Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

We want to protect right to free speech: govt to SC

Supreme Court bench asks petitioners to suggest guidelines to additional solicitor general by 25 December

New Delhi: The Union government is amenable to framing guidelines to ensure that no chilling effect is created among citizens using the Internet and publishing their opinions online, additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

A two-judge bench of justices J. Chelameswar and S.A. Bobde asked the petitioners to suggest guidelines to Mehta by 25 December. The government will then frame draft guidelines for the court to consider.

The proposal came in light of the apex court’s consideration of the petitions filed in the wake of the arrest of two Mumbai-based women, including Shaheen Dhada, for posting criticism of the shutdown of the city after Bal Thackeray’s death.

The apex court was hearing a challenge to Section 79(3)(b) of the Information Technology Act (IT Act), 2000. The Internet and Mobile Association of India has challenged this provision arguing that it confers wide powers to the government and takes away the immunity granted to Internet service providers (ISPs). This is one of the 10 cases that have challenged various provisions of IT Act, including section 66A, under which Dhada had been jailed.

Mehta told the court that the government “does not take an adversarial stand" in the challenge to the validity of these provisions, and “wants to protect the right to free speech". He added that he had spoken to the “highest political executive" who said that they would take “pre-emptive steps" to avoid any “chilling effect" on freedom of speech to set in. He did not name the political executive.

The court said that while the law was understood well by high-ranking national-level officers, it had to be seen how the same was understood by policemen and other state-level officers. “We’re trying to find a solution," the court said.

Mehta also said that he would ask for finance minister Arun Jaitley’s “inputs" on the issue. He referred to Jaitley’s speech in Parliament when the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, were being reconsidered in 2012.

The court will hear the case next on 13 January.