Governing Speech on the Internet: From the Free Marketplace Policy to a Controlled ‘Public Sphere’

Introduction

The internet is widely thought to be unprecedented and radically different from the media which preceded it. Interestingly, the internet has been unlike other media, in that it does not have a history of being monopolised by governments. True, certain States have tried to regulate the internet in a manner which allows them to exercise an increased control over it, some others have a greater control over the internet root given the history of development of the internet, but nevertheless no one State can be said to “own” the internet in any jurisdiction, in the manner of telephone or broadcast monopolies. Internet as it stands now, at its essence, is a largely private of networks connecting privately-owned, and occasionally publicly-funded platforms.

This feature of the internet poses an interesting problem when one tries to think about speech. In law and policymaking, an important question remains: Should internet be treated as the marketplace of privately managed avenues for speech, or should speech on the internet be treated within the bigger concept of the public sphere? Moreover, how are law and policy in India currently disposed towards speech on the internet? In the present essay, I hope to discuss some of these issues by looking at the judgement in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India [1], which was pronounced by the Supreme Court of India in March 2015. The judgement is most widely recognised as a culmination of several challenges to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which criminalised a wide range of speech on the internet on the grounds of very broad terms like “grossly offensive”, “causing annoyance” and “inconvenience, danger, and obstruction.” Section 66A was challenged along with Sections 69A and 79 of the Act, which lay down the rules for blocking of content on the internet, and for intermediary liability and responsibility to take down internet content, respectively. This challenge was made on grounds of being in violation of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and Right to Equality guaranteed by the Constitution of India among others. However, while the judgement struck down Section 66A as unconstitutional, it upheld the constitutionality of the State-directed Internet blocking Rules as well as Intermediary Liability Guidelines. This may pose a paradox if one accounts for the fact that at the heart of it, all—Section 66A, Section 69A and Section 79, were actually legislations regulating speech. Then why strike one down and uphold others? To seek an answer in the present essay, I broadly look at the philosophical origins of regulation of speech on the internet. Two theories in philosophy—John Stuart Mill’s The Marketplace of Ideas and Jurgen Habermas’ Public Sphere have been very influential in liberal democratic traditions and jurisdictions in thinking about the governance of speech. Scholarly work concerning media law in other jurisdictions has also elaborated on how each of these theories can be implicitly used differently in judicial interpretations to serve different ends [2]. In this, the Marketplace of Ideas approach tends to treat speech and platforms for speech as part of the competition within a market context, whereby different kinds of ideas or speech compete with each other to find an avenue for expression. The Public Sphere approach on the other hand, treats different kinds of speech as part of a larger democratic concept of discussion and speech, whereby the aspiration is for representation of diverse kinds and sources of speech, rather than competition between them.

With the utilisation of these different underlying philosophical assumptions, legal implications can be so vastly different. And when that happens, it becomes essential to trace the process of how these philosophical approaches themselves work in legal argumentation. For these reasons, it becomes critical to probe the thinking in Shreya Singhal judgement to understand which philosophical attitude to speech it actually inheres: the Marketplace of Ideas conception, or the Public Sphere approach? I argue in this essay that while traces of both the Marketplace of Ideas and the Public Sphere approach are present in Shreya Singhal, neither of these philosophies actually govern the rationale of the judgement. An analysis of Shreya Singhal along with the judgement in Cricket Association of Bengal (1995) [3] which it refers to, shows that it is in fact, a third philosophy, rooted in the impulse of colonial control, which gives Shreya Singhal its philosophical consistency.

 

The Marketplace of Ideas in Shreya Singhal

The judgement in Shreya Singhal actually employs the idea of the marketplace in its approach to discuss the implications of Section 66A. It begins by referring to the 2010 Supreme Court judgement of S. Khushboo v. Kanniamal and Anr [4] which had spoken about the concept of the marketplace of ideas, and how employing it is essential to safeguard “unpopular speech” under the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression in the Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The Court marks out this reference to the marketplace of ideas, tracing this concept back to the 1919 American judgement of Abrams v. United States [5]. The Supreme Court states, talking about the Khushboo case:

 

This last judgement is important in that it refers to the “market place of ideas” concept that has permeated American Law. This was put in the felicitous words of Justice Holmes in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States, 250 US 616 (1919), thus: “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas-that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.” (para 11)

The Supreme Court judgement goes onto trace the history of Marketplace of Ideas in American jurisprudence, and understand its place within the Indian Constitution. The Court holds:

This leads us to a discussion of what is the content of the expression “freedom of speech and expression”. There are three concepts which are fundamental in understanding the reach of this most basic of human rights. The first is discussion, the second is advocacy, and the third is incitement. Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement that Article 19(2) kicks in. (para 13)

The Marketplace of Ideas then becomes the philosophical tenet which pivots the judgement around its unique jurisprudential concept: the distinction between discussion, advocacy and incitement. This conception of the marketplace holds that State interference in speech on the internet has to be kept off as long as the condition of such speech being incitement is not fulfilled. In a way, this is a hands-off approach to the governance of speech which is solidified in the Court’s declaration of the unconstitutionality of Section 66A. The Court refers to the American judgement of Reno, Attorney General of United States v. American Civil Liberties Union [6] to bring this logic to speech on the internet as well. Citing the district court judgement in this case, it holds:

[I]t is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country – and indeed the world – as yet seen. The plaintiffs in these actions correctly describe the ‘democratizing’ effects of Internet communication: individual citizens of limited means can speak to a worldwide audience on issues of concern to them. Federalists and Anti-federalists may debate the structure of their government nightly, but these debates occur in newsgroups or chat rooms rather than in pamphlets. Modern-day Luthers still post their theses, but to electronic bulletins boards rather than the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche. More mundane (but from a constitutional perspective, equally important) dialogue occurs between aspiring artists, or French cooks, or dog lovers, or fly fishermen. 929 F. Supp. At 881. (at page 425) (para 60)

Shreya Singhal’s striking down of 66A then becomes founded in the idea that the State need not interfere in what kind of speech is made in the marketplace of the internet, as long as such speech does not amount to incitement. In a particular sphere of speech which is “not incitement” then, the logic of the Marketplace of Ideas approach seems to work in the Shreya Singhal judgement.

 

Recognition of the Limitations of the Marketplace of Ideas and a Move towards Public Sphere

One would then surmise that the use of the Marketplace of Ideas approach is what makes Shreya Singhal such a pro-freedom of speech pronouncement. But interestingly, the judgement also cites the matter of The Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting v. Cricket Association of Bengal and Anr [3] which has been remarkable for outlining the limitations of the marketplace in the governance and production of a diversity of opinions and sources in speech. The Cricket Association of Bengal case was brought forth before the Supreme Court in 1995, after the liberalisation regime in media, to challenge the constitutionality of preventing a private broadcaster to use Indian airwaves in order to exclusively broadcast a cricket match.

The Court, while holding that there was no such exclusive right inhering in a private broadcaster since airwaves had to be allocated and used in public interest, also held that the limitations on a private broadcaster’s right to broadcast also could not extend beyond Article 19(2). In doing so, the Court recognises that the marketplace in a free and competitive system may not always be sufficient enough to make use of the media to generate and represent speech which is in the democratic public interest of discussion and advocacy. Shreya Singhal cites this portion of the judgement in support of its own rationale of striking down Section 66A. It holds:

The right to use the airwaves and the content of the programmes, therefore, needs regulation for balancing it and as well as to prevent monopoly of information and views relayed, which is a potential danger flowing from the concentration of the right to broadcast/telecast in the hands either of a central agency or of few private affluent broadcasters. That is why the need to have a central agency representative of all sections of the society free from control both of the Government and the dominant influential sections of the society. This is not disputed. But to contend that on that account the restrictions to be imposed on the right under Article 19(1)(a) should be in addition to those permissible under Article 19(2) and dictated by the use of public resources in the best interests of the society at large, is to misconceive both the content of the freedom of speech and expression and the problems posed by the element of public property in, and the alleged scarcity of, the frequencies as well as by the wider reach of the media. (para 29)

The recognition in Shreya Singhal that unregulated, the marketplace can lead to “a monopoly of information and views relayed” flowing from the hands of “either a central agency or a few private affluent broadcasters” points to the limitation of the Marketplace of Ideas approach itself. Such recognition culminated into a more participation-focused idea of what it means to live in a democracy: the idea of a Public Sphere where regulation and governance of media is done in order to expand participation of different kinds of ideas and people within public speech. The Court again cites Cricket Association of Bengal in this regard to state:

When, however, there are surplus or unlimited resources and the public interests so demand or in any case do not prevent telecasting, the validity of the argument based on limitation of resources disappears. It is true that to own a frequency for the purposes of broadcasting is a costly affair and even when there are surplus or unlimited frequencies, only the affluent few will own them and will be in a position to use it to subserve their own interest by manipulating news and views. That also poses a danger to the freedom of speech and expression of the have-nots by denying them the truthful information on all sides of an issue which is so necessary to form a sound view on any subject. (para 29)

In background of this, it could be said that the Marketplace of Ideas, while it forms an important part of the backbone in the striking down of Section 66A, it is not all there is to it. The idea of participation in a Public Sphere is recognised as well, and to an extent it is the barrier to participation in this Public Sphere, which enables the declaration of Section 66A as unconstitutional.

 

Public Sphere or the Marketplace? : (N)either, but a Dynamics of Control

Much of the discourse around Shreya Singhal’s discussion on Sections 69A and 79, has seen it as divorced from the discussion around Section 66A. The discussion on Section 69A and 79 in the judegment has been seen as regressive, or ambiguous, while the portion of the judgement dealing with Section 66A has been largely been pronounced progressive and liberal. It has also been argued that the discussion on Section 66A in Shreya Singhal departs from a myriad previous judgements and their approach towards the governance of free speech [7]. I would like to argue on the contrary, that there is in fact, a deep continuity in the judgement on various provisions, as well as with prior judgements on speech, as far as the approach which is taken towards the governance of speech generally, and speech on the internet, specifically, is concerned.

To understand this continuity, it is of critical importance to note how the approaches of Public Sphere and the Marketplace of Ideas are contrasted in Cricket Association of Bengal, and by reference in Shreya Singhal as well—while the former is used to justify regulation for participation of a larger public in reception of information from the media, and the latter to keep off excessive interference by the Government. Moreover, the judgement also seems to conflate the Marketplace of Ideas and the Public Sphere conceptions of speech governance when it states:

It is clear, therefore, that the petitioners are correct in saying that the public’s right to know is directly affected by Section 66A. Information of all kinds is roped in – such information may have scientific, literary or artistic value, it may refer to current events, it may be obscene or seditious. That such information may cause annoyance or inconvenience to some is how the offence is made out. It is clear that the right of the people to know – the market place of ideas – which the internet provides to persons of all kinds is what attracts Section 66A. (para 20)

One notes in the abovementioned extract that the right to know is seen to emerge from the Marketplace of Ideas rather than through participation in the Public Sphere. In light of these observations, one can then ask the question: What is really at the philosophical heart of Shreya Singhal judgement when it can employ both these approaches? One can argue that the focus of the judgement is to balance these two approaches for the governance of speech. But what is the aim of such an attempt to “balance”? Where is it really leading to? The answer may lie in analysing the rest of Shreya Singhal, including its pronouncements on Executive Rules under Section 69A and Section 79, both of which while being regressive, were upheld as constitutional.

The issue under Section 69A concerned the constitutional validity of the Blocking Rules of the internet, while that under Section 79 concerned the liability of intermediaries on the internet. What is interesting is that the Court in its analysis of Rules under both these sections does not go into the grounds which have been prescribed for the blocking of websites, or for pinning intermediary liability. Commenting on the Rules under Section 69A, the judgement holds:

Merely because certain additional safeguards such as those found in Section 95 and 96 CrPC are not available does not make the Rules constitutionally infirm. We are of the view that the Rules are not constitutionally infirm in any manner. (para 111)

Additionally it places emphasis on the premise the satisfaction of the Central Government that it is necessary to block a website, is a valuable assumption to proceed with the blocking of such website within the tenet of Article 19(2). It holds:

It will be noticed that Section 69A unlike Section 66A is a narrowly drawn provision with several safeguards. First and foremost, blocking can only be resorted to where the Central Government is satisfied that it is necessary so to do. (para 109)

Similarly, for the Rules under Section 79, the Court strikes down the premise that private censorship of internet content based on the judgement of intermediaries is constitutionally permissible. (see para 117) However, it upholds constitutionality of removal of content by an intermediary upon knowledge of a court order to this effect, as well as knowledge of notification by the appropriate government. It states:

Section 79(3)(b) has to be read down to mean that the intermediary upon receiving actual knowledge that a court order has been passed asking it to expeditiously remove or disable access to certain material must then fail to expeditiously remove or disable access to that material. This is for the reason that otherwise it would be very difficult for intermediaries like Google, Facebook etc. to act when millions of requests are made and the intermediary is then to judge as to which of such requests are legitimate and which are not. We have been informed that in other countries worldwide this view has gained acceptance, Argentina being in the forefront. Also, the Court order and/or the notification by the appropriate Government or its agency must strictly conform to the subject matters laid down in Article 19(2). (para 117)

In this manner while the power of speech regulation is taken away from private intermediaries existing in the Marketplace of Ideas, it is restored within the organs of the State—the Judiciary and the Executive. This may not necessarily be repressive, as long as these powers of regulations are used to actually expand the Public Sphere, rather than limiting or controlling it. But the architecture of the regulations under both Sections 69A, and 79 suggest that they have been designed for control, rather than promoting discussion in the Public Sphere, as is evident from the strong censorship models they employ.

Such type of speech regulation aimed at creating a State-controlled “Public Sphere” has a long history: It has been additionally opined that the First Amendment to the Constitution which expanded the grounds under Article 19(2) embodies this colonial continuity within the Constitution framework itself [8]. Eminent lawyer, Rajeev Dhavan has analysed the colonial history of laws governing speech in India to observe continuity from the administration then, to the post-independence orientation of speech laws, to point out that an inherent distrust of the media has always existed in the legal structure, be it before or after the Indian Constitution. He traces such form of legal structure to a desire to control, rather than enable the “public” rooted in the context of colonial rather than democratic pressures [9].

This trend also links back to what happens in the case of Cricket Association of Bengal which is cited in support of the striking down of Section 66A in Shreya Singhal. In Cricket Association of Bengal, while there is a recognition of the limitations of Marketplace of Ideas in how it can concentrate participation in democratic discussions only to the hands of those with adequate purchasing power,9 it also fails to amend this through a process of greater participation and representation of diverse public on media. What it broadly does instead is conflate the public to the State, holding that it is only through State-administered public broadcasting that greater participation and representation of diverse public on media can happen. Accordingly, Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy in his judgement states:

Public good lies in ensuring plurality of opinions, views and ideas and that would scarcely be served by private broadcasters, who would be and who are bound to be actuated by profit motive. There is a far greater likelihood of these private broadcasters indulging in misinformation, disinformation and manipulation of news and views than the government-controlled media, which is at least subject to public and parliamentary scrutiny. (para 181, emphasis added)

Such architecture of Government regulation in the governance of speech, visible both in Cricket Association of Bengal, and by extension in the 66A discussion in Shreya Singhal, but also in the Sections 69A and 79 discussion in the latter judgement, aspires not at expanding and creating a Habermasian Public Sphere of unlimited lively discussion, but rather, a pre-defined, controlled sphere of the “public” which behaves in congruence with the interests of the State. While on the surface it may seem to recognise the limits of the Marketplace of Ideas approach in speech governance and aim for reform of the same, in the bigger scheme of things, the criticism of the marketplace is really directed towards putting more control of public speech in the hands of the State machinery [9].

In such a background of the control trend, even a judgement like Shreya Singhal with such a progressive outcome, appears like a flash in the pan. It might allow for some seemingly liberal advancements in free speech, but it does so only within the larger structure of control mechanisms created for speech ingrained within a pre-independence, undemocratic form of governance which was disrespectful of an independent Public Sphere. The question which then needs to be asked is this: While judgements like Shreya Singhal strike down the really repressive, do they actually bring about a structural change in legal assumptions about public speech? Or is the same colonial desire of control which is permeating the most progressive pronouncements of our jurisdiction? Is it moving towards a participatory, diverse and independent Public Sphere, or something which appears close enough to free discussion, but really is carefully monitored to produced “socially relevant” content, whereby what is relevant is defined through a complicated State apparatus? As our speech laws move to the Internet Age, these are some questions we must ask if the hope for the law is to enable involved, democratic citizenry, rather than a colonial-flavoured Internet public.

 

References

[1] Judgement accessed from http://supremecourtofindia.nic.in/FileServer/2015-03-24_1427183283.pdf.

[2] Stein, Laura. 2006. Speech rights in America: The First Amendment, Democracy, and the Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Judgement accessed from http://indiankanoon.org/doc/539407/.

[4] Judgement accessed from http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1327342/.

[5] 250 US 616 (1919).

[6] 521 U.S. 844 (1997).

[7] Bhatia, Gautam. 2015. At the Heart of the Landmark 66A Ruling: The Crucial Distinction between Advocacy and Incitement. Scroll. March 25. Accessed from http://scroll.in/article/716034/at-the-heart-of-the-landmark-66a-ruling-the-crucial-distinction-between-advocacy-and-incitement.

[8] See: Liang, Lawrence. 2011. Reasonable Restrictions and Unreasonable Speech. InfoChange. Accessed fromhttp://infochangeindia.org/agenda/freedom-of-expression/reasonable-restrictions-and-unreasonable-speech.html. Also see: Acharya, Bhairav. 2015. Free Speech Policy in India: Community, Custom, Censorship, and the Future of Internet Regulation. May 06. Accessed from http://notacoda.net/2015/05/06/free-speech-policy-in-india-community-custom-censorship-and-the-future-of-internet-regulation/.

[9] Dhavan, Rajeev. 2009. Moral Consensus in a Law and Order Society. In Aravind Rajagopal (ed.), The Indian Public Sphere. Oxford University Press. Pp. 92-93.

[10] See the discussion in the previous section of this essay.

 

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