In the context of the internet, the relationship between internet censorship and freedom of speech is central to a complicated legal framework. Freedom of speech, which is based on international human rights legislation and constitutional principles, is up against a lot of opposition as the digital era changes the nature of communication. Governments struggle to create regulations that strike a careful balance between protecting the general welfare and upholding individual rights. This legal viewpoint explores the conflicts that arise from addressing cyber threats while preserving fundamental rights, as well as the constitutional and international bases that support the control of online expression. Understanding the legal complexities of internet censorship and freedom of speech becomes essential for developing a legal framework that balances societal objectives with individual rights in the digital age, where legal borders are ill-defined.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE INTERNET AND DEFINING INTERNET CENSORSHIP:
With the advent of the internet, a revolutionary era was ushered in where knowledge was freely shared across national lines and a global interchange of ideas. But as the internet developed, so did the worries about its improper usage. The limitations of free speech in the digital age have been reevaluated by governments and online companies in response to issues like terrorism, hate speech, fake news, and cyber bullying. Today, the internet continues to evolve, shaping economies, communication, and societal structures in unprecedented ways. Internet service providers, governments, and other organisations regulate or control content available online. This practice is known as internet censorship. Censorship may be implemented for a number of reasons, such as maintaining public order, safeguarding children, preventing hate speech, or protecting national security. Although these goals appear plausible at first glance, the difficulty is making sure that the actions performed do not violate the freedom of speech, which is the cornerstone of democratic nations.
VARIOUS ASPECTS OF INTERNET CENSORSHIP:
Different types of internet censorship are used in India to control what can be found online. Section 69A of the Information Technology Act permits authorities to restrict access in the interest of public order and national security. One typical practice is the blocking of websites or entire domains. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, contain rules and regulations that apply to social media platforms, instant messaging apps, and digital media businesses. Intermediaries are required by these regulations to keep an eye on and delete particular kinds of content. Online platforms and intermediaries are obligated to cooperate with requests to delete anything that is deemed harmful or against the interests of the state. As a result, content takedowns are commonplace. In addition, the government may use surveillance techniques to keep an eye on what people are doing online, particularly in emergency situations where social media and internet access limitations may be put in place to keep the public order stable and prevent the spread of false information. The continuous difficulty of striking a balance between security and individual rights in the digital sphere is shown by the fact that worries about possible violations of freedom of speech and expression remain, even though these actions are frequently justified on the basis of national security.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN THE DIGITAL AGE AND LEGITIMATE RESTRICTIONS ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH:
A fundamental component of democratic society, freedom of speech is protected by numerous international agreements and national constitutions. For instance, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressly acknowledges the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The boundaries of this fundamental freedom have grown to include online platforms in the digital age, turning the internet into a battlefield where free speech and the need to control dangerous content fight. The right to free expression is important, but it is not inalienable. Global legal systems acknowledge the possibility of imposing certain limitations in order to safeguard the larger welfare. Philosopher John Stuart Mill introduced the idea of the “harm principle,” which holds that speech limitations are acceptable where there is an obvious and present risk of harm to others. When considering the necessity of internet censorship to stop the spread of information that encourages terrorism, incites violence, or aids in other illegal activities, this idea becomes very pertinent.
Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015):
The legitimacy of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which made it illegal to send offensive communications using communication devices, was at issue in this historic case. Section 66A was overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it infringed upon the right to freedom of speech and expression.
The Supreme Court ruled in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India “an indefinite suspension of internet would be illegal.” Such limitations on the right to free speech and expression must pass the proportionality and necessity standards.
Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution gives its inhabitants the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Nevertheless, under Article 19(2), this freedom may be limited for purposes like public order, morality, decency, and national security. Achieving a fine balance between safeguarding individual liberty and national interests is the task. The Information Technology Act, 2000 and its revisions are the main laws that control content on the internet in India. The Act’s Section 69A gives the government the authority to censor information for the public on the basis of defense, security, integrity, sovereignty, and amicable relations with other countries. In addition, internet intermediaries must adhere to strict requirements set forth by the Information Technology (Intermediary requirements and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which mandate that they monitor and remove undesirable information. India has ratified international agreements including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that protect the right to freedom of expression. To guarantee that the nation’s legal system complies with international human rights standards, any limitations on internet material must adhere to these criteria.
In Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi Pre-censorship of a newspaper is an infringement on press freedom, which is a fundamental component of the free expression granted by article 19(1)(a),” the court declared in overturning the regulation.
In Ekin Association v. France, the Court emphasised that the scope of restraint should be closely regulated by a legal framework of censorship. Due to the fact that these filtering techniques frequently violate people’s fundamental human rights, effective judicial review is essential to preventing any abuse of power.
CHALLENGES TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH:
Internet filtering presents serious obstacles to the right to free speech. One significant concern is the possibility of overreach, whereby ambiguously worded laws and regulations could give authorities the ability to stifle criticism and restrict free speech. Concerns are further raised by the lack of accountability and transparency in censorship decisions, which could result in the removal of content arbitrarily and without following the proper procedures. Furthermore, the rapid evolution of online platforms poses challenges to the development of just and efficient legislation. Maintaining individual liberty while safeguarding national interests is an ongoing challenge for governments dealing with the intricacies of policing a broad and varied digital realm. It is essential to find solutions that address valid concerns and uphold the right to free expression in order to preserve a positive and transparent online community.
RECENT SHIFTS IN THE AREA:
During 2022 time period CERT-In imposed new regulations pertaining to national security, which mandated that VPN, web hosting, and cloud service providers retain customer data for a period of five years. To protect their users’ privacy, a few VPN service providers, like Express VPN and Surfshark, said that they would no longer use servers located in India. Moving forward towards 2023 new rules that mandate online intermediaries censor and remove content determined by an appointed body from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to be incorrect or misleading were passed in April 2023. Recent developments concerning free speech and censorship in digital India include ongoing debates and discussions regarding social media regulations, content moderation policies, and government scrutiny of online platforms. The Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code are two of the regulations that the Indian government has proposed to regulate social media companies. These regulations mandate that platforms designate grievance officers, set up procedures for handling requests for material removal, and abide by court orders to delete specific kinds of content. Experts and civil society organisations have expressed concern about how content control policies affect the right to free speech. While some contend that these regulations may result in excessive censorship and the repression of free speech, others think they are essential to stop the spread of false information, hate speech, and other dangerous materials. Online platforms are under closer scrutiny from the Indian government, especially with regard to how they handle sensitive information and adhere to local regulations. The government and digital giants are now at odds over controversial themes including data privacy, encryption, and complying with takedown demands.
The complex balancing act between internet censorship and freedom of speech calls for careful examination of legal, ethical, and cultural factors. While acknowledging the justifiable worries that motivate censorship efforts, it is crucial to make sure that any limitations placed do not jeopardise the fundamental values of democracy. The legal frameworks governing internet censorship must change in tandem with the rapid advancement of technology to maintain the free flow of ideas while safeguarding persons and society from real harm. Achieving this balance is essential for the growth of democratic principles in the digital age, as well as being required by law. In India, striking a balance between internet restriction and free speech demands a strategic approach that protects national interests without sacrificing individual liberty. The future of internet regulation in the nation will be shaped by the changing legal environment, judicial review, and adherence to international standards. To promote a digital environment that values citizens’ fundamental rights and the diversity of viewpoints, it is crucial to find the correct balance.
- Raagya Priya Zadu, Internet Censorship is the freedom of speech and expression being misused or is internet the new platform to stage the views of the world’s largest democracy…, University of Pune (Jan. 20, 2024)
- Internet censorship: Misuse of the Freedom of Speech and Expression by: Devanshee Raifrom NMIMS, School of Law, Bengaluru. Available at: https://blog.ipleaders.in/internet-censorship-misuse-freedom-speech-expression/
- Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, AIR 2015 SC 1523
- Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi, AIR 1950 S.C. 129
- Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India citation, AIR 2020 SC 1308
- Singh, Manish “Explainer: New VPN rules, why companies are upset and what they mean for you” (17 June 2022). Available at- https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/gadgets-news/explainer-new-vpn-rules-why-vpn-companies-are-upset-and-what-they-mean-for-you/articleshow/92270798.cms
- Singh, Manish, “India to require Facebook and Twitter rely on gov’t fact checking”. TechCrunch (6 April 2023).
Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2023/04/06/india-cracks-down-on-betting-games/