OBITER DICTA

When Supreme Court’s foresight saved Sec 69A of IT Act

It has been used by Centre to ban Chinese apps, SFJ websites

When Supreme Court’s foresight saved Sec 69A of IT Act

Satya Prakash

After banning 59 Chinese apps, India has also blocked nearly 40 websites run by Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) — a pro-Khalistan outfit declared “unlawful” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

Both the decisions were taken under Section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act that empowered the government to block online content in the interest of sovereignty, integrity, defence and security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to these grounds.

Many of the grounds mentioned in Section 69A, including ‘public order’ and ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’, were not there in the original Constitution and were added to Article 19(2) by first and sixteenth amendments to strengthen the restriction clause.

Also, it was the Supreme Court’s foresight that saved Section 69A of the IT Act that has now been used by the Centre to block SFJ websites and ban Chinese apps.

In Shreya Singhal’s case (2015), apart from Section 66A, the validity of Sections 69A and 79 was also challenged. Section 66A that gave sweeping powers to the police to arrest individuals for posting annoying or offensive comments in cyber space, Section 69A and 79 empowered the government to block online content and provided for exemption from liability of intermediaries in certain cases, respectively.

While declaring Section 66A unconstitutional for curtailing citizens’ right to free speech, the Supreme Court read down Section 79 and upheld the validity of Section 69A, saying the latter had several safeguards to check its misuse.

Unlike the controversial Section 66A, which was abused by the police to mindlessly arrest offenders even after it was scrapped, under Section 69A only the Centre can block information on the grounds mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution and the authorities are bound to give reasons in writing for their decisions.

State instinctively acts to preserve and protect itself from threats posed to its existence and to ensure safety and security of its citizens. Often criticised by experts for being a “completely inadequate” law from cyber security point of view, the IT Act still retains some teeth to deal with certain exigencies.

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