium of internet companies including Google), self-exiled Bangla writer Taslima Nasreen and others also impleaded themselves in the matter.

Section 66A reads: “Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.”

Singhal in her PIL had said that the “phraseology of the aforesaid section is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse”.

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