Shishir Tripathi | April 17, 2015
Rajeev Chandrasekhar has an unusual CV for an MP: he worked in Intel and founded BPL Mobile, before joining politics – and has been twice elected to the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka as an independent member supported by all parties. In an email interview with Shishir Tripathi, he comments on his PIL and free speech in the digital age. Excerpts:
What prompted you to file the PIL?
My engagement with this cause began in 2011, when I filed a zero-hour mention in parliament, drawing attention to the imposition of unnecessary restrictions on bloggers. This, however, was unheeded to by the UPA government. Again in December 2012, I spoke extensively in parliament against the draconian, vaguely worded Section 66A that was impeding the fundamental and constitutional freedom of citizens to express themselves freely. Despite debate in parliament, the government ignored the recommendations made by us MPs. Its response remained dodgy despite receiving a host of my recommendations through letters and parliamentary questions, in addition to my speeches. Faced with a government that seemed to obfuscate on this important issue, I decided to move court in January 2013 and join the existing PILs – for this was an issue that would impact the nature of India’s technological imprint for decades to come.
This has been an interesting experience, given that I as an MP had to go to court to seek remedy about a law passed by parliament – and it is an indication of the decline of the effectiveness and credibility of parliament and the government as institutions. When parliament and the government let down its citizens, it takes a PIL filed by an MP, amongst others, and a journey of almost seven years, to correct the errors of the UPA.
How do you respond to the judgment?
This is a historic judgment and I congratulate the citizens of this country and the other petitioners for their sustained engagement with the cause. This has also made our digital environment a free space – and has served to create an enabling environment for Digital India targets to be met.
While this decision of the supreme court is laudable in many ways, it is also going to bring one fundamental change – the political class will now need to start developing a sense of humour about themselves, and will have to start being less volatile or less resistant to criticism, and much more open to putting themselves out there and being scrutinised by millions of people who are online and who will continue to get online and talk about government and politics.
While there are threats that are represented by the misuse of the internet, these threats cannot be addressed at the cost of curbing free expression. What has guided me in this struggle is a quote by president Obama: “We reject as false the choice between national security and our ideals of democracy.”
While undoubtedly Section 66A was misused, the fact remains that the internet space is also widely abused by people for disseminating wrong information, maligning other individuals. How can we ensure safety and security while ensuring freedom of speech and expression?
Our government does have legitimate concerns about the internet being misused and I don’t discount the fears. There is a need for rules to be in place. Even the slightest glance at some of the message boards on the internet will tell anyone about the obscenity, vulgarity, slander, abuse, and cyber bullying that is prevalent. It is for the new government to re-architect the law, create a much more contemporaneous Act and bring in amendments/rules that should be architected through a multi-stakeholder consultation, general consensus and collaboration – the ability to genuinely engage and accept diverse views while making guidelines, being specific and well-defined where restrictions are concerned, eliminating possibilities of misuse, either by the perpetrators, or by the government itself.
It is very important that this government quickly makes this transition from control and regulation to enablers of creative ecosystem in order to make Digital India a reality. You can have legislation today and safely regulate against the misuse of the internet while allowing for vibrant, creative, innovative, free expression on it. That is the balance that needs to be achieved by the government, with the twin objectives of guaranteeing safe as well as free internet.
Hence, it becomes very important for the new government to move quickly and craft a new IT Act to fulfil India’s role as a global technology leader and indeed as a democracy that’s redefining the role of citizenship and government and for the success of Digital India.
What should be the key elements of such a new law that you are talking about?
The repeal [of Section 66A] and this verdict suggest to the government that this law is dated. So, the message to the government really is, please go out and create a contemporaneous law, a modern law that addresses both the objectives, preserves the Article 19(1) guarantee of free speech, and if there is anything that you want to do vis-à-vis Article 19(2), make sure that it passes the test – that it really is a proven cognisable offence.
A free and fair internet is crucial for innovation, connection and economic growth. By repealing Section 66A, India is now ready for a technological leap, that the government’s laudable Digital India programme shall foster. A safe internet and a free internet can co-exist and the government should now come with amendments that address this co-existence.
Whenever our fundamental rights are challenged, it is the judiciary that intervenes, not the political executive. Why?
This is something that is not exclusive to India. Governments the world over tend to be over-cautious and try to introduce unnecessary regulation to curb citizens’ freedom, often citing national security as an excuse. Governments need to be more open to scrutiny, and this is an attitudinal shift that can only happen with time.
In my own experience with Section 66A, this fact became very clear. When a MP like me exhausts all his options – to raise it in parliament, approach the prime minister and the minister – and the government fails to respond, I am left with no recourse. Then you take the last resort left for most citizens, which is approach the supreme court and file a PIL, which is what I did. This is not the first time that I have had to use this approach. I have done it in the past as well.
How do you view Section 69A, which deals with the centre’s power to block content?
I do believe the government has to have the powers to intervene when the internet is being misused, as in many cases involving pornography, cyber-bullying/stalking, and incitement. However, these powers must have fetters and must also be carefully used; which is what the supreme court has said in its observation of section 69A.
In 2014, Facebook restricted access to more than 10,000 pieces of information, the highest anywhere in the world, in response to requests from the government. Do you see this as challenge to free speech or an exercise of sovereign power to ensure security?
The high number of requests for content take-down in India is indeed worrying. However, without ensuring the details and exact nature of these take-downs, it would be very difficult to comment. If a large majority of these have to do with real crimes/misuse of the internet then this could be characterised as a legitimate exercise of government power. However, if many of these fall under the category of discretionary/ad hoc take-downs, these could be seen as a legitimate threat to free speech and expression.
(The interview appears in the April 16-30, 2015, issue)
Meet Shreya Singhal, one of the petitioners whose PIL led to the scrapping of Section 66A