IFF was launched from the roots of savetheinternet.in with an objective to support and preserve the charachter of the Internet. This includes making sure it remains open and free. The TRAI’s explanatory memorandum on the Discriminatory Pricing Regulation expressly acknowledges it by linking network neutrality to our fundamental right to speech and expression.
One of the steps to broaden our work has been by supporting the Office of Tathagata Satpathy with the www.speechbill.in effort. The Speech Bill online consultation aims to create greater awareness and present a legislative path to reform India’s broken defamation laws. The process of online consultation itself promotes transparency and rigour in law making.
The #SpeechBill principles have two main objectives. The repeal of the criminal law of defamation and the consolidation and reform of the civil law. We believe that the offence of criminal defamation places a disproportionate criminal sanction on mere speech. Many constitutional democracies have taken an electoral route to reform defamation laws. We believe that defamation law concerns all Indians, as it restricts not only their ability to speak but also to listen. It especially concerns people who are using the Internet given the prevalence of social media platforms and the broadcast of opinions and commentary to large audiences. The law of criminal defamation impacts of all of them, not only through the threat of prosecution but also how it causes censorship, by chilling speech which they would receive.
Many people at the same time justify the criminal offence of defamation due to the ineffectiveness of the civil law. The civil law of defamation is supposed to result in a declaration to vindicate a person’s honor as well as give monetary damages. These damages are given not to penalize the defendant but to repair an injury. By their very nature they cannot be excessive, however today large amounts, running into hundreds and thousands of crores are claimed in Courts. This completely censors speech, as no matter the verdict, the existence of such a claim itself scares the speaker into silence. Even people who suffer a genuine injury, fairly value their claim and do not file the case in a remote, distant place have to wait decades for a decision. The civil law of defamation has two paradoxical problems, first it’s abuse and second it’s ineffectiveness. These deficiencies may be addressed through legislative action. Our legislature should consider consolidating the law of civil defamation, to make it clear, effective and balanced.
IFF believes that content laws fundamentally interact with the Internet with most publications and more people coming online. Due to these reasons we support the SpeechBill.in effort. Some of our members are assisting in the outreach, legal drafting and technical support. There are many other volunteers besides us. We have reached out to other organizations and stakeholders seeking their comments and endorsement. We must fairly state that a private member’s bill has not passed through parliament into law in the last four decades. Despite such odds, at the very least we hope to help spark a policy conversation around content laws. We believe that this will change the present status quo on defamation reform in a non-partisan manner.