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Online Free Speech (e-Free Speech)

2023 JUL 12

Mains   > Governance   >   Aspects of Good Governance   >   Fundamental rights

IN NEWS:

  • Recently, the Karnataka High Court dismissed Twitter’s challenge to the issuance of blocking orders by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in connection with the taking down of Twitter accounts and specific tweets.

MORE ON NEWS:

  • The High Court admonished Twitter for not complying with the orders and imposed a fine of Rs.50 lakh on the social media company.
  • The judgement raised concerns as it undermines the right to free speech and expression and also paves the way for the state to exercise unchecked power while taking down content without following established procedure. Moreover, it exhibits a new trend to hinder digital rights and the exercise of free speech on the grounds of the dissemination of false speech.

SIGNIFICANCE OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH ON THE INTERNET:

  • Can express opinions without fear of censorship:
    • Freedom of speech on the internet allows individuals to express their opinions and ideas without fear of censorship or retribution.
  • Platform to raise social and political causes:
    • The internet has become a global platform for sharing information, and it allows people to connect with others who share similar views or experiences.
    • This has enabled individuals to organise and mobilise around social and political causes and to hold those in power accountable.
  • e-democracy:
    • The right to free speech on the internet is indispensable to achieving the meaningful participation of the general public in the democratic process.
    • The democratic participation that involves the use of social media and the internet to interact with political governance is known as e-democracy.
  • Essential medium to further the fundamental right:
    • The Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal case has recognised internet as an essential medium to further our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19.
  • Challenges the dominant narratives in mainstream media:
    • Unlike traditional media outlets, which are often controlled by a small number of corporations or individuals, the internet allows anyone with a computer or Smartphone to publish their thoughts and ideas for the world.
    • This has enabled common people to have a voice and to challenge the dominant narratives that have been perpetuated by the mainstream media.

ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR OF RESTRICTIONS ON FREE SPEECH ON THE INTERNET:

  • Ensure law and order:
    • Misinformation and rumors can be easily spread through the internet, both intentionally and unintentionally, which may lead to law and order issues.
    • So government regulation would avert disputes and violence as a result of misinformation on the internet. For example, combating fake news and related violence etc.
  • National Interest:
    • The internet cannot be independent of national sovereignty.
    • Therefore, the necessary regulation of free speech on the internet is a reasonable choice of sovereign countries based on national interests.
  • Online hate speech:
    • Online hate speech has been on the rise in India. Digital hatred and majoritarian radicalization were evident in various instances.
  • Online defamation:
    • Online defamation refers to defamatory information being spread over the internet to harm a person’s reputation and image. The wide accessibility, mass reach, and increasing popularity of the internet make this offense more harmful than ever.
  • Freedom of expression is not absolute:
    • Freedom of speech and expression does not confer on citizens the right to speak or publish without responsibility on the internet.
    • Hence, as per Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India, the legislature may enact laws to impose restrictions on the right to speech and expression on the internet as well.

PROVISIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE REGULATION OF ONLINE FREEDOM OF SPEECH:

  • Information Technology Act, 2000:
    • Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, empowers the state to issue blocking orders in cases of emergency on the grounds such as “sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the above”.
    • The Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (Blocking Rules) lays down the procedure for any blocking order issued under Section 69A.
      • This provision’s constitutionality was challenged in Shreya Singhal case where the Supreme Court of India upheld the validity of Section 69A and the Blocking Rules after observing that sufficient procedural safeguards were embedded, such as provision of recording a reasoned order, and providing notice to the intermediary and the originator whose content was sought to be blocked.

CONCERNS ASSOCIATED WITH THE KARNATAKA HIGH COURT JUDGEMENT:

  • Undermines the procedural safeguards:
    • The Karnataka High Court’s judgment undermines the procedural safeguards that must be employed while restricting freedom of speech that the SC found necessary during the Sherya Singhal case, such as the provision of recording a reasoned order and providing notice to the intermediary and the originator whose content was sought to be blocked.
    • Thus, the verdict paves the way for the state to exercise unchecked power while taking down content without following established procedures.
  • Beyond the reasonable restrictions:
    • In its judgment, The High Court sited "fake news" and "misinformation" as grounds for blocking content that had the potential to disturb "public order" and threaten the "security of the State".
    • But misinformation and fake news are not grounds under which free speech can be restricted under Article 19(2) and Section 69A of IT act, 2000.
    • The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that for speech to be prejudicial to the maintenance of public order, there must be a direct link between the speech and the potential threat to public order.

WAY FORWARD:

  • Development and refinement of the existing legal regulations to prevent the spread of disinformation and hate speech on the internet.
  • Drafting regulations in clear language and using unambiguous terms to prevent the suppression of free speech on the internet under the garb of authoritarian policies or arbitrary administrative actions
  • Making the social media platforms responsible for the content posted on their sites or apps, so that there is an added sense of responsibility and accountability on their part.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. "Freedom of speech and expression does not confer on citizens the right to speak or publish without responsibility". Discuss the statement with reference to the regulation of free speech on the internet.