These rights aren't going to fight themselves! It's been four years since Shreya Singhal or has it really?

The Momentous Result

On March 24, 2019, we celebrated the four year anniversary of the one of the most significant judgements in the digital rights sphere, the case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. Many of you may have kept abreast with this tumultuous journey over the years, so here is a brief recap timeline of our adventures.

2012: When 21 year old student Shaheen Dhada was charged under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 for her comment on the shutdown of public functions due to the death of late Bal Thackeray, the fight for internet freedom in India took flight. Section 66A criminalized the dissemination of certain types of messages that were offensive or menacing. This provision was used so indiscriminately for the prosecuting of individuals for their basic expression of free speech. As a result, a petition to amend this Section was filed in the Supreme Court against this disproportionate law.

2013: After the Supreme Court issued notice in this petition, there were several others that filed petitions challenging Section 66A. We mention the a few groups such Common Cause, the online review website Mouthshut, The Internet and Mobile Association of India and the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, to draw importance to need for collaboration amongst various stakeholders from diverse backgrounds. Individuals, civil rights groups and industry associations who all came together to further and deepen constitutionality.

2015: The challenge to this section took two years to receive the landmark judgement by the Supreme Court declaring 66A unconstitutional, however, this was merely the beginning of things to come.

The Illegitimate Four-Year Reign

2016: Even after it was struck down, reports by the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) Crime in India released during the year, informed that around 4,154 new cases were filed and 3,137 arrests were made in 2015, while 2,423 arrests were made the previous year. In addition, about 575 people were still in jail on January 1, 2016, twice as many as the 275 in prison when the law was in force a year earlier.

2017: There were whispers of a proposition by the Ministry of Home Affairs to strengthen Sections 153A and 505 (laws that deal with hate speech and statements of public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code through amendments, rather than modifying 66A. An idea that received support by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

2018: A working paper by the Internet Freedom Foundation through Abinav Sekhri and Apar Gupta published a study of the continued prosecution under 66A despite it’s declaration as unconstitutional. It looked to media reports, online legal databases and reports of the National Crime Records Bureau to analyse cases. Through their study, they established that 66A lived on. However, we did see an update to electronic records of the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code on Indiacode that incorporated the changes the judgement brought about, making 2018 a little less grey.

2019: Blue skies appeared when in collaboration with PUCL, we took this research to court to ensure these prosecutions were stopped once and for all. Victoriously, the Hon’ble Court once again took a positive stance by ordering that a copy of the Shreya Singhal judgement to all Courts, Prosecutors and Police Departments in India to ensure complete awareness through the grapevine.

The Current State of Affairs

But the Shreya Singhal decision was much more than about Section 66A. It concerned the intermediary rules which govern platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It also dealt with website blocking. Both these issues stressed on the importance of protecting our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

Over the past few months, the digital sphere has grappled with intense hurdles to its somewhat generally free and uninhibited state of being. We have brought to the forefront two further issues apart from the horrendous revival of Section 66A.

  • Website Takedowns: Late 2018 saw the introduction of the Draft Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules which largely threatened to clamp down on the right to freedom of speech and expression through breaking encryption, automated censorship, further Government access to personal data (Read here for more). However, before this was released to public consultation, the Indian express reported that these changes were first debated in a private meeting. Subsequently, we thought it necessary to make these changes public. This was promptly followed by a call for comments.

  • Website Blockings: We portrayed in our very visual explanation, the violations of Net Neutrality through the rampant spike in blocking that are being carried out by various ISP’s all over India over the last few months. Initially, we collated the data received through our online reporting form but most recently, we informed you of our re-activation of SaveTheInternet campaign in light these various threats to net neutrality.

We thought that in light of the four-year Shreya Singhal anniversary, it was necessary to highlight that these victories not only take time but continued efforts. These results require constant advocacy action and follow-up. More importantly, the joint-collaborations with various like-minded organisations activists that truly care for your digital rights is what enable these triumphs. Without any of this, we face the risk of scale-back and recession as is happening right now.

Therefore, as far as clichés go, we assure you that we along with many others will continue to rage and rage against the dying of the light.

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