On March 24, the Supreme Court took an unambiguous stand in favour of free speech on the internet by striking down the now infamous Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) as “unconstitutional”. The momentous verdict, delivered by judges J Chemaleshwar and RF Nariman, was the culmination of constitutional challenges to various provisions of the IT Act raised by ten separate writ petitions, all of which were heard together by the court.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court observed that liberty of free speech and expression are cardinal values of paramount significance to the constitutional process in democracies. Mere discussion or even advocacy of a cause, howsoever unpopular, are at the heart of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which guarantees right to freedom of speech and expression. In addition to striking down Sections 66A and 118(d), the Supreme Court also read down Section 79 of the IT Act and rules, notified under the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011. Section 79 provides “safe harbour” protection to internet intermediaries against liability arising from user-generated content, and the rules outline certain conditionalities on which such protection hinges.