New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday reserved its judgment in cases involving multiple challenges to certain provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and so-called guidelines for intermediaries.

The verdict will have far reaching consequences on civil liberties and right to freedom of speech on the Internet.

One of the cases is a public interest litigation filed by Shreya Singhal, after two Mumbai-based girls were arrested for criticising on a social media platform the city’s shutdown following the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray.

A bench of justices J. Chelameswar and Rohinton F. Nariman has heard 10 cases in all that challenge Section 66A (which punishes sending offensive messages through a communication service), intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act, and Section 69A, which allows the central government to block “information" for “public access" over a “computer resource" if the same is “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement".

In the court, the government, which made it clear it was not taking an adversarial position, said through additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta that the laws had to interpreted in a way so that they would serve the purpose it was meant for without jeopardising free speech.

Some of the petitioners claimed that Section 66A definitely infringes on the right to free speech.

“I can’t presume to know the minds of the judges and I will not do so. But I find it very disappointing that the Narendra Modi government with ministers like Arun Jaitley, who had argued against Section 66A and the intermediary guidelines under Section 79, are now defending them," said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at think-tank Centre for Internet Society. “Second, that given the line of questioning the court has taken, the arguments adduced in court and based on our research on 66A, 69A and intermediary guideline rules under 79, which ought to be called Internet censorship rules according to me, it is amply clear that these provisions are unconstitutional."

Ideally, Prakash said, the government should redraft the law, with inputs from legal experts, academics, civil society organizations and technologists.

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