CASE COMMENT ON SHREYA SINGHAL VS UOI
Singhal v. Union of India, one of India's most high-profile digital rights cases, invalidated Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000. The Supreme Court of India ruled that elements of a parliamentary act allowing law enforcement to arrest and penalise writers of abusive online speech were unconstitutional. The court also struck down India's notice-and-takedown laws, but preserved the government's power to block websites through ISPs as long as they present justifications.
The issue concerns a petition that raised serious doubts about Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act of 2000's constitutionality. The issue centres around the arrest of two teenagers, Shaheen Dhadha and Rinu Srinivasan, for posting offensive messages on Facebook. They were arrested under Section 66-A of the Material Technology Act of 2000 for conveying information with the intent to cause irritation, ill will, danger, or insult, but were later released after criminal charges were withdrawn against them.
Despite their release, the incident drew widespread media attention and criticism, and there were nationwide demonstrations against police abuse of authority by claiming Section 66-A and restricting freedom of speech and expression.
Later, the women filed a writ suit under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, alleging that Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 violated their basic right to freedom of expression and speech. Under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, it was claimed that the wording of Section 66-A was vague and arbitrary.
Three years later, the Supreme Court agreed with the petitioners, holding that Section 66A made no distinction "between mere discussion or advocacy of a particular point of view, which may be irritating, inconvenient, or grossly offensive to some, and incitement by which such words lead to an imminent causal connection with public disorder, security of the State, etc." The court reasoned that Section 66A was overly broad and hence may be used as an insidious kind of censorship, suppressing the voice of criticism. For the same reasons, the court invalidated Section 118d of the Kerala Police Act.
The court also ruled on Sections 69A and 79 of the Information Technology Act, in addition to Section 66A. Because the law was narrowly limited, the court found that Section 69A enabled the government to block websites and remove content. The court also found Section 79 to be constitutional, which permitted the government to hold intermediaries liable if they had actual knowledge of a violation. The court did, however, clarify the definition of "actual knowledge" and required the government to file a judicial order before any content could be disabled. Overall, the verdict was hailed as a victory for free speech law, advocacy, and jurisprudence.
By supporting the citizen's right to form opinions and express them in the public arena, the Court's decision increases the boundaries for freedom of speech and expression while also preserving the essence of democracy. This decision is a watershed moment for Article 19(1)(a) since everyone has the freedom to create and express political beliefs without fear of being subjected to excessive and arbitrary restrictions.