Social media in India gets a fillip

India has seen a surge in social media users over the last couple of years and the number is growing by the day. Almost everyone is hooked on to Facebook with the number of users climbing to 100 million users where around 80% access FB via their mobiles. The total number of Twitter users in India are 33 Million and from this base 76% of users access it via their mobile phone. LinkedIn accounts for about 26 Million India users while Pinterest accounts for about 5.5 million users.

With information being shared real time on social networks, Indians have become more aware and educated. The recent National and State elections in the country were fought making optimum use of social networks. The flip side of the coin however, was that the government felt it was constantly under scrutiny with a large number of social network users debating, analysing and commenting on its functioning. Under a cyber law  – Section 66A introduced a few years ago, the government exercised its had the right to monitor and check statements made on social media sites particularly Facebook.The cyber law gave the police sweeping powers to arrest anyone for posting “annoying” or “offensive” comments online and as a result of that several arrests were made for comments on Facebook. Even people who “liked” the comments were also arrested.

With the sword of Democles over their heads, social media users in India increasingly felt that their freedom of expression was being curtailed by the government and that Section 66A was being used as a conduit to gag people from freely expressing their views. The controversy attracted public attention when in 2012, two girls were arrested for a post on Facebook. Following the death of a local politician, Mumbai was shut down and all that one of the girls questioned was the need to shut down the Business Capital in India when there were other compelling things to do. The other girl, a friend was arrested for ‘liking’ the post. Following this, content on social sites particularly Facebook were monitored closely by the police and many more arrests were made in various parts of the country. This led to public outcry leading the youth, thought leaders, citizen organizations and the media to step up the momentum against the law. A Public Interest Litigation filed by a law student in Delhi sealed the case.

In a verdict that threw its weight behind democracy and freedom of speech, the Supreme Court of India scrapped section 66A, maintaining that Section 66A was unconstitutional as it took within its sweep speech that is innocent in nature. A bench of Justice J Chelameswar and Justice Rohinton F Nariman held the public’s right to know was directly affected by the law, which was cast so wide that it covered any opinion on any subject. “Such is the reach of the section that the chilling effect on free speech is total,” they said. The landmark verdict means anyone arrested under the controversial provision since its introduction in 2009 would now be relieved as all cases under the section would be dropped.

“The section made no distinction between mere discussion or advocacy of a particular point of view — which may be annoying or inconvenient or grossly offensive to some — and incitement, by which such words lead to an imminent causal connection with public disorder and security of the state,” the judgment said. The judges, however, did not scrap two other provisions of the IT Act-sections 69A and 79 that empower the government to block online content, but made a court order compulsory for any third party to ask an intermediary – such as Google or Facebook – to take it down.