Category Archives: IT Act

Online Speech and Intermediary Liability: The Delhi High Court’s MySpace Judgment

On the 23rd of December, a division bench of the Delhi High Court handed down its judgment in MySpace vs Super Cassettes. In the process, the Court laid down some important legal principles regarding intermediary liability in the case of copyright claims, the scope of safe harbour provisions, and injunctions. The judgment, therefore, has significant ramifications for online speech, and ought to be studied closely. It is also worth reading because it is one of the first Indian judgments (to my knowledge) that focuses upon the special characteristics of the Internet from the point of view of expanding online speech, and not contracting it. As I shall argue, on the core question before it – that is, balancing online speech with the statutory mandate of protecting copyright – the Court successfully negotiated a minefield of legal and technical issues, and – apart from one finding – managed to tread a fine line between the competing interests.

Background

In 2008, Super Cassettes filed a suit against MySpace. It argued that a lot of the songs and other audio-visual content that MySpace hosted on its website violated its copyright. It further argued that MySpace profited from this through advertisements that were inserted into the videos. Furthermore, MySpace’s existing systems of protecting copyright – i.e., a terms of service agreement with its users directing them not to violate copyright, a notice-and-takedown system where MySpace would take down copyright infringing material on being notified by the holder, and a Rights Management Tool, whereby copyright holders could sign up, create digital fingerprints of its content, and then submit it to MySpace, who would then block mirror content – could not absolve it of liability under Indian law. Super Cassettes argued that MySpace had violated provisions of the Copyright Act. It sought a permanent injunction, and damages.

MySpace argued, on the other hand, that it was an intermediary, and had no role to play in making, modifying, or uploading content upon its website. The advertisements that were shown just before a video played were through an automated process, depending upon matches between keywords. Consequently, MySpace was not modifying any content in its own right, and was protected under the safe harbour provisions of the Information Technology Act. Furthermore, a general injunction to remove copyright-infringing material was impossible to comply with, because not only were there more than 100,000 works on the website which MySpace would have to sift through, but it would also have to monitor every future work that was uploaded on its website.

On hearings for interim orders, the single judge of the High Court found that MySpace was prima facie in breach of the Copyright Act by providing a “space” where infringing material was published, and with “knowledge” that such material was being published (the two requirements under Section 51(a)(ii) of the Copyright Act). The single judge further held that MySpace’s role went beyond that of an intermediary; and in any event, under the proviso to Section 81 of the Information Technology Act, the provisions of that Act (including the safe harbour provisions) were clearly subservient to copyright law. MySpace’s safeguards – such as the Rights Management Tools – were not relevant to a finding of liability for copyright infringement, and could only come into play as factors for mitigating damages. Consequently, the single judge granted a qua timet injunction (i.e., an injunction against future acts), prohibiting MySpace from allowing uploads of any material that breached Super Cassette’s copyright, and to delete from its website the songs and other content about which Super Cassettes provided it with the relevant details.

MySpace appealed.

Issues before the Division Bench

At the outset, it is important to note that the division bench of the High Court was concerned only with the issue of the injunction order – that is, the order of injunction – and not with the overall suit between the parties. Consequently, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, writing the judgment of the Court, framed the following three legal issues for adjudication:

 “First whether MySpace could be said to have knowledge of infringement as to attract Section 51(a)(ii) and consequent liability; Second, does proviso to Section 81 override the “safe harbor” granted to intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act third, possibility of harmonious reading of Sections 79 and 81 of the IT Act and Section 51 of the Copyright Act.” (paragraph 31)

Knowledge of Infringement

Section 51(a)(ii) of the Copyright Act states that copyright shall be infringed when a person “permits for profit any place to be used for the communication of the work to the public where such communication constitutes an infringement of the copyright in the work, unless he was not aware and had no reasonable ground for believing that such communication to the public would be an infringement of copyright.”

The Division Bench agreed with the single judge that MySpace’s website was a (virtual) “place”, from which MySpace earned profit (paragraph 34). The key question was whether, in the absence of specific notice, MySpace could be said to be “aware” or have “reasonable grounds to believe” that copyright infringement was taking place on its website. The single judge had held that the very presence of safeguard provisions and tools (such as notice-and-take-down) in MySpace’s user agreements signalled a “general awareness” that copyright was being infringed on its website, and this was enough for liability to be attracted under S. 51(a)(ii). The Division Bench disagreed. In paragraph 35, Justice Bhat held:

“Simply put, that test [of general awareness] overlooks that unlike “real” space, in a virtual world, where millions of videos are uploaded daily, it is impossible under available technology standards to identify the streaming content, which actually infringes. Knowledge has a definite connotation, i.e a consciousness or awareness and not mere possibility or suspicion of something likely. The nature of the Internet media is such that the interpretation of knowledge cannot be the same as that used for a physical premise.”

He then went on to develop this argument in the succeeding paragraphs, noting that in the specific context of the Internet, where a system could store “millions” of videos, the concept of “constructive”, or assumed knowledge, from the offline world, could not simply be transplanted here. Rather:

“The requirement is to give specific information to the content host or the website(MySpace) that infringement occurs with respect to the specific work. A general or vague description of the works would be insufficient as this then leaves room for MySpace to rely guesswork as to what content has to be removed. Therefore, the onus is upon the plaintiff to give detailed description of its specific works, which are infringed to enable the web host to identify them.” (paragraph 36)

Super Cassettes argued, however, that it had notified to MySpace a list of more than 100,000 songs in which it had copyright. The Division Bench held that this was insufficient, especially because when MySpace had done a preliminary scan of these 100,000 songs, it had found that many of them had been uploaded by distributors or performers who might well have been covered under copyright exceptions (such as, perhaps, fair use). Consequently, the Division Bench held:

“It is only when a specific work is mentioned can it be said that MySpace possesses knowledge of a work being infringed on its website. Providing long lists of all works, tasking MySpace with identifying and removing infringing content is not enough. It is only when MySpace has specific or actual knowledge or when it has reasonable belief, based on information supplied by SCIL and if despite such knowledge or reasonable belief it fails to act can it be held liable for infringement…  in other words, an indiscriminate and blind acceptance of SCIL‟s entire list to run a general filter and “take down” all content would result in grave damage and result in likely multifarious disputes: with up-loaders, many of whom are original creators in their own right and might have used a miniscule quantum of the copyrighted content in… their larger original creation; with distributors, who might hold genuine licenses and with others who create versions, remixes or original titles which may have little content; still there may be other content uploaders whose material only superficially resembles with the titles owned by SCIL, because of the lyrics or titles but is otherwise genuine creation with its independent copyright.” (paragraph 38)

In the present case, therefore, the Court held that MySpace had no prima facie knowledge of infringement (paragraph 39).

The Interplay Between the Copyright Act and Intermediary Liability under the IT Act

This brought the Court to issues 2 and 3 (see above). MySpace had sought sanctuary under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. Section 79 provides a safe harbour to intermediaries from being held liable for unlawful content on their servers. This safe harbour is lost if the intermediary receives “actual knowledge” that it is hosting unlawful content. And recall that in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, the Supreme Court had held that “actual knowledge” under Section 79 was limited to either a court order, or a government directive.

As we can see, there is an overlap between Section 51 of the Copyright Act and Section 79 of the IT Act. Section 51(a)(ii) makes an entity liable for secondary infringement if it is “aware” or has “reasonable grounds for believing” that infringement is happening on its “place”. Section 79, which otherwise protects intermediaries, nonetheless revokes this protection if the intermediary has “actual knowledge” that its platform is being used for law-breaking (which includes copyright violation). Now, the key question is this: if the general standard of protection afforded to intermediaries under the IT Act (actual knowledge) – as interpreted in Shreya Singhal – is greater than the general protection in cases of secondary infringement under the Copyright Act (non-awareness), then which of the two laws will apply to the specific case of an intermediary whose website is being used for potential copyright infringement? Or, to put the question another way: if the intermediary does not have “actual knowledge” (as per Shreya Singhal) under S. 79 – that is, if it has not been notified by a court order or by the government that copyright infringement is taking place – can it nonetheless be held liable under Section 51 if it has the “awareness” of copyright infringement (as held by the Division Bench in Issue 1) taking place?

It is here that I part ways with the Division Bench. Super Cassettes argued that the IT Act was not applicable at all to cases of copyright infringement, since the proviso to Section 81 of that Act stated that “nothing contained in this Act shall restrict any person from exercising any right conferred under the Copyright Act.” The Division Bench – in my view, correctly – rejected this argument. It pointed to the language of Section 79 itself, which itself had an overriding clause: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force but subject to the provisions of sub-sections (2) and (3)…” – which, according to the Division Bench, meant “that the only restriction to be placed in the application of Section 79(1) is contained within the section: Section 79 (2) and Section 79 (3).” Consequently:

“In this Court‟s opinion, Section 79 grants a measured privilege to an intermediary. However, that would not mean that the rights guaranteed under the Copyright Act are in any manner curtailed. All Section 79 does is regulates the liability in respect of intermediaries while the Copyright Act grants and controls rights of a copyright owner. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to conceive how one would pose a barrier in the applicability of the other. The true intent of Section 79 is to ensure that in terms of globally accepted standards of intermediary liabilities and to further digital trade and economy, an intermediary is granted certain protections. Section 79 is neither an enforcement provision nor does it list out any penal consequences for non-compliance. It sets up a scheme where intermediaries have to follow certain minimum standards to avoid liability; it provides for an affirmative defence and not a blanket immunity from liability.” (paragraph 47)

In the succeeding paragraphs, the Court stressed on the fact that “Parliament by amending the IT Act intended to create a separate provision and regime for intermediaries…”, and that “given the supplementary nature of the provisions- one where infringement is defined and traditional copyrights are guaranteed and the other where digital economy and newer technologies have been kept in mind, the only logical and harmonious manner to interpret the law would be to read them together.” So far, so good. However, in paragraph 50, the Court then held:

“Section 79(3) of the IT Act specifies that when a person has actual knowledge or upon notification by the appropriate government or its authority fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to an unlawful content then the immunity granted under Section 79(1) is revoked. The knowledge contemplated under this section is actual knowledge. In Shreya Singhal (supra), Section 79(3) with Rule 3(4) of the Rules were read down to mean receipt of actual knowledge from a court order or on being notified by the appropriate government. However, this was in respect of restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court was conscious of the fact that if millions of requests for take down are made, it would become difficult for intermediaries (such as Google) to identify legitimate requests. In the case of copyright laws it is sufficient that MySpace receives specific knowledge of the infringing works in the format provided for in its website from the content owner without the necessity of a court order.”

However, instead of reading Section 51 of the Copyright Act and Section 79 of the IT Act harmoniously, this effectively subordinates the latter to the former. In the first part of its judgment, the Court undertaken an independent analysis of Section 51, and arrived at a “knowledge” standard for intermediaries. This standard – of specific notice – was considerably less protective than Section 79 IT Act’s requirement of “actual knowledge” through a court order or the government. In paragraph 50, the Court simply adopted the specific notice standard “in the case of copyright laws.” In other words, intermediaries who were otherwise protected under Section 79 of the IT Act would lose their safe harbour if they were given specific notice of copyright infringement by the copyright owner, even in the absence of a court order or a government directive.

The Court justified this by pointing to the “red flag” requirements under the American DMCA, which is another form of notice-and-take-down. That, however, cannot be an answer to why the actual notice standard laid down in Shreya Singhal would be diluted to specific notice in case of copyright claims. And the broader problem is this: even under the Division Bench’s heightened requirement of “specific notice”, the primary onus of deciding upon the validity of a copyright claim, and deciding whether or not to take down content (thus restricting online speech) rests upon a private party – MySpace. The problems with this approach have been well-documented: facing the threat of losing their safe harbour and being sued for damages, private parties will err on the side of taking down content. MySpace, in all likelihood, will have neither the resources to parse Super Cassette’s notice to see whether the infringing content is saved by fair use, or by de minimis use, or any other exception to copyright infringement – and nor will it be willing to take the risk of affirmatively rejecting a notice, and then facing the possibility of extended litigation. It was precisely because of this that the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal restricted “actual knowledge” to a court order or a government notification. In my view, the Division Bench unjustifiably dilutes that standard for copyright claims.

Furthermore, the matter is somewhat complicated by the operative part of the judgment. In paragraph 68(b), in its record of its findings, the Court notes:

“Section 51(a)(ii), in the case of internet intermediaries contemplates actual knowledge and not general awareness. Additionally, to impose liability on an intermediary, conditions under Section 79 of the IT Act have to be fulfilled.”

However, this seems to run counter to what came before: under this, Shreya Singhal’s actual knowledge standard under Section 79 would apply over and above Section 51’s actual knowledge standard that the Division Bench laid down while discussing Issue 1.

Here is one possible reconciliation: since MySpace was already following a notice-and-take-down rule, the Division Bench’s discussion on specific notice should be limited to finding that what MySpace was doing was consistent with law. The Division Bench did not say that a specific notice would be sufficient to erase safe harbour as a general proposition of law. Rather, in paragraph 68(b), it made clear that the general proposition of law was that intermediaries would continue to be protected even in cases of copyright infringement, unless Shreya Singhal’s standard of actual knowledge was satisfied.

This would be a far more speech-protective reading of the judgment. However, it is a difficult one to sustain, in light of the clear observations of the Court, which we discussed above. This is one issue, then, on which the judgment’s import is – in my view – slightly unclear.

Qua Timet Injunctions

Lastly – and very importantly – the Division Bench agreed with MySpace’s contention that the qua timet injunction was virtually impossible to enforce. Justice Bhat made the crucial observation that:

“A further balancing act is required which is that of freedom of speech and privatized censorship. If an intermediary is tasked with the responsibility of identifying infringing content from non-infringing one, it could have a chilling effect on free speech; an unspecified or incomplete list may do that. In an order of relief such as that passed by the learned Single Judge, MySpace would be in contempt of court for not complying with an order, which is otherwise impossible or at best onerous and cumbersome of performance. In order to avoid contempt action, an intermediary would remove all such content, which even remotely resembles that of the content owner. Such kind of unwarranted private censorship would go beyond the ethos of established free speech regimes.”

(Of course, as I argued above, it is precisely this privatised censorship which is a problem with the specific notice standard that the Court did endorse).

The Court also noted that if MySpace was forced to remove content in accordance with the vague terms of the qua timet injunction, it might even end up being in breach of its contract with its users, in cases where lawful content ended up being taken down. Consequently, the Court finished by holding:

“Without a notice containing the details and location of the exact works in which infringement is complained of, MySpace cannot be expected to scan through such large number of videos to discern infringement. This is not only impractical but also dangerous for reasons discussed previously. A vague order of injunction against works which are yet to exist is not only contrary to law but also impossible to monitor. Therefore, SCIL cannot give vague and general lists of its works but will have to give notice with specific details as well as locations of the works, which the appellant shall remove within 36 hours of receiving such notice.” (paragraph 66)

This is very important, in particular, because it bucks the trend of the High Courts granting qua timet injunctions (accompanied by John Doe orders) almost as a matter of course.

Conclusion

MySpace vs Super Cassettes is a landmark judgment that contributes in no small measure to an evolving international jurisprudence on online free speech and intermediary liability. The High Court pays close attention to the characteristics of the internet, and is very solicitous to how its holdings will affect the flow of information on the internet. Unlike other judgments, where the fluid and flexible nature of the internet has been used to justify greater regulation, the Delhi High Court, in MySpace, is concerned to ensure that this fluidity and flexibility is not stifled by legal concepts developed for the offline world. While its exact finding on the interplay between the Copyright Act and the IT Act is a little unclear, the judgment breaks new ground in its analysis of actual knowledge (for intermediaries) under the Copyright Act, its refusal of a qua timet injunction, and its finding that the Copyright Act will not exclude the safe harbour provisions of the IT Act. It is a judgment that should be studied and discussed closely.

 

 

 

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Guest Post: Unconstitutional Laws and Non-Citizens

(In this guest post, Vikram Hegdea Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer, discusses how Section 66A of the IT Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal’s Case, nonetheless continues to exist insofar as non-citizens are concerned)

For those who happened to have been living under a rock at the relevant time, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 was struck down by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal in March 2015. The decision has been widely praised, with even the grumbles about the decision being that it didn’t do enough[1] and not that it did wrong. While the general celebratory consensus, is that this decision has sounded the death knell of Section 66A and all its malice, an old anomaly in the constitutional provision for freedom of speech may have the effect of commuting the death sentence of Section 66A to a banishment from India, but free to haunt foreigners. Shorn of comedic bombast, this means that while 66A is struck down as far as citizens of India are concerned, it may still survive as against foreign persons.

To improve the SEO value of this post, and also for ready reference, we may extract some provisions of the Constitution of India with selective outrage supplied emphasis:

Article 13. Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of the fundamental rights.—

(2) The State shall not make any law which takes away or abridges the rights conferred by this Part and any law made in contravention of this clause shall, to the extent of the contravention, be void.

Article 19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech, etc.—

(1) All citizens shall have the right—

(a) to freedom of speech and expression;

Now coming back to the Shreya Singhal case, the petitioners contended that Section 66A, in addition to being violative of Article 19, was also violative of Article 14[2]. The contravention of Article 14, it was argued, arose from the fact that the ingredients of the offence are vague and thus arbitrary. It was also argued that there is no intelligible differentia between the medium of print, broadcast and live speech as opposed to speech on the internet. The Court while holding that Section 66A is violative of Article 19(1)(a), being vague and overbroad, held that the intelligible differentia in the case of speech on the internet is clear and therefore the challenge to the provision under Article 14 must fail.[3] [Editor’s Note: My own reading is that the Court rejected an Article 14 challenge insofar as the internet is a space where certain specific offences exist, such as phishing, spam mails, cyber theft etc., which have no offline equivalents. Consequently, there can be a law framed to catch such offences; however, a law cannot impose different standards upon online speech, based upon spurious considerations such as the speed, or extent, to which online material can be disseminated) The conclusion of that judgment unequivocally states that Section 66A is struck down as violative of Article 19(1)(a).

Rights under Article 19[4], are available only to “citizens”. It has been urged by some that this means that only a citizen can challenge a legislation as violative of Article 19 and not a non-citizen, but once a law is struck down for violation of Article 19, the law is completely void, even as regards non-citizens. The judgment of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in State of Gujarat v. Shri Ambica Mills says otherwise. The court, taking into account the phrase “to the extent of the contravention” in Article 13(2), expressly held

“[L]aw offending article 19, remains operative as against non- citizens as it is not in contravention of any of their fundamental rights.”

Seen in this light, the effect of the Shreya Singhal judgment is that Section 66A is void only as against citizens and not as against non-citizens. When this line of thought was voiced on fora on which freedom was enhanced by the judgment in question, questions were raised as to whether this meant that Section 66A was still available against non-citizens, such as corporates and other non-natural persons. The answer to that would lie inter alia in Bennet Coleman v. Union of India[5] where it was held that the shareholders exercise their rights under Article 19(1)(a) through the juristic person of the company and thus where the shareholders were citizens, their company was protected. However, as regards companies where the shareholders are not Indian, Section 66A would still apply.[6]

It is now time to ask ourselves an important question.

“What about 1984?”

That is the year in which the Law Commission of India examined and published a report on this very issue. While the Law Commission recommended that Article 19 be amended by adding an explanation some non-natural persons would be deemed “citizens” for the purpose of Article 19. However, this was limited to entities that have the character of “Indianness”. The recommendation has not yet been acted upon.

While I am aware of at least one legal proceeding where, post the judgment in Shreya Singhal, Section 66A has been applied to a foreign company, that dispute is currently at the lowest level in the judicial hierarchy. For a direct answer from the Courts on this point, we may have to wait.

[1] The resident author of this blog, in his excellent book Offend, Shock, or Disturb, states that the part of the order reading down Section 79 “is not entirely satisfactory”.

[2] Article 14, not being very important to our enquiry is treated unequally here and is consigned to a footnote: Equality before law.—The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.

[3] I don’t know if and why the rational nexus angle was not raised and at this point am too afraid to ask.

[4] As also Articles 15, 16 and 29.

[5] The long list of cases supporting this proposition includes Chiranjit Lal Chowdhury, Sakal Newspapers, R.C. Cooper etc.

[6] I offer generous help in this regard. If the management of a foreign company such as Google or Facebook wishes that its rights under 19(1)(a) be protected, they can ensure the same by transferring a significant chunk of shares in those companies to me.

 

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The Striking Down of Section 66A: How Indian Free Speech Jurisprudence Found its Soul Again

In the best piece of free speech news since 1960, the Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Section 66A of the IT Act, that criminalised “grossly offensive”, “menacing” and “annoying or inconvenient” speech over the internet. There has been a substantial degree of commentary about the judgment over the last two days. In this post, I will attempt a detailed excavation of the many fascinating strands of the judgment, from the point of view of free speech doctrine.

Use of American First Amendment jurisprudence

A month ago, I wrote a rather exasperated post about a bizarre Delhi High Court decision allowing the police to pull down political posters from the walls of private property, on the ground that “Delhites have short fuses”, and that political posters could therefore be a threat to public order.  In particular, when American free speech jurisprudence was cited before Justice Endlaw, he refused to consider those cases, on the ground that while the American First Amendment is “absolute” (“Congress shall make no law… abridging… the freedom of speech”), Article 19(2) is subject to reasonable restrictions. This cavalier dismissal highlights the highly opportunistic manner in which the Indian judiciary has engaged with American First Amendment law over the years. On occasions when it helps to buttress a point, judges have shown no compunctions in quoting the grand, eloquent pronouncements of the American judiciary on the freedom of speech; but of course, American First Amendment law has historically been far more speech-protective than its Indian counterpart. Consequently, when judges wishing to uphold far-reaching restrictions upon the freedom of speech are faced with contrary American cases, instead of engaging with the reasoning and demonstrating why it is invalid or inapplicable, they invariable invoke the “First Amendment is an absolute!” trope, and save themselves the trouble of having to consider contrary reasoning.

As I’ve tried to argue before, a refusal to engage with judicially trained minds grappling with very similar issues achieves nothing but stifling exposure to a range of rigorously thought-through and developed viewpoints, and harms the overall quality of reasoning. More importantly, though, the argument that the First Amendment is an absolute, and 19(2) contains reasonable restrictions, is a canard. The First Amendment is not absolute. No American judge, apart from Hugo Black, and possibly William Douglas, has held it to be. The First Amendment permits regulation of incitement to imminent lawless action, obscenity, fighting words, true threats, blackmail, copyright infringement, insider trading, consumer fraud and commercial speech. This was clearly understood by the framers. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, Ambedkar himself observed:

“It is wrong to say that fundamental rights in America are absolute. The difference between the position under the American Constitution and theDraft Constitution is one of form and not of substance. That the fundamental rights in America are not absolute rights is beyond dispute. In support of every exception to the fundamental rights set out in the Draft Constitution one can refer to at least one judgment of the United States Supreme Court.”

He then specifically went on to cite an American judgment on restrictions upon free speech – Gitlow vs New York.

In Paragraphs 14 to 19, Justice Nariman clinically demolishes the aforementioned canard. Citing Chaplinsky vs New Hampshire, the classic American judgment affirming that the First Amendment is not absolute, he correctly points out that the American Supreme Court has never given literal effect to the “make no law” phrase. He then correctly notes that the crucial difference between the American and Indian positions is that while in the United States, a compelling public interest must be demonstrated in order to regulate speech, in India, a restriction must be covered by the eight themes specified in Article 19(2). In other words, there could be occasions when the Indian Constitution protects more speech than the American! In any event, subject to this rider, Justice Nariman notes:

“Viewed from the above perspective, American judgments have great persuasive value on the content of freedom of speech and expression and the tests laid down for its infringement.”

And this is exactly as it should be. There is much to disagree with in American free speech law. But what is undeniable is that over a hundred years, American judges have crafted a deep, thoughtful and complex set of principles for understanding the purposes of the freedom of speech in a constitutional democracy. We might reject their principles completely, but we need to engage with them.

Public interest cannot be a ground for restricting speech

In specifying that under the Constitution, speech can be restricted only under one of the eight listed grounds under Article 19(2), Justice Nariman states twice that “public interest” is not one of the grounds, and so cannot be invoked to justify a speech restriction. In paragraph 21, he notes:

“Under our constitutional scheme, as stated earlier, it is not open to the State to curtail freedom of speech to promote the general public interest.”

Immediately after, he cites Sakal Papers vs Union of India in support of this proposition.

This might sound like an innocuous statement, but it is critically important. This is because, over the years, judges have repeatedly ignored the fact that Article 19(2) exhaustively lists eight grounds of restriction, and that public interest is not one of them (unlike in Article 19(6)). Judges have upheld restrictions upon the nebulous grounds of “public interest” and “social interest”. In Ranjit Udeshi vs State of Maharashtra, for instance, while upholding obscenity law, Justice Hidayatullah traveled beyond the terms of the Constitution to observe that the freedom of speech “is subject to reasonable restrictions which may be thought necessary in the interest of the general public.” He then used that to elide the “decency and morality” clause with “public morality.”

In K.A. Abbas vs Union of India, while upholding a regime of pre-censorship upon cinema, that same Justice Hidayatullah observed:

“… social interest of the people override individual freedom. Whether we regard the state as the paren patriae or as guardian and promoter of general welfare, we have to concede, that these restraints on liberty may be justified by their absolute necessity and clear purpose. Social interests take in not only the interests of the community but also individual interests which cannot be ignored. A balance has therefore to be struck between the rival claims by reconciling them. The larger interests of the community require the formulation of policies and regulations to combat dishonesty, corruption, gambling, vice and other things of immoral tendency and things which affect the security of the State and the preservation of public order and tranquillity.”

In In Re Arundhati Roy, the contempt of court case, the Court held:

“… whether there can be a balancing between the two public interests, the freedom of expression and the dignity of the court.”

Examples may be multiplied, but there is a clear pattern here. The worst free speech judgments of the Supreme Court have come when the Court has traveled beyond its brief, collapsed the specific terms of 19(2) into a boundless and boundlessly manipulable vision of “public” or “social” interest, and then upheld the far-reaching restrictions that the government has sought to impose. There come times in the history of any constitutional court, when jurisprudence becomes so utterly untethered from the constitutional text and principles, that what is most urgently needed is simply a reaffirmation of the basic meaning of text and structure. In doing so, Justice Nariman has performed the incalculably important service of re-orienting free speech jurisprudence back towards its fundamental goals and purposes: interpreting the Constitution of a liberal-democratic polity.

“In the interests of”, “tendency”, and the requirement of proximity

Article 19(2) permits “reasonable restrictions” “in the interests” of the eight prescribed themes. The major contestation in Indian free speech law has turned upon the interpretation of “reasonable” and “in the interests of”. In Ramji Lal Modi and Virendra, two cases decided in 1957, the Supreme Court stated that the phrase “in the interests of” was wider in ambit than the phrase “for the maintenance of”, and consequently, authorised the government to regulate any speech that had a “tendency” towards, for instance, public disorder. In Modi, the Court upheld S. 295A on the ground that intentional outrage to religious feelings had the “calculated tendency” (sic!) to disrupt public order. In Virendra, the Court held prior restraint upon the press under the colonial era Press (Emergency Powers) Act to be constitutional, for the same reason. A plea that there must be proximity between speech and disorder was expressly rejected in Modi.

The word “tendency” is pernicious and damaging. It speaks back to American free speech jurisprudence in the 1920s, when the Supreme Court used a “bad tendency” test to persecute anti-war dissenters, trade-union leaders, leftists and pacifists of various hues. Understanding the sheer unworkability of this test, the Court abandoned it in the 1940s, adopting Justice Holmes and Brandeis’ test of “clear and present” danger. The reason is obvious: “tendency” can mean just about anything, from imminence to the faintest causality. If I start smoking now, I will have a tendency to cancer, even though cancer may set in forty years later. But “tendency” has attained an ubiquitous place in Indian speech restricting laws. The Contempt of Courts Act, for instance, criminalises speech that can have the “tendency” of lowering the repute of the Court; S. 292 of the IPC criminalises material that “tends” to deprave or corrupt. And so on.

Fortunately, we did not have to wait as long as the US to push back against the idea of “tendency”. In Ram Manohar Lohia’s Case (1960), the Supreme Court cleverly “distinguished” precedent, and held that there was a requirement of proximity between speech and the threatened disorder, and that the connection must not be remote, arbitrary or fanciful. In Lohia, a law criminalising instigating people to not pay their taxes was struck down, because it was held not to have a proximate connection to public disorder. Subsequent cases have tightened this test – in S. Rangarajan, the Court held that the connection must be that of a “spark in a powder keg”, and in Arup Bhuyan, that there must be “incitement to imminent lawless action.” But “tendency” has also continued to be invoked by the Courts with alarming regularity. Soon after Lohia, the Court upheld the crime of sedition in Kedar Nath Singh (1962), on the ground that the State could legitimately criminalise speech that had a “tendency” to public disorder.

As in the case of “public interest”, we can immediately see that “tendency” has been responsible – again – for some of the most regressive and speech-restricting decisions of the Indian Supreme Court.

In the 66A judgment, Justice Nariman emphatically adopts the requirement of proximity. He cites Ram Manohar Lohia’s case, highlighting the need for an “intimate connection” between speech and the prohibited 19(2) category.

Incitement vs advocacy: Collapsing “tendency” into imminence

The requirement of an intimate connection is expressed by Justice Nariman in the form of a crucial distinction: between advocacy and incitement. In paragraph 13, he observes:

Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement that Article 19(2) kicks in. It is at this stage that a law may be made curtailing the speech or expression that leads inexorably to or tends to cause public disorder…”

The distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement” is grounded in the idea of proximity, or imminence. For instance, my “advocating” a violent revolution against the State by writing articles in magazines, or even delivering public lectures, does not constitute “incitement”. However, my whipping up a mob into a frenzy and directing it to imminent violent action does. The enquiry is contextual, and is clearly limited to emergent, specific situations. In other words, Justice Nariman emphatically rejects the proposition that an idea, or a message, can be criminalised because of its communicative content. It is only when there is a relationship of immediacy between speech and action – “speech brigaded with action”, in the words of Justice Douglas – that the law can kick in. I have argued elsewhere that this view is consistent with our most basic ideas of individual autonomy and responsibility. But what is most interesting here is that Justice Nariman then collapses “tendency” into the incitement requirement. He says that it is at the stage of incitement when the law kicks in, to curtail speech that tends to cause disorder.

In other words, the concept of “tendency” that motivated the Court in Modi, Virendra and Kedar Nath Singh is emphatically discarded here. Justice Nariman holds that even if speech has a “tendency” to disorder (say, for instance, a revolutionary tract), that in itself is not a ground for restriction: there must, further, be incitement. To come back to my smoking example – I have a tendency to cancer when I start smoking, but cancer is “imminent” (or “inexorable”) only at a much, much later stage.

Thus, even while maintaining continuity with precedent, by continuing to use “tendency”, Justice Nariman effectively knocks the bottom out of the entire rationale for upholding 295A and sedition.

In paragraph 36 onwards, he buttresses this by collapsing tendency into the American “clear and present danger” test, even citing Modi and Kedar Nath Singh! In paragraph 41, he concludes the public order enquiry by holding:

“Viewed at either by the standpoint of the clear and present danger test or the tendency to create public disorder, Section 66A would not pass muster as it has no element of any tendency to create public disorder which ought to be an essential ingredient of the offence which it creates.”

There is a small quibble here: in paragraph 37, Justice Nariman observes:

“The test of “clear and present danger” has been used by the U.S. Supreme Court in many varying situations and has been adjusted according to varying fact situations. It appears to have been repeatedly applied, see- Terminiello v. City of Chicago 93 L. Ed. 1131 (1949) at page 1134-1135, Brandenburg v. Ohio 23 L. Ed. 2d 430 (1969)”

Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. The “clear and present danger” test was found to be prone to gross abuse during the McCarthy years, when the Court invoked it to convict communist party members and other dissidents. Far from using “clear and present danger”, Brandenburg vs Ohio was the case that rejected it, in favour of a more stringent “incitement to imminent lawless action” test. The Brandenburg standard was adopted by the Supreme Court in 2011, in Arup Bhuyan’s Case. In that respect, it is something of a pity that Justice Nariman endorses “clear and present danger” instead of Brandenburg. Nonetheless, it is also arguable that his disquisition on the distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement” effectively speaks to a Brandenburg level of protection, going forward.

Meaning of Public Order

The term “public order” is a term of art. In Romesh Thappar, independent India’s first free speech judgment, it was defined as “a state of tranquility which prevails amongst the members of a political society.” In Ram Manohar Lohia vs State of Bihar (a different case that also involved Ram Manohar Lohia), the Court conceptualised three concentric circles: “law and order” being the widest, “public order” being narrower, and “security of the state” being the narrowest. Thus, a disruption of public order is something graver than merely breaking a law, or disrupting “law and order”. In the free speech judgments since Lohia, however, this definition has been largely ignored (the Delhi High Court case cited above is a classic example). As in the case of rejecting “public interest” as a ground of restriction, the Court’s endorsement of Lohia provides a crucial reaffirmation of the fact that constitutional terms – especially terms that limit fundamental rights, cannot be arbitrarily expanded, and the Court must adjudicate constitutionality specifically upon the touchstone of their defined meanings.

On a combination of all these factors – that the terms of S. 66A did not establish a proximate link with public order, as defined, the Court held that Article 19(2) did not save that section, at least insofar as public order was concerned. The same analysis was applied to defamation, and decency and morality – the Court reaffirming its recent judgment in Aveek Sarkar’s case. The government’s attempt to escape unconstitutionality by adding an exhaustive set of guidelines (see para 48) was correctly rejected, on the ground that this was tantamount to rewriting the whole section. Consequently, the Court struck it down.

Vagueness

In Grayned vs Rockford, the American Supreme Court defined a vague statute as one which ensured that persons of “ordinary intelligence… have no reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited.” In Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court – citing this case – observed that “it is the basic principle of legal jurisprudence that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values… laws should give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. Such a law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen and also judges for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.”

There are, therefore, two problems with vague statutes. One is a rule-of-law problem: citizens do not have a fair chance to plan their affairs. The second is a delegation problem: the executive is given far too much discretion to implement vague laws on the ground. We have seen both issues at play with the abuse of S. 66A over the years.

While in K.A. Abbas, the Supreme Court admitted that vagueness could be a ground for striking down a law, it did not do so (despite the Central Guidelines for film certification, which were at issue, being bizarrely overbroad.) In Baldeo Prasad, the Court struck down a law that criminalised goondas, but did not define who a “goonda” was. But the 66A judgment is the first time – to my knowledge – that the Court has struck down a speech-restricting law on the grounds of vagueness. Crucially, the Court observes that it is not possible for the legislature to cast “a net large enough to catch all possible offenders and leave it to the Court to step in and say who could be rightfully detained and who should be set at liberty.”

After citing a copious degree of American and Indian jurisprudence to establish the principle of vagueness, Justice Nariman correctly observes, in paragraph 69, that “judged by the standards laid down in the aforesaid judgments, it is quite clear that the expressions used in 66A are completely open-ended and undefined.” Further contributing to the vagueness are the absence of mens rea, and a series of terms (such as “obstruction”, “danger” or “annoyance”) which are ingredients of an offence in the Indian Penal Code (that of public nuisance), but have become offences in themselves in the IT Act (para 72). Justice Nariman distinguishes other IPC provisions that use identical terms (such as Ss. 294 and 510) on similar grounds, and ends by noting the sheer subjectivity of the words that constitute offences under the IT Act:

“… every expression used is nebulous in meaning. What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another. What may cause annoyance or inconvenience to one may not cause annoyance or inconvenience to another. Even the expression “persistently” is completely imprecise – suppose a message is sent thrice, can it be said that it was sent “persistently”?”

Over-breadth and the Chilling Effect

Over-breadth is a concept that is closely connected with – but not identical to – the chilling effect. A statute is over-broad if – in the words of the Indian Supreme Court in Chintaman Rao vs State Madhya Pradesh,  “the language employed is wide enough to cover restrictions both within and without the limits of constitutionally permissible legislative action affecting the right. So long as the possibility of its being applied for purposes not sanctioned by the Constitution cannot be ruled out, it must be held to be wholly void.”

Over-breadth directly implicates the reasonableness requirement of Article 19(2). In State of Madras vs V.G. Row, the Supreme Court held that a “reasonable restriction” under Articles 19(2) to (6) would have to satisfy the requirements of proportionality: “the nature of the right alleged to have been infringed, the underlying purpose of the restrictions imposed, the extent and urgency of the evil sought to be remedied thereby, the disproportion of the imposition, the prevailing conditions at the time, should all enter into the judicial verdict.” It is clear that if a statute proscribes conduct that is much broader than what is permitted under Article 19(2), on the ground that there is some – tenuous – connection between the two, there is good reason to argue that the restriction is disproportionate.

While in Chintaman Rao, the Court struck down a statute for being over-broad, over-breadth as a constitutional concept has not yet managed to acquire a foothold in Indian constitutional jurisprudence. Here again, Justice Nariman’s judgment breaks new ground by expressly invoking over-breadth as a ground for striking down a speech-restricting statute. In paragraph 83, he observes:

Information that may be grossly offensive or which causes annoyance or inconvenience are undefined terms which take into the net a very large amount of protected and innocent speech.

And, in paragraph 86:

“[66A’s restrictions] fall foul of the repeated injunctions of this Court that restrictions on the freedom of speech must be couched in the narrowest possible terms.”

This is not all, however. Justice Nariman makes a further, crucial link: between vagueneness and overbreadth, and the chilling effect. The chilling effect refers to a situation where, faced with uncertain, speech-restricting statutes, which blur the line between what is permitted and what is proscribed, citizens are likely to self-censor, in order to be definitively safe. In the words of Justice Brennan, writing in New York Times vs Sullivan, citizens will “tend to make only statements which steer far wider of the unlawful zone… thus dampen[ing] the vigour and limit[ing] the variety of public debate.” In other words, the chilling effect – which applies across different areas of free speech law – ensures that self-censorship will extend even to entirely legitimate speech, and will impoverish the public discourse – the sustenance and enrichment of which is the entire point of free speech in the first place.

Yet again, it is crucial to note here that although past Indian cases have made vague references to the chilling effect (R. Rajagopal and Khushboo), again, the 66A judgment is the first that uses the concept to arrive at a positive legal outcome. In paragraph 83, after examining all the myriad kinds of speech that 66A will reach, Justice Nariman observes:

“Such is the reach of the Section and if it is to withstand the test of constitutionality, the chilling effect on free speech would be total.”

And, in paragraph 90:

“We, therefore, hold that the Section is unconstitutional also on the ground that it takes within its sweep protected speech and speech that is innocent in nature and is liable therefore to be used in such a way as to have a chilling effect on free speech and would, therefore, have to be struck down on the ground of overbreadth.”

Article 14 and differences by medium

One last point remains to be noted. The core of the government’s argument was that the internet is a very different medium from print or cinema, and that consequently, the government should be allowed greater leeway to regulate it. In paragraph 27, Justice Nariman lists some of the facets of the government’s contention: that the internet has a much greater (global) reach, it reaches both literate and illiterate people, even cinema has pre-censorship rules (but the internet doesn’t), rumours can spread to “trillions” (sic!) of people, there is much greater scope for invasion of privacy, the internet provides much greater shelter to anonymity, there are no internal regulatory norms, and that the spread is much more rapid.

In contradistinction, the challengers made precisely the opposite argument. They contended that since S. 66A lacked the kinds of procedural and other safeguards present for the regulation of print media, there was an Article 14 violation of equality. According to the challengers, a principle of equivalence must apply across media of communication.

Interestingly, Justice Nariman rejects both contentions. He rejects the Article 14 argument, holding that the internet is indeed a medium with some unique qualities, and that it is possible that there might be certain offences that can only take place online. In paragraph 28, he notes that the government is entitled to draft narrowly-drawn provisions that specifically speak to those offences (such as website blocking). But in the very same paragraph, he also notes:

“[the differential nature of the internet would not]  relax the Court’s scrutiny of the curbing of the content of free speech over the internet. While it may be possible to narrowly draw a Section creating a new offence, such as Section 69A for instance, relatable only to speech over the internet, yet the validity of such a law will have to be tested on the touchstone of the tests already indicated above.”

In effect, what kind of speech might be restricted is agnostic to media. Furthermore, when it may be restricted (i.e., the 19(2)) principles, and the relationship of proximity) is also impervious to the difference in media. The only place where this difference might be relevant is where the medium itself allows for certain kinds of offences (such as spam, or phishing) that were not possible before, and in such circumstances, the State may frame a law, which will nonetheless be tested on the anvil of Article 19(2).

This raises the following question: in K.A. Abbas, the Court held pre-censorship to be valid in the case of cinema on the ground that films had a much more striking impact upon the average “illiterate” Indian viewer. In other words, the difference in medium was held to justify a difference in the form of the restriction – in particular, doing away with the proximity test, or at least, diluting it to an unrecognisable degree. The logic of Justice Nariman’s judgment, I would suggest, knocks the bottom out of the prior-restraint regime of film-censorship. It is not as if films permit the commission some specific kinds of offences that were not possible before (unlike the internet). In fact, the Court’s reasoning in K.A. Abbas was specifically based on an (unproven) assumption of how an “illiterate” audience reacts differently to the written word and the visual image. Cases after K.A. Abbas (such as Anand Patwardhan’s Case) have rejected the “illiterate Indian trope”, thus undermining the foundations of that holding. The 66A judgment, however, rejects that form of reasoning entirely.

Consequences

Constitutionally, what follows? I would suggest the following. Ever since Ram Manohar Lohia, there has been a gradual, incremental chipping away at the philosophical foundations of some of our most regressive, speech-restricting laws. Consider the following:

(a) Ramji Lal Modi upheld 295A on the ground that proximity was irrelevant, specifically rejected an over-breadth argument, and held that deliberate insults to religion had a “calculated tendency” to cause public disorder.

(b) Kedar Nath Singh upheld sedition (124A) on the ground that disaffection against the government had the “tendency” to public disorder.

(c) K.A. Abbas upheld pre-censorship of films on the ground of how the medium differently affects viewers; it rejected a challenge to the Censorship Guidelines on the ground of vagueness, and did not even consider an over-breadth argument.

(d) Contempt of court judgments (unfortunately, rather consistently) have held that certain forms of criticism against the court have a “tendency” to undermine justice.

(e)  Apart from Rajagopal’s Case, which is limited to public officials, the Supreme Court is yet to examine defamation law on the touchstone of Article 19(1)(a), and a criminal law of defamation continues to exist on the statute books. In countries such as the US, Canada, South Africa, and England, the “chilling effect” of the common law of defamation (strict liability) has been expressly invoked to limit its reach, and its propensity to be used as a tool of harassing journalists and investigative reporters.

At the same time, however:

(a) Ram Manohar LohiaS. Rangarajan and Arup Bhuyan (the latter two coming after Modi and Kedar Nath Singh) have insisted on a proximity requirement between speech and disorder.

(b) Chintaman Rao and Kameshwar Prasad have struck down statutes on over-breadth grounds (while not directly invoking the concept).

(c) Rajagopal’s case has incorporated the Sullivan rule to protect writers from civil defamation claims brought by public officials, and indirectly invoked the chilling effect.

This latter group of judgments, it is clear, have indirectly, implicitly undermined the foundations of the former. The 66A judgment makes it direct and explicit. Proximity, over-breadth, vagueness and the chilling effect are all expressly invoked to strike down a statute. They have been specifically incorporated into Indian free speech jurisprudence, and may be invoked in future free speech claims.

So perhaps, at long last, the time has come to rethink fifty-year old judgments upholding blasphemy and sedition laws, rethink criminal defamation, throw off the oppressive fetters of civil defamation and contempt of court, and attack the censorship guidelines of both cinema and cable TV.

This judgment lays the constitutional, legal and philosophical terrain to do all of that. It creates the ground upon which we can erect a progressive, liberal understanding of free speech, based upon a vision of individuals as responsible and autonomous beings, who do not need “protection” from moral corruption, and who do not need a paternalistic State or court telling them what they need to read, see or here. Individuals, one and all, worthy of dignity and equal concern and respect.

This is the first judgment since 1960 that unequivocally affirms every one of those propositions.

It is the judgment that has given Indian free speech law its soul back.

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The Supreme Court’s IT Act Judgment, and Secret Blocking

As has been widely reported by now, yesterday the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, reading down S. 79 (intermediary liability) and upholding S. 69A (blocking of websites). I will be writing a detailed analysis of the jurisprudence behind the Court’s striking down of S. 66A in a while. In this post, however, I want to briefly comment on S. 69A and secret blocking.

S. 69A of the IT Act authorises the government to block access to websites, on grounds that roughly overlap with (but are not identical to) Article 19(2) of the Constitution (reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech). S. 69A(2) specifies that the procedure and safeguards for carrying out blocking will be specified. Pursuant to this, “Blocking Rules” were framed in 2009. The Blocking Rules prescribe who can make a blocking request, set up the (executive) authorities that will examine the requests, provide an opportunity for pre-decisional hearings for the intermediaries (and/or, if they can be traced, originators), and lay out the process for blocking. There are three crucial aspects that must be noted:

(a) The Rules do not provide for an appeals process.

(b) Rule 15 requires that Designated Officer to maintain records of blocking requests and actions taken, but

(c) Rule 16 stipulates that “strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof.”

As is obvious, the main problem with the Blocking Rules (among many others) is their secrecy. The rules require notice to the intermediary, but naturally, intermediaries are bound to be far more interested in avoiding confrontations with the government, and in self-preservation, than in defending the freedom of speech. Furthermore, Rule 16 requires confidentiality, thereby raising the presumption that nobody beyond the intermediaries ought to know about a block. For instance, when the Software Freedom Law Centre attempted to get access to blocking orders for 1208 blocked websites in 2013, it was denied on Rule 16 grounds. As has been well-documented, it is often difficult to even find out that a non-accessible website has been blocked, and even more difficult to find out why that has happened.

In this context, what does the Court’s judgment, upholding both S. 69A and the Rules in their entirety, mean? At Medianama, Nikhil Pahwa argues that in effect, secret blocks will now continue, just as they were happening before.

There are, however, two important aspects that ought to be noted.

First, consider Rule 8 of the Blocking Rules:

On receipt of request under rule 6, the Designated Officer shall make all reasonable efforts to identify the person or intermediary who has hosted the information or part thereof as well as the computer resource on which such information or part thereof is being hosted and where he is able to identify such person or intermediary and the computer resource hosting the information or part thereof which have been requested to be blocked for public access, he shall issue a notice…”

The text of the Rule uses the phrase “person or intermediary”, thus implying that notice may be sent to either the originator or the intermediary. This – as explained above – is deeply problematic. In his article, Nikhil writes:

If my site is blocked, don’t I have the right to know why it’s been blocked? Mobango.com, a company owned by the People Group (Shaadi.com), was blocked in India for six months and didn’t know why for the longest time. Where was their Committee hearing? Where was the hearing for Vimeo, Github, Dailymotion (read), Imgur (read)? Shouldn’t they be informed of the process of getting a block removed?”

In Paragraph 110 of the judgment, however, the Court notes:

“It is also clear from an examination of Rule 8 that it is not merely the intermediary who may be heard. If the “person” i.e. the originator is identified he is also to be heard before a blocking order is passed.”

In other words, the Court takes the disjunctive “or” in the Rule, and effectively transforms it into a conjunctive “and”. It therefore seems to be the case that henceforth – insofar as they can be identified, originators must also be notified of blocks, and given the opportunity to challenge them.

I would suggest, however, that the logic of the judgment goes even further. Consider Paragraph 109, where the Court holds S. 69A and the rules constitutional:

“It will be noticed that Section 69A unlike Section 66A is a narrowly drawn provision with several safeguards. First and foremost, blocking can only be resorted to where the Central Government is satisfied that it is necessary so to do. Secondly, such necessity is relatable only to some of the subjects set out in Article 19(2). Thirdly, reasons have to be recorded in writing in such blocking order so that they may be assailed in a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution.”

It is the “thirdly” that is crucial. The Court specifies that blocking orders must be reasoned, and in writing, so that they may be challenged under Article 226. Now, who may challenge a blocking order? Obviously, an intermediary and/or the originator are entitled to do so. But consider also paragraph 20 of the judgment, when the Court starts its examination of S. 66A:

“It is clear, therefore, that the petitioners are correct in saying that the public’s right to know is directly affected by Section 66A. Information of all kinds is roped in – such information may have scientific, literary or artistic value, it may refer to current events, it may be obscene or seditious. That such information may cause annoyance or inconvenience to some is how the offence is made out. It is clear that the right of the people to know – the market place of ideas – which the internet provides to persons of all kinds is what attracts Section 66A.”

The underlined portions tap into an established principle of Indian free speech jurisprudence: that Article 19(1)(a) guarantees not only the rights of speakers to express themselves, but also the rights of listeners (or, in the case of the internet, viewers) to access information (other Constitutions – such as the German and the South African – expressly include listeners’ rights as an aspect of the freedom of expression).

For instance, in LIC vs Manubhai D. Shah, while dealing with the rejection of a right of reply, the Supreme Court noted: “such an attitude on the part of the LIC can be described as both unfair and unreasonable; unfair because fairness demanded that both view points were placed before the readers, however limited be their number, to enable them to draw their own conclusions and unreasonable because there was no logic or proper justification for refusing publication… the respondent’s fundamental right of speech and expression clearly entitled him to insist that his views on the subject should reach those who read the magazine so that they have a complete picture before them and not a one sided or distorted one…

And, in State of UP vs Raj Narain, Justice Mathew, in his concurring opinion, noted:

In a Government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries.”

Examples can be multiplied, but suffice it to say that the right to information, and its corollary, the rights of readers and viewers to access information, constitute part of the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a). But if that is true, then a website block implicates the constitutional rights not only of intermediaries and originators, but also of the general public – each member of which, for that reason, has the right to challenge the blocking under Article 226, as the Court specifically upheld. Now, it is impossible to challenge a blocking order unless one has access to it. Consequently, when the Court says that blocking orders must be reasoned and in writing, so that they may be challenged under Article 226, it follows by necessary implication that the blocking orders must be made available to the public.

The doctrine of necessary implication is well-accepted in statutory interpretation. A statute is understood to contain not only what is express, but also that which is necessary to effectuate its “object or purpose”, or to make effective the rights (or privileges) that it grants. This doctrine would apply with even greater force to subordinate legislation, such as the Blocking Rules. Consequently, it may well be argued that even though the Court did not expressly overrule Rule 16, the logic of its judgment – in light of settled jurisprudence on Article 19(1)(a) – means that it did so impliedly. Admittedly, neither necessary implication nor implied overruling are to be lightly invoked, but in this case, not only does this conclusion seem to follow inexorably from the Supreme Court’s Article 19(1)(a) jurisprudence, but the fact that what is at issue is a subordinate legislation, the normal presumptions against necessary implication/implied overruling are consequently weaker.

This, of course, is probably an over-optimistic reading of the judgment. So perhaps the best way of settling this issue might well be through a clarification petition.

 

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Report on the Intermediary Guidelines

The Software Freedom Law Centre has just published an analysis of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011. This is a fairly extensive empirical and doctrinal report about the effects of the Intermediary Guidelines on various aspects of internet freedom. The full report may be downloaded here.

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Two Arguments against the Constitutionality of S. 66A

(This post first appeared on the CIS blog, here)

In the immediate aftermath of the elections, free speech issues have come to the fore again. In Goa, a Facebook user was summoned for a post warning a second holocaust if Modi was elected to power. In Karnataka, a MBA student was likewise arrested for circulating an MMS that showed Modi’s face morphed onto a corpse, with the slogan “Abki baar antim sanskaar”. These arrests have reopened the debate about the constitutional validity of Section 66A of the IT Act, which is the legal provision governing online speech in India. Section 66A criminalises, among other things, the sending of information that is “grossly offensive or menacing in character” or causes “annoyance or inconvenience”. The two instances cited above raise – not for the first time – the concern that when it comes to implementation, Section 66A is unworkable to the point of being unconstitutional.

Like all legal provisions, Section 66A must comply with the fundamental rights chapter of the Indian Constitution. Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, and Article 19(2) permits reasonable restrictions in the interests of – inter alia– “public order, decency or morality”. Presumably, the only way in which Section 66A can be justified is by showing that it falls within the category of “public order” or of “morality”. The precedent of the Supreme Court, however, has interpreted Article 19(2) in far narrower terms than the ones that Section 66A uses. The Court has held that “public order” may only be invoked if there is a direct and immediate relation between the offending speech and a public order disturbance – such as, for instance, a speaker making an incendiary speech to an excited mob, advocating imminent violence (the Court has colloquially stated the requirement to be a “spark in a powder keg”). Similarly, while the Court has never precisely defined what “morality” – for the purposes of Article 19(2) – means, the term has been invoked where (arguably) pornographic materials are concerned – and never simply because speech has “offended” or “menaced” someone. Indeed, the rhetoric of the Court has consistently rejected the proposition that the government can prohibit individuals from offending one another.

This raises two constitutional problems with Section 66A: the problems of overbreadth and vagueness. Both doctrines have been developed to their fullest in American free speech law, but the underlying principles are universal.

A statute is overbroad when it potentially includes within its prohibitions both speech that it is entitled to prohibit, and speech that it is not. In Gooding v. Wilson, a Georgia statute criminalized the use of “opprobrious words or abusive language”. In defending the statute, the State of Georgia argued that its Courts had read it narrowly, limiting its application to “fighting words” – i.e., words that by their very nature tended to incite an imminent breach of the peace, something that was indisputably within the power of the State to prohibit. The Supreme Court rejected the argument and invalidated the statute. It found that the words “opprobrious” and “abusive” had greater reach than “fighting words”. Thus, since the statute left “wide open the standard of responsibility, so that it [was] easily susceptible to improper application”, the Court struck it down.

A statute is vague when persons of “ordinary intelligence… have no reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited.” InGrayned v. Rockford, the American Supreme Court noted that a vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.” There are, therefore, a number of problems with vague laws: one of the fundamental purposes of law is to allow citizens to plan their affairs with a degree of certainty. Vagueness in legislation prevents that. And equally importantly, vague laws leave a wide scope of implementing power with non-elected bodies, such as the police – leading to the fear of arbitrary application.

While overbreadth and vagueness are problems that affect legislation across the board, they assume a particular urgency when it comes to free speech. This is because, as the American Supreme Court has recognized on a number of occasions, speech regulating statutes must be scrutinized with specific care because of the chilling effect: when speech is penalized, people will – out of fear and caution – exercise self-censorship, and the political discourse will be impoverished. If we accept – as the Indian Courts have – that a primary reason for guaranteeing free expression rights is their indispensability to democracy, then the danger of self-censorship is one that we should be particularly solicitous of. Hence, when speech-regulating statutes do proscribe expression, they must be clear and narrowly drawn, in order to avoid the chilling effect. As the American Supreme Court euphemistically framed it, “free speech needs breathing space to survive.” Overbroad and vague speech-restricting statutes are particularly pernicious in denying it that breathing space.

There seems to be little doubt that Section 66A is both overbroad and vague. However ill-judged a holocaust comparison or a morphed corpse-image may be, neither of them are like sparks in a powder keg, which will lead to an immediate breach in public order – or “immoral” in the way of explicit pornography. We can therefore see, clearly, that the implementation of the law leaves almost unbounded scope to officials such as the police, provides room for unconstitutional interpretations, and is so vaguely framed that it is almost impossible to know, in advance, what actions fall within the rule, and which ones are not covered by it. If there is such a thing as over-breadth and vagueness par excellence, then Section 66A is surely it!

At various times in its history, the Supreme Court has acknowledged the problems of overbreadth, vagueness and the chilling effect, but never directly incorporated them into Indian law. As we have seen, each of these elements is connected to the other: over-broad and vague speech-regulating statutes are problematic because of the chilling effect. Since Section 66A is presently being challenged before the Supreme Court, there is a great opportunity for the Court both to get rid of this unconstitutional law, as well as strengthen the foundations of our free speech jurisprudence.

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Free Speech Watch: 66A Misuse Continues

Reports today indicate that an FIR has been filed against a woman – Sheeba Aslam Fehmi – for remarks strongly critical of the prime-ministerial candidate, Mr Narendra Modi. The content of the remarks is available at the link posted above. We do not need to go into much detail here: our previous discussion about free speech on this blog – especially the public order restriction – indicates very clearly that the Supreme Court – in cases such as Ram Manohar Lohia, K.A. Abbas and S. Rangarajan, to name just three – has insisted upon a rigorous standard before a public order defense to restricting free speech can be sustained. Recall that in Lohia, a man expressly telling villagers to break the law by not paying taxes was found to be exercising his right of free speech; and in the film censorship cases, the Court insisted that the relevant public order test was akin to setting off a “spark in a powder keg” – which basically refers to situations such as inciting an excited mob to commit direct and immediate violence. Suffice it to say that S. 66A, IT Act must be interpreted within the bounds of 19(2), as must provisions of the Penal Code relating to disturbing communal harmony – and in no way do remarks critical – strongly critical, even virulently critical – of politicians, even if deemed “anti-national” – whatever that might mean! – can be stifled. This is a blatant violation of 19(1)(a), and will hopefully be dealt with accordingly. 

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Filed under Free Speech, IT Act, Public Order