(This is a guest post by Raghav Kohli.)
An overwhelming cavalcade of technological innovations since the last century has redefined the relationship between law and technology; the Indian Judiciary, quite helplessly, has been playing catch-up ever since. Recently, in one of many such instances that demonstrate the awkwardness of Indian judges in engaging with technology, the Supreme Court in M/s Future Gaming and Hotel Services Pvt. Ltd v. Malayala Manorama & Ors passed an order confirming the regressive approach of Indian Courts towards jurisdictional issues arising out of the online dissemination of free speech.
The facts, briefly, were as follows: The Respondents, a Malayalam Vernacular Daily Newspaper, published a news article on 22-04-2015 that was also made available online on their website. A complaint was lodged by the Petitioner, before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, East and North, at Gangtok (hereafter CJM), inter alia, on grounds that the news so published had defamed the Petitioner Company. The CJM issued process of summons against the Respondents, who subsequently filed a Petition under Article 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (hereafter CrPC) before the High Court of Sikkim at Gangtok for quashing the complaint and setting aside the summon order. The High Court quashed the complaint for want of territorial jurisdiction of Courts in Sikkim as the Complainant had “failed to point to any person who has in fact read the online version or downloaded the same to make the offence under Section 499 of the IPC complete and thereby extend jurisdiction to the Courts in Sikkim” (paragraph 9).
Consequently, the Petitioners filed a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court, which set aside the decision of the Sikkim High Court. It was held that the complaint could not be quashed at this stage since the list of witnesses contained residents of Sikkim, who proposed to give evidence to the effect that the alleged offence had taken place in Sikkim. The division bench of AK Goel, J. and UU Lalit, J. thus impliedly confirmed that in cases of online defamation, courts could assume jurisdiction in any place where the impugned material is accessed.
Before addressing the question of why such an approach is problematic, it is of pertinence to analyse the rules governing the territorial jurisdiction of courts in civil and criminal cases. Among other provisions to determine jurisdiction in Chapter XIII of the CrPC, Section 179 provides that “When an act is an offence by reason of anything which has been done and of a consequence which has ensued, the offence may be inquired into or tried by a Court within whose local jurisdiction such thing has been done or such consequence has ensued.” Similarly, Section 19 of the Code of Civil Procedure (hereafter CPC) provides that “where a suit is for compensation for wrong done to the person or to movable property, if the wrong was done within the local limits of the jurisdiction of one Court and the defendant resides, or carries on business, or personally works for gain, within the local limits of the jurisdiction of another Court, the suit may be instituted at the option of the plaintiff in either of the said Court”.
Traditionally, courts have interpreted Section 19 of the CPC and Section 179 of the CrPC expansively in offline defamation cases to extend territorial jurisdiction to not only Courts at the place where the defamatory statement is first made and published (in the sense of the statement being communicated), but also where it is subsequently published, circulated and read. For example, in Dr. Subramaniam Swamy vs Prabhakar S. Pai, the assailed statement was made at Chandigarh at a press conference, but also later published by the Indian Express in Bombay. The Bombay High Court held that “the consequence of the statement made at Chandigarh has been completed at Bombay by circulation of the said newspapers, and, therefore, the offence of defamation is complete in the City of Bombay. In view of the provisions of S. 179 of the Criminal P.C. both the Courts, at Chandigarh and at Bombay, will have jurisdiction to entertain a complaint under S. 500 of the Indian Penal Code.” Similarly, the Karnataka High Court in P.Lankesh and Another v. H. Shivappa & Anr., held that “It cannot be said that the act of publication comes to an end as soon as one issue of the newspaper is released at one place … If the defamatory imputation is made available to public at several places then the offence is committed at each such place. Though the first offence may be committed at the place where it is printed and first published, it gets repeated wherever the newspaper is circulated at other places.”
The Law in the Online World
The issue arises when Courts apply the same standard for determining jurisdiction in cases of online dissemination of speech; and High Courts across India have done that unanimously. In fact, the Delhi High Court as recently as in the 2016 case of Frankfinn Aviation Services Pvt. Ltd v. Tara Kerkar & Ors held that by putting defamatory material on the internet, “territorial jurisdiction does not remain confined to the place of actual defamation … (and) jurisdiction would be at both places i.e. the place where the actual defamation takes place and the place where such defamatory material is transmitted through website”. Even the Sikkim High Court in the Malayala Manorama case would have found that Courts in Sikkim are competent to exercise territorial jurisdiction if only the Petitioner had produce a person who had read (or downloaded?) the online version in Sikkim.
However, courts have conveniently chosen not to engage with the detrimental consequences of adopting such an expansive approach on free speech. By allowing for the assumption of jurisdiction by any court situated at a place where the website may be accessed, courts have failed to appreciate the inherent distinctions between traditional media and new digital media, and effectively permitted individuals to “create” territorial jurisdiction in online defamation cases as per their convenience across the country (at least). Consequently, this provision has been systematically used to harass journalists, authors, and other individuals, who are forced to travel to remote locations at great personal expense. In fact, Human Rights Watch in 2016 reported several such instances of harassment, with the Tamil Nadu government, for example, having reportedly filed nearly 200 cases of criminal defamation between 2011 and 2016.
The hardship faced by an accused is further augmented as there is no cap on the number of cases that may be filed against him or her under Section 199, CrPC, which lays down the procedure for prosecution. It is also settled law that the exceptions to defamation are only considered after the trial commences in light of Section 204, CrPC, read with Section 105 of the Indian Evidence Act (reiterated in paragraph 198 of Subramanium Swamy v. Union of India). Thus, the accused has minimal safeguards at the time of issuance of process against unscrupulous allegations. Although Section 202, CrPC mandates that the Magistrate postpone the issue of process for deciding whether or not there are sufficient grounds for proceeding in cases where the accused is residing at a place beyond his/her jurisdiction, it often does not afford adequate protection to the accused against harassment, making the process a punishment in itself. This is also applicable to the rare occasions when the accused may be allowed to appear via video conferencing (as was done in the Malayala Manorama case), which engenders its own set of issues.
The Chilling Effect
The cumulative effect of these draconian procedures is a “chilling effect” on speech, which prompts people to engage in self-protective censorship in fear of penalisation. Although this concept has formed an essential part of First Amendment phraseology and jurisprudence in the United States since the 1950s, it was adopted into our free speech jurisprudence much later (starting with the Delhi High Court). The Indian Supreme Court has now recognised this concept in several cases, such as R. Rajagopal v. State of T.N, where the Court modified the common law of civil defamation and noted the chilling effect caused by a no-fault liability standard (paragraph 19). Similarly, in S. Khushboo v. Kanniammal, the Court observed that the law “should not be used in a manner that has chilling effects on the freedom of speech and expression” (paragraph 29). Most famously, in the widely celebrated judgment of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court invoked the principles of “vagueness” and “overbreadth” in addition to the chilling effect to strike down Section 66A of the IT Act in 2015 (paragraph 90).
Interestingly, in the case of Subramanium Swamy v. Union of India, in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of criminal defamation, a similar argument was made by some of the petitioners (Read paragraph 20 of Mr. Arvind Datar’s submission here) against the procedure governing the prosecution of defamation under the the CrPC. It was argued that such rules amounted to procedural unreasonableness and imposed a chilling effect on speech, and were thus unconstitutional. The Court’s response to this submission is a classic example of how judges often conveniently disregard engaging with the submission made, and dismiss it by merely reiterating the settled law.
After noting the abuse of procedural laws and summarising the law on territorial jurisdiction contained in Sections 176-179 and Section 186 of the CrPC, the Court observed: “Thus, CrPC governs the territorial jurisdiction and needless to say, if there is abuse of the said jurisdiction, the person grieved by the issue of summons can take appropriate steps in accordance with law. But that cannot be a reason for declaring the provision unconstitutional” (paragraph 195). The Court failed to even acknowledge that the chilling effect argument made was premised upon the inadequacy of the so-called “appropriate steps in accordance with the law.”
Similarly, on the argument of considering the exceptions under Section 499 at the time of summoning the accused, the Court summarised the settled position of law that those who plead an exception must prove it, and observed: “Therefore, the argument that if the said Exception should be taken into consideration at the time of the issuing summons it would be contrary to established criminal jurisprudence and, therefore, the stand that it cannot be taken into consideration makes the provision unreasonable, is absolutely an unsustainable one and in a way, a mercurial one. And we unhesitatingly repel the same” (paragraph 198). Apparently, using “therefore” multiple times in a sentence sufficed as a justification.
Lessons from Abroad
In fact, it was in response to similar issues arising out of the online dissemination of speech such as forum shopping and stifling of free speech that foreign jurisdictions such as the United States evolved restrictive tests to determine “personal jurisdiction” (or, the court’s jurisdiction over the parties in a suit) in online defamation cases. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment permits a court to exercise personal jurisdiction (even where a long arm statute exists) “over a foreign defendant when (1) that defendant has purposefully availed himself of the benefits and protections of the forum state by establishing `minimum contacts’ with the forum state; and (2) the exercise of jurisdiction over that defendant does not offend `traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’ Sufficient minimum contacts will give rise to either specific or general jurisdiction. General jurisdiction exists when a defendant’s contacts with the forum state are unrelated to the cause of action but are `continuous and systematic.’ Specific jurisdiction arises when the defendant’s contacts with the forum ‘arise from, or are directly related to, the cause of action.’” (Revell v. Lidov at paragraph 20) The mere accessibility of data hosted on a website in the forum state has consistently been held to be insufficient by both standards for the forum court to assume jurisdiction. The court, therefore, determines jurisdiction based on different criteria such as the active or passive nature of the website (as per the “Zippo Sliding Scale”, for example, established in the case of Zippo Manufacturing Co v. Zippo Dot Com Inc.), or, by applying the “effects test” (established in Calder v. Jones, to adjudge whether the effects caused by an defamatory article in the forum state were specifically directed and intended towards it as to confer jurisdiction upon it).
The 2002 decision of the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, in Revell v. Lidov is a good illustration of the application of these concepts. The brief facts are as follows: Revell (a resident of Texas) sued Lidov (a resident of Massachusetts) and Columbia University (whose principal office were in New York City) in the Northern District of Texas for defamation arising out of Lidov’s authorship of an article that he posted on an internet bulletin board hosted by Columbia. The district court dismissed Revell’s claims for lack of personal jurisdiction over both Lidov and Columbia as it found the website to be “Zippo-passive”. When this decision was appealed before the Circuit Court, the issue to be determined was whether the operation of an internet site supported the minimum contacts necessary for the exercise of personal jurisdiction. It was held that owing to both the low level of interactivity of the website, and inapplicability of the “effects” test, specific personal jurisdiction could not be established in Texas. It was observed that “the post to the bulletin board here was presumably directed at the entire world, or perhaps just concerned U.S. citizens. But certainly it was not directed specifically at Texas… As these cases aptly demonstrate, one cannot purposefully avail oneself of ‘some forum someplace’; rather, as the Supreme Court has stated, due process requires that ‘the defendant’s conduct and connection with the forum State are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.’” Similarly, it was held that general personal jurisdiction could not be established as the “maintenance of a website is a continuous presence everywhere in the world” and does not amount to a “substantial” contact.
It is also interesting to note that while Indian courts have continued to apply traditional jurisdictional rules in online defamation cases, they have increasingly turned to the progressive US standards in trademark infringement disputes. For example, in the landmark case of Banyan Tree Holding (P) Limited v. A. Murali Krishna Reddy & Anr, the Court held that it had jurisdiction over the defendant but it did not get attracted merely on the basis of interactivity of the website which is accessible in the forum state, but on the basis that viewers in the forum state were specifically targeted by the Defendant Website. In an extensive analysis of tests adopted by different jurisdictions to assume territorial jurisdiction, Justice S. Muralidhar went to the extent of noting that “While courts have more readily applied the ‘effects’ test in defamation cases [see Remick v. Manfredy, 238 F.3d 248 (2001); Noonan v. Winston Comp., 135 F.3d 85, 91 (1998)]; Revell v. Lidov, 317 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2002) there have been problems in its application to trademark infringement cases” (paragraph 25). This progressive approach to determine jurisdiction has been reiterated in several High Court decisions such as the 2017 decision of the Delhi High Court in Federal Express Corporation v Fedex Securities Ltd. & Ors.
Justice Brennan in the US Supreme Court decision of NAACP v. Button famously remarked that freedom of speech needs “breathing space to survive”. Adopting a regressive approach towards jurisdictional issues arising out of online speech inhibits exactly that. It is hoped that the Indian Supreme Court on a suitable occasion in the future will deliberate on these arguments, and step up to protect this freedom from being choked.