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14 Apr 2017

SC primacy to free speech - No Net ban on sex test information; undertaking taken on ads

TT, New Delhi, April 13: The Supreme Court today refused to ban access to information available on the Internet on sex-determination tests on the ground that it would amount to restrictions on free speech.
The court, however, today took an undertaking from Internet search engines Google, Yahoo and Microsoft pledging steps to prohibit advertisements relating to sex-determination tests, which are banned in India.
Solicitor-general Ranjit Kumar informed the apex court that the Centre has appointed nodal officers in all states and Union territories to closely monitor ads relating to pre-natal tests, direct their removal on complaints or take suo motu action.
"It (a blanket ban) might be a constitutional disaster. A citizen has a right to access the Internet. We are on a concept of pre-censorship. It is an extremely vital point. The court has to be very cautious. Free speech is extremely important. We are dealing with a virtual world," a bench of Justices Dipak Misra, A.M. Khanwilkar and M. Shantanagoudar said while hearing a petition filed by social activist Sabu Mathew George.
The bench made the oral observation while declining to impose a blanket ban on search materials relating to sex-determination tests as it would impinge upon the rights of people seeking to do research or other work on the subject.
Sex-determination tests are illegal in India under the Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994.
Under Section 22 of the Act, those putting out advertisements on such tests and those displaying them can be punished with three years' imprisonment.
George, also a doctor, had filed the petition in 2008, drawing the court's attention to what he said was a drastic decline in the female child ratio in the country despite the enactment of the 1994 Act.
His counsel Sanjay Parkeh alleged that despite the Act, ads relating to sex-determination tests were being allowed on the Internet by the search engines.
In a written order, the court said today: "At this juncture, it is necessary to state that volumes of literature under various heads come within the zone of the Internet and in this virtual world the idea that is extremely significant is 'only connect'.
"Therefore, this court has recorded the concession of the respondents (search engines) so that the sanctity of the Act is maintained and there is no grievance on any score or any count by anyone that his curiosity for his search for anything is not met with and scuttled."
Giving an example, the court said that a person searching the Internet for "Medical Tourism In India" is entitled to do so "as long as the content does not frustrate or defeat the restrictions postulated under Section 22 of the Act".
"It is made clear that there is no need on the part of anyone to infer that it creates any kind of curtailment of his right to access information, knowledge and wisdom and his freedom of expression. What is stayed is only with regard to violation of Section 22 of the Act. We may further add that freedom of expression includes the right to be informed and the right to know and the feeling of protection of expansive connectivity," the court said.

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