Home >Politics >Policy >Supreme Court looks to balance interests in Internet regulation

New Delhi: A Supreme Court bench said free speech and restrictions on it went hand in hand as it heard a bunch of challenges on Wednesday to provisions of the Information Technology Act, including the controversial section 66A.

The trade-off between the government’s right to regulate content on the Internet and an individual’s right to free speech and expression—guaranteed by the Constitution—is holding the apex court’s interest at present as a result of the petitions.

The two-judge bench, which is yet to pass a ruling on the matter, observed the much-contested section 66A, which punishes sending offensive messages through a communication service, wasn’t a “silencer law".

“Free speech is not inconsistent with restrictions (on it)," said justice S.A. Bobde. He added that there was “absolutely no cap on speaking". But one had to be “doubly careful" so as to not offend anybody when expressing something on a platform that was accessible by a large number of people.

“Free speech never meant that you can say whatever you want," he said, adding that “self-imposed limits" could be placed by individuals—although the petitioners claimed that this could lead to a clampdown on free speech.

The observations of the court were made during the course of the hearing and do not necessarily have any bearing on the final ruling.

The bench comprising Bobde and J. Chelameswar also sought to understand whether a law failing to provide a standard by which an offence could be judged could be considered unreasonable.

This came in response to an argument by lawyer Sajan Poovayya, representing independent member of the Rajya Sabha Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who held that section 66A was vague and “overly broad". The section did not lay down any standards for what could be considered “grossly offensive" or having a “menacing character".

Such vagueness, the lawyer argued, would render 66A unconstitutional.

Justice Bobde, however, said that there were “standards of offensive", and “things offensive to everybody".

Lawyer Gopal Sankarnarayanan, representing petitioner Anoop M.K., apart from challenging 66A, also questioned the rationale behind section 69A on two grounds—first, who would decide what material needed to be blocked? And second, would the person uploading the content need to be heard before it was blocked?

The hearing continues on Thursday.

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