India's highest court has struck down a law that made some social media posts a crime

Narendra Modi taking photos on his phone after voting last year / Getty

Indian citizens have been celebrating a landmark judgment by the nation’s Supreme Court which struck down a draconian law that allowed people to be jailed over posts on social media.

The court ruled the controversial Section 66 A of the IT Act, which also gave authorities wide-ranging powers of censorship, was invalid in its entirety.

The law, that came to being in 2008, has in the past few years been abused multiple times by political parties across the board, as well as parties of ruling state and central governments.

Two sisters were put behind bars for posting on Facebook their dissent of the road jams created by the funeral procession of politician Bal Thackeray some years ago. Recently an eleven year old boy was jailed over a Facebook post.

There have also been several instances when the ruling government has directed social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to pull down content that deemed offensive, under this section of the IT Act.

The apex court, in one of its lengthiest judgments ever, said the law was ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘fringing on the public’s right to freedom of speech and right to information’. The judgment delivered by Justice Rohinton Nariman said the section was ‘vague’ in its wording and mere ‘assurances from the government that the act won’t be misused’ won’t be enough to let it remain functional.

The judgment also said that ‘governments can come and go, but we can’t merely act on the government’s assurance of not misusing it’.

The ruling means the Government or any ruling political party or even the police will no longer be able to arrest and charge people on the basis of their social media posts or views they share with people via email.

This judgement also diffuses the government’s powers to a great degree concerning orders to remove so called ‘objectionable’ content from social media sites and other websites.

The apex court made it very clear that while the government has the right to seek removal of ‘objectionable’ content from a website, it can however, be implemented only via a court order. In other words, whenever the government wants any content removed from any website, it will first have to appeal in the relevant court, and only basis a court order directing the website to remove the ‘content’, will the government’s desires be fulfilled.

India recently witnessed a furore over a comic group’s ‘Roast’ of Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, which was forced to be pulled off YouTube, after the ruling Maharashtra government cited the content as ‘vulgar’ and objectionable’. In future any such event will have to be first contested in the court, and the court’s decision alone will determine whether the content stays in circulation.

This decision was met with widespread praise, including from the main petitioner in the case, Shreya Singh, who said: ‘It’s a big victory. The Supreme Court has upheld the rights of the citizens, since internet today has a far reaching impact. It has been misused by all political parties, be it BJP or Congress or any other political party.’

She added: ‘I am not advocating that it is right for anyone to defame someone. All I am saying is that no one should fear posting anything online for the fear of being put behind bars.’

Top corporate lawyer Mahesh Agarwal also welcomed the decision saying, ‘Striking down section 66A of the IT Act is a step in the right direction. It sends a message to one and all that we are a liberal and fair society. Freedom of speech and expression is respected and guaranteed in India without any harsh consequences.’

This post first appeared on Business Insider India. Copyright 2015.

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