Govindacharya PIL Update: Freedom Of Speech And Expression Includes Freedom To Access Social Media, Argues Facebook

Facebook has argued that limiting access to social media can limit an individual's freedom of speech and expression, as the social network’s counter-affidavit to Govindacharya's PIL in the Delhi High Court

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Facebook has argued that limiting access to social media can limit an individual’s freedom of speech and expression, reports the Times of India, as the social network’s counter-affidavit to the PIL in the Delhi High Court. The PIL – filed this April by a former BJP ideologue and RSS patron KN Govindacharya – focussed on the concerns related to minors accessing Facebook, among other issues involving social networking sites.

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Citing the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council that declared access to the internet as a human right last year, Facebook argued in its counter-affidavit that access to social media is also a human right.

The Internet is increasingly becoming a platform for citizens including minors to interact and voice their opinions and, therefore, a meaningful interpretation of the right to freedom of speech and expression would include the freedom to access social media.

While access to Facebook and other social networking sites helps in overall development and social behaviour of users, including minors, the newfound argument is that under the Indian Contract Act 1872, minors cannot get into a contract and states an agreement to be void, if any of the party is a minor.

“All agreements are contracts if they are made by the free consent of parties competent to contract, for a lawful consideration and with a lawful object, and are not hereby expressly declared to be void. The agreement, if any party is minor, is void ab initio.”

However, Sunil Abraham, Director at Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society states that entering a void contract is not an offence.

Govindacharya, however, has suggested Facebook and other social networking sites to go the telecom way. He argued that, “obligation is cast upon Facebook and other social networking sites to verify the authenticity of each and every subscribers (sic) which is mandatory for Mobile companies in telecommunication sector.”

Bringing us all back to square one, the PIL seems to be headstrong on getting an age verification system on Facebook signup, which is impossible at the moment. When the need of the hour is to work on laws to protect the online safety of minors, the PIL and Facebook are seen arguing and counter-arguing on human rights, children’s act, the Contract act, etc.

The last hearing saw the Delhi High Court ask the social networking site to upload a disclaimer on its home page that children below the age of 13 years cannot open an account on it. An apparently ineffective deterrent to miscreants, the court had also asked Facebook to come up with simultaneous measures to protect the rights of Indian minors. At present, there is no Indian law on the lines of COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), a US law as per which a child below 13 is not allowed to open an account.

However, coinciding with the last hearing there was good news for our minors. Facebook had announced its collaboration with Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to bring Internet Safety Education programs for students between the age group of 13 to 17. The education programs will train children, teachers, Child safety NGOs and parents on how to reap maximum benefits from internet while not compromising on their safety and security.

Until the next hearing on Friday, we can only hope for a useful outcome; one that will inform, educate and protect our minors from being exploited on the internet.

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