India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a provision of a law that gave the government almost unlimited discretion in determining what content was offensive and meting out jail time for speech that was not to its liking. A two-judge panel ruled the law was unconstitutional because it violated free speech protections.
“The law stipulated that a person could be jailed for up to three years for any communication online that was, among other things, ‘grossly offensive,’ ‘menacing’ or ‘false,’ and for the purpose of causing ‘annoyance,’ ‘inconvenience’ or ‘injury,’” according to the New York Times. “The provisions, which led to highly publicized arrests in recent years, had been roundly criticized by legal experts who called them vague and argued that they had been used in some cases to stifle dissent.”
The Information Technology Act was passed in 2000, and was expanded in 2008 following the terrorist attack in Mumbai to give authorities even greater power to monitor electronic communication, including authority to arrest individuals for posting offensive or false content, punishable by up to three years in prison.
The result was what you might expect: a series of absurd high-profile arrests for trivial Facebook posts and Tweets. Here’s but one particularly egregious example via the Washington Post:
The most well-known was the case of two young women arrested in the western town of Palghar after one of them posted a comment on Facebook that said Mumbai should not have been shut down for the funeral of a famous conservative leader. A friend who merely “liked” the post also was arrested. After much outcry, the two were released on bail and the charges eventually dropped.
The list of cases brought against ordinary citizens is astounding. The judgment also made it harder for the government to force websites to remove content, although the Wall Street Journal reports, it “rejected an argument by free-speech advocates that information shared on the Internet must be treated the same way as other kinds of speech, such as a live address or printed material.”