The Indian government can no longer arrest people for causing ‘annoyance’ online

India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a section of the controversial Information Technology Act that allowed police to arrest people for publishing objectionable content online.

The court ruled that Section 66 A of the IT Act could not be enforced because it violated the Indian constitution’s free-speech and free-expression rights. It found that the law—which could be used to send someone to jail for up to three years for publishing content that “causes annoyance or inconvenience”—was overly vague.

The government had failed to show how enforcement of Section 66 A was necessary to protect public order and safety, the court said.

At the same time that it struck down Section 66 A, the court upheld another controversial section of the law that permits the government to block websites that it believes may create social disorder or disrupt India’s relationships with other countries.

Indian authorities have arrested many people for online political dissent since December 2008, when Parliament amended the IT Act to add Section 66 A without discussion.

In 2012, two girls were arrested after they questioned online why the city of Mumbai had shut down after the death of right-wing politician Bal Thackeray. One of the girls was arrested simply for “liking” the other’s post.

Earlier this month, a male student from Bareilly, a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was arrested and sent to prison for Facebook comments that offended politician Azam Khan’s office. One of Khan’s aides told the press that the comments were part of a conspiracy to incite violence between Muslim and Hindu communities.

Khan refused to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Section 66 A, except to tell journalists, “You support criminals.”

“The public’s right to know is directly affected by Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act,” Justice R. F. Nariman said while announcing the verdict on Tuesday.

The court went on to describe terms used in the section, such as “annoying” and “grossly offensive,” that it said were impossible for law enforcement and alleged offenders to clearly interpret.

“What may be offensive to a person may not be offensive to the other,” the justices said. 

Former Union Minister and senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram said he welcomed the court’s decision, adding, “The section was poorly drafted and was vulnerable. It was capable of being misused and, in fact, it was misused.”

Photo via Roshan Travel/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.