Archive for freedom of speech

Social Media Platforms: A Theater for Exercising Free Speech

Guest contributor Maanya Vaidyanathan is the Policy and Engagement Manager at The Dialogue, a tech policy think-tank in India. She specialises in International Law, Gender Policies, Intermediary Liabilities and Foreign Policy. 

Guest contributor Kazim Rizvi is a Public-Policy Policy Entrepreneur and Founder of The Dialogue, a tech policy think-tank in India. Kazim is one of the leading voices in India’s tech policy discourse.

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

― John Milton, Areopagitica

Freedom of speech and expression gives individuals the right to freely express themselves without the fear of being reprimanded. This right, however, is neither absolute nor devoid of responsibility. It is a complex right that comes with reasonable restrictions, as given in Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19(2) of the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights provide for freedom of speech and expression in any medium, including online media. In 2020, the Supreme Court of India guaranteed this right in the online world in a landmark judgment on the internet shutdowns in Kashmir. 

The court ruled that freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on any trade or business using the internet, is constitutionally protected and the restrictions on this freedom must be imposed under the terms stated under Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Online platforms act as vital communication tools which dominate our everyday lives and act as a medium for spreading and gathering news. Over the last few years, the online world has allowed people to create their own communities and find the support, encouragement and courage that they may not find elsewhere. Additionally, the virtual space has given a lot of underrepresented sections of society an identity and a platform to express themselves freely, without the fear of judgment. The internet and its intermediaries play a pivotal role in allowing people from all over the world to connect, gather information and create a sense of belonging.

Every commodity has the potential for misuse, and the internet is no exception. Along with the safe spaces that have been created online, the online world has become a breeding ground for hate speech and fake news. 

In order to tackle the growing menace in the online space, the Government of India introduced the draft amendment to the 2018 guidelines under the Information Technology Act. The changes in the amended guidelines prescribe certain conditions for content hosting platforms to seek protection for third-party content. The aim of the guidelines is to reduce the flow of unwanted and controversial content on social media platforms by mandating ‘automated filters’ to mechanically take content off the platforms and trace the original author to hold them accountable. This step, however, is not conducive with the spirit of free speech. The amended guidelines fail to define subjective phrases that warrant removal of content – such as “decency” and “morality”- which gives way to a take-down process that is arbitrary and inconsistent.

The amended rules also risk misinterpretation as the drafters have not identified any proposed metrics to determine how such online content may harm public safety and critical information infrastructure. This shows how the guidelines are contrary to the landmark ruling The Supreme Court gave in the Shreya Singhal judgment in 2015.

Additionally, the revised guidelines compromise the practice of end-to-end encryption, which will give way to widespread government censorship and surveillance.  End-to-end encryption is a system of communication where the only people who can read the messages are the people communicating. Through this system, for intermediaries to monitor content, they would have to know what the content is, which may threaten users’ privacy along with their right to free speech.

The amended guidelines lead to the violation of an individual’s right to privacy, right to equality (allowed under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution) and most importantly, the right to free speech. These three rights are fundamental human rights, awarded to each individual through national and international legislation. The internet has the power to reach the masses and allows everyone the opportunity to have a voice and call out instances of injustice and mistreatment that they may witness. Through social media platforms, citizens across the world can unite despite territorial limitations. Hate speech makes the internet a toxic environment to navigate, while fake news makes it an unreliable environment. However, censoring and controlling the speech of every user will not curb these nuisances. 

Policies are required to take into consideration the interests of all people, either individually or collectively. What is therefore desirable is regulation of social media, not its censorship. Social media platforms need to continue to remain theaters for safely exercising the right to free speech.

Fait Accompli: Singapore Again Upholds Section 377A Criminalising Homosexuality

Co-authored by guest contributors Paras Ahuja and Rahul Garg. 

Paras Ahuja is an undergraduate student pursuing law at the National Law University, Jodhpur. Her research interests include human rights, constitutional law and feminism. 

Rahul Garg is an undergraduate student pursuing law at the National Law University, Jodhpur. His research interests include gender studies, human rights and international humanitarian law.

On 30th March, 2020, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore in Ong Ming Johnson v. Attorney-General upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code, 1871. Section 377A punishes any male person who commits an act of “gross indecency” with another male person, whether in public or in private. The judgement marks itself as a regressive touchpoint in Singapore’s progression towards inclusiveness and equality. 

Article 14(1) (a) of the Constitution of Singapore guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression. The petitioners in this case contended that Section 377A derogated this right by failing to recognize one’s sexual orientation to be a part of the term “expression” within Article 14. While interpreting the term “expression,” the court applied the rule of “ejusdem-generis”. The rule postulates that wherever there is an enumeration of a list of specific things followed by a generic term, the genus term (here, “expression”) should be interpreted in context of the specie term(s) (here, “speech”) and not in its widest possible construction. The court, upon application of this rule, observed that “expression” is therefore restricted only to verbal “speech” and excludes sexual identity of a person. It, therefore, held that the right to freedom of expression is encompassed within the right to freedom of speech, reducing the term “and expression” to redundancy and surplusage. 

We argue that that is an erroneous application of ejusdem-generis. It is settled law that ejusdem-generis should not be applied in a way that makes the usage of the genus term redundant in a provision. This is a fundamental principle of statutory interpretation pointed out in case laws citing Sutherland. The Singaporean court’s interpretation, on the other hand, renders the term “expression” otiose and goes against the principle that legislature doesn’t use words in vain. 

Additionally, the court relied on the marginal note of Article 14 [i.e. “Freedom of speech”, assembly and association] to ascertain the scope of the provision in order to buttress its holding that “expression” is subsumed within “speech”, since the marginal note mentioned only “speech”. This reliance conflicts with the Singapore Supreme Court’s former observation in the case of Ezion Holdings Ltd v Teras Cargo Transport Pte Ltd, where marginal notes were held to be non-exhaustive and imprecise and therefore, not determinative enough of the true contents of a provision. 

The court, furthermore, conveniently maneuvered its way to protect Section 377A from the violation of right to life and personal liberty, enshrined under Article 9(1) of the Constitution. In refusing to include the protection of “homosexual-identity” within the scope of personal liberty, the court aligns its reasoning by saying that the right to personal liberty was not an absolute one, but was qualified. It stated that “unenumerated rights were not capable of specific protection.” However, this seems particularly faulty, as “personal liberty” by itself is an abstract right; it is a collection of rights involving several aspects of a person’s life and doesn’t guarantee any specific individual right singularly. In this context, the exclusion of “unenumerated rights” from the scope of personal liberty will leave it hollow and subject to arbitrary discretion as to its scope. 

In its reasoning, the court also observed that Section 377A does not criminalise a male homosexual for his “homosexual orientation”, but only for the actus reus consisting of performance of a homosexual activity with another man. The court additionally stated that a heterosexual man would be equally liable if he were to commit a homosexual act. This distinction between criminalising the “state of homosexuality” and the conduct, that is, the “homosexual act” is farcical and theoretical. This distinction fails as it renders the manifestation of the sexual identity impractical by punishing the conduct. Identifying the flaw in such an argument, the US Supreme Court in the case of Lawrence v. Texas noted that when the act that is criminalised is so closely correlated with the “state-of-being-homosexual”, it resultantly has the effect of defining the very identity as criminal. 

The court, in its subtlety, eschewed from answering the question of whether or not the sexual orientation of a person is an immutable factor. The question of immutability was deemed central by the court since the granting of the right to life and personal liberty in this case was considered to be contingent on the recognition of sexual orientation as immutable. However, frustrated with overwhelming scientific evidence from both sides in this regard, the court eventually declared this question outside the realm of legal discussion, belonging rather to the area of scientific controversy. We argue that there is no relevance of a conclusive determination on the aspect of immutability to the question of recognition of the fundamental rights. Either way, there is vacuity in the reasoning of the court as to why a chosen sexual orientation should not be entitled to the same constitutional protection in as much as an immutable sexual orientation would be, along the “born-with-it”/“it-is-my-choice” spectrum. Therefore, regardless of homosexuality falling anywhere between this immutability/choice spectrum, the larger human rights violation relates to the resultant stigma associated with criminalization. The judgment ultimately legitimises an assumed sense of normalcy which according to the court, is only heterosexuality. At the same time, it portrays homosexuality as an anomaly not protected by fundamental rights. 

The judgement, therefore, observes a false understanding of various provisions and judicial tools of interpretation, seemingly to achieve a predestined holding. The bench microcosmically imposes its own ideas of heteronormativity on the Singaporean society, which is not only upsetting, but also mistaken.