What is Section 66 A of the IT Act? How its enforcement led to the infringement of fundamental rights?

Ans: Basically, cyber crime is an ‘unlawful’ act in which the computer is either a tool or a target or both. Section 66 A specifically talks about sending offensive messages.

Acts penalised under 66 A include sending message which is offensive, menacing or false information circulated for generating hatred, ill-will, enmity, insult, injury etc. Or sending emails or other messages that mislead the recipient about the origin of such messages. Punishment under Section 66 A is imprisonment up to three years and fine. Section 66 A is cognizable and bailable.

The Supreme Court held that the provision of Section A is contemptuous to Article 19 (1) (a) and thus is arbitrary in nature which breaches the right of citizens to express their opinion freely on the Internet. The 123-page long judgment which extensively discussed Indian, US and English jurisprudence on free speech, struck down Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act.

The court also held that the Section is unconstitutional on the ground that it takes within its sweep protected speech and considered the `chilling effect’ on speech caused by vague and over-broad statutory language as a rationale for striking down the provision. Further, the court held that the ‘public order’ restriction under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution would not apply to cases of ‘advocacy’ but only to ‘incitement,’ specifically incitement which has a proximate relation to public disorder.

The verdict given in this case is important in the Supreme Court’s history as it has widened the scope of freedom of speech and expression in a way of right available to express oneself freely and thus limited the scope of state in restraining the freedom in only most of the exceptional circumstances. Justice Nariman has said the liberty of thought and expression is not merely an inspirational ideal. It is also a cardinal value that is of paramount significance under our constitutional scheme.

Therefore, it can be concluded that striking down the provisions of the Section 66 A of the IT Act has not only widen the scope of the freedom of speech and expression but has also created a scope for posting pictures and comments against any person without any fear and restriction of punishment as the words such as offensive and menacing are vague and ambiguous and can be interpreted widely.

Section 66 A provided an opportunity to genuine victims of cyber harassment to obtain immediate relief against content that may be insulting or injurious in nature, abrogation of which has now made police toothless in dealing with the growing menace of cyber bullying.