India's Supreme Court strikes down law criminalizing 'offensive' online posts

Indian Internet users were subject to arrest for "offensive" messages posted on social media.

Story highlights

  • Supreme Court rules Section 66A of the 2008 Information Technology Act was "unconstitutional"
  • Offenders previously faced up to three years in jail for posting "grossly offensive" material
  • Court said this wording was vague and was misused by police

(CNN)India's highest court has reversed a controversial law that gave the authorities sweeping powers to arrest and potentially jail people for comments posted on social networks and other Internet platforms.

The Supreme Court ruled that Section 66A of the 2008 Information Technology Act was "unconstitutional" and "hit at the root of liberty and freedom of expression, the two cardinal pillars of democracy."
    Under Section 66A, alleged offenders could face up to three years in jail for posting material that is "grossly offensive," has "menacing character," -- or perhaps even more ambiguously -- causes "annoyance or inconvenience."
    The court said this wording was "vague" and could be "misconstrued," according to Ranjeeta Rohatgi, an advocate who was present at the hearing in Delhi Tuesday.

    Furious debate

    India's cyber laws have ignited a furious debate about curbs on freedom of speech in recent years. In 2012, a university professor was arrested for circulating a cartoon that poked fun at West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The cartoon, which was a parody of a scene in a popular Indian movie, went viral on social media.
    He was charged with a range of offenses including defamation, insulting a woman and sending offensive messages from a computer. Mahapatra called the charges a misuse of the law "in the name of surveillance, to curb democratic rights, freedom of speech and human rights of common people."
    A year earlier, Delhi went one step further with its digital crackdown when the so-called "intermediary guidelines" implicated web platforms themselves. The rules now require Internet companies to take down any content seen as "disparaging," "blasphemous," or "defamatory" within 36 hours of a user submitting a formal request for removal.
    In Mumbai, India's financial center, police spokesman Dhananjay Kulkarni told CNN in February that some 650 posts and pages were blocked last year under these regulations.
    Google says in the last half of 2013 it removed 540 items from its pages in compliance with orders issued by Indian courts, government agencies, and law enforcement.
    It's a similar story with Facebook. The social networking site took down nearly 5,000 pieces of content reported by the Indian government in the first half of 2014.