SC: Constitution protects exercising rights u/a 19(1)(a)&(g) using Internet

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 10th January 2020, in the matter of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union Of India And Ors. and Gulam Nabi Azad v. Union Of India And Ors pronounced that the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), and the right to carry on any trade or business under 19(1)(g), using the medium of internet is constitutionally protected.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that:

…….On Article 19

Article 19 of the Constitution has been interpreted to mandate right to information as an important facet of the right to freedom of speech and expression. (Para 15)

Fundamental rights itself connote a qualitative requirement wherein the State has to act in a responsible manner to uphold Part III of the Constitution and not to take away these rights in an implied fashion or in casual and cavalier manner. (Para 15)

Democracy entails free flow of information. There is not only a normative expectation under the Constitution, but also a requirement under natural law, that no law should be passed in a clandestine manner. (Para 16)

As a general principle, on a challenge being made regarding the curtailment of fundamental rights as a result of any order passed or action taken by the State which is not easily available, the State should take a proactive approach in ensuring that all the relevant orders are placed before the Court, unless there is some specific ground of privilege or countervailing public interest to be balanced, which must be specifically claimed by the State on affidavit. In such cases, the Court could determine whether, in the facts and circumstances, the privilege or public interest claim of the State overrides the interests of the Petitioner. Such portion of the order can be redacted or such material can be claimed as privileged, if the State justifies such redaction on the grounds, as allowed under the law. (Para 17)

The fundamental rights are prescribed as a negative list, so that “no person could be denied such right until the Constitution itself prescribes such limitations”. The only exception to the aforesaid formulation is Article 21A of the Constitution, which is a positive right that requires an active effort by the concerned government to ensure that the right to education is provided to all children up to the age of 16 years. (Para 20)

The framers of the Indian Constitution were aware of the situation of India, including the socio­economic costs of such proactive duty, and thereafter took an informed decision to restrict the application of fundamental rights in a negative manner. (Para 21)

Law and technology seldom mix like oil and water. There is a consistent criticism that the development of technology is not met by equivalent movement in the law. In this context, we need to note that the law should imbibe the technological development and accordingly mould its rules so as to cater to the needs of society. Non recognition of technology within the sphere of law is only a disservice to the inevitable. In this light, the importance of internet cannot be underestimated, as from morning to night we are encapsulated within the cyberspace and our most basic activities are enabled by the use of internet.  (Para 24)

The freedom of speech and expression through the medium of internet is an integral part of Article 19(1)(a) and accordingly, any restriction on the same must be in accordance with Article 19(2) of the Constitution. (Para 26)

The freedom of trade and commerce through the medium of the internet is also constitutionally protected under Article 19(1)(g), subject to the restrictions provided under Article 19(6). (Para 27)

…….On doctrine of proportionality

Fundamental rights may not be absolute, however, they require strong protection, thereby mandating a sensible necessity test as the same will prevent the fundamental right from becoming either absolute or to be diminished. (Para 65)

(Para 70) The requirements of the doctrine of proportionality which must be followed by the authorities before passing any order intending on restricting fundamental rights of individuals are:

  • In the first stage itself, the possible goal of such a measure intended at imposing restrictions must be determined.
  • Such goal must be legitimate. Before settling on the aforesaid measure, the authorities must assess the existence of any alternative mechanism in furtherance of the aforesaid goal. The appropriateness of such a measure depends on its implication upon the fundamental rights and the necessity of such measure.
  • Only the least restrictive measure can be resorted to by the State, taking into consideration the facts and circumstances.
  • Lastly, since the order has serious implications on the fundamental rights of the affected parties, the same should be supported by sufficient material and should be amenable to judicial review.

The degree of restriction and the scope of the same, both territorially and temporally, must stand in relation to what is actually necessary to combat an emergent situation. (Para 71)

To consider the immediate impact of restrictions upon the realization of the fundamental rights, the decision maker must prioritize the various factors at stake. Such attribution of relative importance is what constitutes proportionality. It ought to be noted that a decision which curtails fundamental rights without appropriate justification will be classified as disproportionate. The concept of proportionality requires a restriction to be tailored in accordance with the territorial extent of the restriction, the stage of emergency, nature of urgency, duration of such restrictive measure and nature of such restriction. The triangulation of a restriction requires the consideration of appropriateness, necessity and the least restrictive measure before being imposed. (Para 72)

Although substantive justice under the fundamental rights analysis is important, procedural justice cannot be sacrificed on the altar of substantive justice. (Para 79)

…….On putting restrictions on the Internet

The procedural mechanism contemplated for restrictions on the Internet, is twofold: first is contractual, relating to the contract signed between Internet Service Providers and the Government, and the second is statutory, under the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 and the Telegraph Act. (Para 80)

Recourse cannot be made by the Government to restrict the internet generally under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 read with the Information Technology (Procedures and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009. (Para 81)

An order, particularly one that affects lives, liberty and property of people, must be made available. Any law which demands compliance of the people requires to be notified directly and reliably. This is the case regardless of whether the parent statute or rule prescribes the same or not. (Para 96)

Complete broad suspension of telecom services, be it the Internet or otherwise, being a drastic measure, must be considered by the State only if ‘necessary’ and ‘unavoidable’. In furtherance of the same, the State must assess the existence of an alternate less intrusive remedy. (Para 99)

…….On Section 144 Cr.P.C

The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C. cannot be used as a tool to prevent the legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights. Our Constitution protects the expression of divergent views, legitimate expressions and disapproval, and this cannot be the basis for invocation of Section 144, Cr.P.C. unless there is sufficient material to show that there is likely to be an incitement to violence or threat to public safety or danger. (Para 119)

Orders passed under Section 144, Cr.P.C. have direct consequences upon the fundamental rights of the public in general. Such a power, if used in a casual and cavalier manner, would result in severe illegality. This power should be used responsibly, only as a measure to preserve law and order. The order is open to judicial review, so that any person aggrieved by such an action can always approach the appropriate forum and challenge the same. But, the aforesaid means of judicial review will stand crippled if the order itself is unreasoned or un­notified. (Para 129)

While passing orders under Section 144, Cr.P.C., it is imperative to indicate the material facts necessitating passing of such orders. Normally, it should be invoked and confined to a particular area or some particular issues. (Para 130)

It is imperative for the State to make orders under Section 144 CrPC public so as to make the right available under Section 144(5), Cr.P.C. a practical reality. (Para 136)

(Para 140) The legal position on Section 144, Cr.P.C is as follows:

  • The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C., being remedial as well as preventive, is exercisable not only where there exists present danger, but also when there is an apprehension of danger. However, the danger contemplated should be in the nature of an “emergency” and for the purpose of preventing obstruction and annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed.

  • The power under Section 144, Cr.P.C cannot be used to suppress legitimate expression of opinion or grievance or exercise of any democratic rights.
  • An order passed under Section 144, Cr.P.C. should state the material facts to enable judicial review of the same. The power should be exercised in a bona fide and reasonable manner, and the same should be passed by relying on the material facts, indicative of application of mind. This will enable judicial scrutiny of the aforesaid order.
  • While exercising the power under Section 144, Cr.P.C. the Magistrate is duty bound to balance the rights and restrictions based on the principles of proportionality and thereafter apply the least intrusive measure.
  • Repetitive orders under Section 144, Cr.P.C. would be an abuse of power.

…….On freedom of press

There is no doubt that the freedom of the press is a valuable and sacred right enshrined under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. This right is required in any modern democracy without which there cannot be transfer of information or requisite discussion for a democratic society. (Para 146)

…….On chilling effect

Chilling effect has been utilized in Indian Jurisprudence as a fairly recent concept. The usage of the aforesaid principle is chiefly adopted for impugning an action of the State, which may be constitutional, but which imposes a great burden on the free speech. (Para 147)

The principle of chilling effect was utilized initially in a limited context, that a person could be restricted from exercising his protected right due to the ambiguous nature of an overbroad statute. (Para 148)

One possible test of chilling effect is comparative harm. In this frame­work, the Court is required to see whether the impugned restrictions, due to their broad-based nature, have had a restrictive effect on similarly placed individuals during the period. (Para 151)

Copy of judgement: Judgement_10-Jan-2020

-Adv. Tushar Kaushik

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