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India’s top court has scrapped a law that criminalized sharing “grossly offensive” content online, including posts on Facebook and Twitter.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday canceled Section 66A, which had been considered a major infringement of online freedom of speech. The law allowed the arrest of a person – along with a maximum jail term of three years – for posting online content considered “grossly offensive or [that] has a menacing character.” Section 66A was introduced in 2008 as an amendment to the Information Technology Act.
In its ruling, the court described the law as “vague in its entirety” and that it encroached upon “the public’s right to know,” which directly affected the right to freedom of speech and expression as outlined in India’s Constitution.
However, the court did allow the government to block websites if the content had the potential to create communal disturbance or social disorder, or affect India’s relationship with other countries.
The law was first challenged in court by law student Shreya Singhal after two young women were arrested for posting Facebook comments critical of Mumbai’s total shutdown following the death of a prominent politician in 2012. India’s film and financial capital came to a standstill at the time for the funeral of Shiv Sena party founder Bal Thackeray.
Other petitioners against the law, including non-government organization Common Cause and Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, later came forward.
The petitioners contended that Section 66A gave the police the ability to arbitrarily interpret and misuse the law. There have been numerous cases of alleged social media abuse leading to sedition charges and even arrest.
Most recently, Mumbai-based comedy group All India Bakchod sparked a major controversy following a YouTube video of a Bollywood-style celebrity roast. The video featured a selection of major Indian film personalities mouthing swear words in English and Hindi. The video was soon pulled, leading to an ongoing obscenity probe by authorities.
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