Adopting a fresh stance, the government on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that it was willing to take a re-look at Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which empowers police to make arrests over social media messages, and to put in necessary safeguards for allaying apprehensions against its misuse.
The government assured the court that it was for the complete freedom of expression on the social media and that it was open to framing necessary guidelines to curb misuse of Section 66A and the alleged vagueness in the provision.
According to sources in the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, the government’s response has come after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “direct intervention” in the matter. The submissions, as per the sources, were in line with Modi’s beliefs on the use of social media, which he has always acknowledged as a very powerful medium of social change.
In 2013, when Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had joined online protesters against the UPA government’s move to block a few Twitter accounts. He had changed his display picture to plain black.
Arguing before a bench of Justices J Chelameswar and S A Bobde, the government’s law officer submitted that the government had an open mind regarding applicability of Section 66A and that if necessary, it could also frame guidelines to make sure the law is not abused to arrest innocent people and curtail their fundamental right.
“Even the most vociferous of the political dissent would not be attempted to be curbed by way of this legislation. We are willing to take all preemptive steps to negate the chilling effect that Section 66A may have on an individual’s right to speech and expression,” said Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
Mehta told the bench that he has spoken with the “highest political executives” and the stakeholders were forthcoming to ensure complete commitment to freedom of speech and expression.
The ASG also referred to the speech of Arun Jaitley, the then Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha on how to strike a balance between users’ right of speech and at the same time, ensuring there was no danger by exercise of such right. Jaitley, in his speech in May 2012, had censured the use of vague terms in the law, which had led to spurt in the police filing cases and making arrests relating to online speech.
Mehta told the bench that he would also adduce Jaitley’s speech in the court.
At this, the bench asked the batch of petitioners, who have challenged the constitutional validity of Section 66A, to hand over to the ASG their suggestions regarding the proposed safeguards by December 25. “The government will consider these suggestions on the guidelines to be framed and we can then hammer out the issues,” said the bench, while adjourning the case to January 13.
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