Section 66A Facebook arrest law is Dead in India

Christopher Sewerd Policy

Web censorship is constantly in the headlines these days and none more so than in India. Indian web activists have been celebrating this week after courts struck down what has been dubbed as the “Facebook” arrest law.

The Supreme Court in India has put the final nail in the coffin for a law known as Section 66A dubbed “The Facebook Arrest Law.” The law gave police the powers of arrest for people who made derogatory comments on the internet such as on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Indian authorities love online censorship

The law which was defended by the Indian government as being a way to stop people from both uploading offensive content and making derogatory remarks about others was widely criticised by Indian civil rights groups and law student Shreya Singhal who condemned the law.

India is no stranger to online censorship and made headlines worldwide last month when they sought to block a documentary made in collaboration with the BBC about the rape and subsequent death of 23 physiotherapy intern, Jyoti Singh.

The documentary which was banned from being aired in India on regular TV found its way on to YouTube which was quickly circulated amongst Indian viewers. Within days the YouTube link found itself blocked on all Indian internet connections including VPN servers within the country confirming a countrywide ban across India.

The Indian Computer and Emergency Response Team (ICERT) is responsible for online censorship and able to make orders directly to ISPs to block certain websites and content. While they usually focus on extremism and pornography they have been known to request blocks on sites that include information on human rights and what would be considered freedom of expression content.

Too much power for facebook arrest law

The Section 66A law was controversial due to the sweeping powers it gave authorities. Anyone caught sending an email or using messaging systems such as social media could find themselves handed a 3 year jail sentence if deemed their communication or postings “caused annoyance or inconvenience”.

Civil rights groups along with law student Shreya Singhal criticised the law saying it violated the right to freedom of speech and expression. The panel overseeing the case made up of two judges agreed with the opposition and claimed it was unconstitutional in India.

Singhal the law student behind the opposition first picked up the case when two women in Mumbai, India were arrested using powers of the Section 66A law for comments posted on Facebook. The absurdity of the law was further compounded when it transpired than one of the two women had only liked the comment and not actually made any posting herself.

Although the charges against the Facebook two were eventually dropped it was one of the catalysts for the campaign against the unconstitutional law. The majority of political parties in India welcomed the decision declaring that it was a “landmark day for freedom of speech and expression” and in general the lifting of some of the censorship that India faces.

Online censorship still alive and kicking

The law student who was instrumental in the campaign against Section 66A called it “a victory for the country”. While Indians celebrate the victory censorship in the country in the online world continues. Between July and December 2014 5832 pieces of content posted on the social network Facebook were requested to be blocked by Indian authorities.

Micro messaging site Twitter confirmed in their July – December 2014 transparency report that India has requested account information on 41 separate occasions of which 1938 accounts were specified.

Requests such as these and content blocks on Facebook only show that censorship is still alive and well online in India and regardless of the Section 66A law victory users in India should still take further precautions to protect their freedom of speech online, avoid censorship when possible and in all likelihood avoid a possible jail term.

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net