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POST AND BE DAMNED

Two weeks ago, S. Ravi, owner of a small plastic packaging unit in Puducherry, was rudely woken up by the police at 5am, manhandled and arrested. Reason: Ravi had posted a couple of unflattering comments about Karti Chidambaram, son of finance minister P. Chidambaram, on Twitter. He had tweeted that Chidambaram Junior “had amassed more wealth than Robert Vadra”.

Ravi was arrested under Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2008, and hauled up before a judicial magistrate who remanded him to nine days in custody. “It was then that I became really scared,” says Ravi, who is out on bail.

A casual tweeter with just 16 followers, Ravi believes he did nothing wrong. “I was using a statement that was already there on the Internet. They could have sent me a lawyer’s notice or investigated the complaint before taking action,” argues Ravi, whose Twitter following has now jumped to 2,518.

“My tweet was retweeted by 20,000 people, who dared the authorities to arrest them too,” he adds indignantly, terming Section 66A a “draconian law” with “wide scope for misuse”.

Ravi is not alone in denouncing Section 66A of the IT Act. Indeed, there is now a huge outcry against the law, with a section of legal and cyber experts saying that it is nothing but a useful tool in the hands of the powers that be to curb freedom of speech and expression online.

At the same time, there are those who believe that online abuse or defamation cannot masquerade as freedom of speech and that the law is necessary to move against those who commit this offence.

Karti Chidambaram, for one, believes that Ravi’s tweet was motivated and defamatory. “The tweeter made one tweet in 78 days. It was about me. It clearly implied that I am corrupt. That is malicious. So I preferred a complaint to the police. The law exists. I didn’t frame the law,” he says.

Section 66A of the IT Act lays down that a person can be punished with up to three years’ imprisonment if he or she sends offensive information or messages through a computer resource or communication device. The problem arises because it fails to clarify what can be termed “offensive”. For example, information that is “grossly offensive” or has “menacing character” or information disseminated for the “purpose of causing annoyance and inconvenience” are all brought under the ambit of “offensive”. This leaves the law wide open for various interpretations and abuse.

“It’s too vaguely worded,” insists M. Lenin, a lawyer advising volunteers of India Against Corruption in Chennai. “Any online statement can be declared ‘offensive’ and any tweet may be deemed ‘inconvenient’. The section has become a convenient tool for the police to harass people.”

Earlier this year, Section 66A was also invoked, among other laws, to arrest Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for forwarding an email cartoon of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Indeed, some experts go a step further and call Section 66A patently unconstitutional. Says Pranesh Prakash, policy director, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, “It’s clearly in violation of Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. The fact that some information is ‘grossly offensive’ (Section 66A) or that it causes ‘annoyance’ or ‘inconvenience’ while being known to be false (Section 66A(c)) cannot be a reason for curbing freedom of speech unless it is directly related to violating decency, morality or public order, or amounts to defamation.”

Justice A.P. Shah, a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, echoes that view. “Section 66A is very broad and loosely worded. The scope of such a law has to be restricted. Instead, it is vague and clearly violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression,” he says.

However, apologists for Section 66A argue that the law has its merits too in that it can be used to move against genuine incidents of harassment or defamation online. Take the case of Chinmayee Sripada, a popular Chennai-based playback singer. Chinmayee, who has one lakh followers on Twitter, was targeted by a group of six men who sent her lewd and threatening tweets for a period of time. Apparently, they were upset with her remarks on reservation and for not joining them in a Twitter campaign against the killing of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy.

Recently, Chinmayee complained to the police with “thousands of pages of ugliness and vulgarity” and the trolls, including a professor at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai, were identified and arrested under Section 66A.

The offending tweeters apologised to her and closed their accounts after the arrest. “I believe Section 66A belled the cat. The arrest made people realise that Twitter also demands self-regulation. In the name of freedom of speech there is zero control on platforms like Twitter. There should be some boundaries,” says Chinmayee’s mother T. Padmahasini.

Ramachandra Murthy, Ravi’s lawyer, too believes that Section 66A is a “good tool” for genuine cases of harassment. “Unfortunately, it is being misused by influential people. Still, if you are innocent the case can never hold up in court,” he reasons.

Others question the need for a separate law to deal with cases of online defamation or harassment when the Indian Penal Code already has provisions to tackle them. New Delhi-based lawyer Apar Gupta cites the examples of Section 500, 499 and 294 of the IPC which deal with defamation or committing obscene acts in public. “Section 66A only makes the burden on the accused harsher,” he adds.

While some IT experts want Section 66A scrapped, others say that it should at least be amended. “Even if the section is not struck off the statute books, the provisions in it may be read down by the courts and safeguards may be prescribed in its application,” says Gupta.

Until that happens, mistaking social media platforms for online drawing rooms where you can indulge in all kinds of freewheeling chat could be fraught with danger.