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Supreme Court saves the web with its latest ruling

The apex court saves the Internet companies from the arduous task of monitoring online content and also preserves freedom of speech.

Liberating the Web

Illustration: Ajay Thakuri

Indians are increasingly uploading pictures, videos and opinions on various online platforms. Till recently, the Internet companies - led by Google, Facebook and Twitter - were required to closely monitor these posts for unlawful or "objectionable" content. Indeed, Section 79(3)(b) of the Information Technology Act required online companies to remove content on their platforms as and when aggrieved parties notified or complained about such content. But acting upon a large number of complaints is not easy. It comes with a cost and is time consuming. The Internet companies, saddled with this additional role, decided to move the Supreme Court last year seeking relief. The apex court recently ruled in their favour and asked them to take down posts only when they are presented with a court order.

While people are busy talking about the scrapping of Section 66A, the dilution of Section 79 (3)(b) will have a major impact on the Internet companies. Earlier, while the Internet companies used to remove "objectionable" content on receiving a complaint, they were also liable for damages - along with the user posting such content - if the issue was not resolved within a month.

It is expected that the number of internet users in india will reach 580 million in 2018, up from 300 million in December 2014

The recent directions of the court have stated that in future the complainant would have to show a court order - instead of just a legal notice - to the Internet companies for removing the allegedly unlawful content. " would be very difficult for intermediaries like Google, Facebook, etc., to act when millions of requests are made and.... then to judge as to which of such requests are legitimate and which are not. We have been informed that in other countries worldwide this view has gained acceptance, Argentina being in the forefront," says the court order. It will save the Internet companies from the arduous task of reacting to a huge number of complaints.

"We argued that it is unconstitutional and prevents freedom of speech. In a way, the Internet companies were forced to perform court-like functions," says Saikrishna Rajagopal, counsel for the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). The apex court also ruled that the court order directing removal of content could only be on the basis of the specific grounds enumerated under Article 19 (2) of the constitution, which allows the state to impose reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in the public interest.

It is expected that the number of Internet users in India will reach 580 million in 2018, up from 300 million in December 2014. Clearly, the court order will not only save the Internet companies from the extra cost and time involved in monitoring content from the swelling ranks of users, but will also go a long way in preserving freedom of speech and expression in cyberspace.

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