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Netizens cry murder, log off social groups

- Annoying someone online a bigger crime than causing death by negligence

New Delhi, Nov. 25: Supriya Agarwal and her friends have decided to get off Facebook and Twitter. Cops and politicians, says the Delhi teen, have turned a “fun thing” into a “bore”.

And, fraught with peril too: annoying anyone online could send you to jail for three years under the Information Technology Act that governs Internet communication.

This is more than the punishment for causing death by negligence under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code — two years.

Legal experts and advocates of free speech have lashed out at India’s controversial IT laws, particularly Section 66A, after the arrest of two Mumbai women who criticised the city’s shutdown following Bal Thackeray’s death earlier this month.

Section 66A makes it a crime for anyone to digitally send information that is “grossly offensive” or has “menacing character” or which causes anyone “annoyance” or “inconvenience”.

The two women, both college students, were booked under this section for spreading “statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes” after one complained about the city-wide strike and the other “liked” her statement. Both were later freed on bail.

This was also the section under which a professor in Bengal was arrested for a cartoon on Mamata Banerjee earlier this year.

At least one cyber law expert said the act, in its present form, was like a “loose cannon”.

“Both the law and the enforcement agencies are at fault here. One can be arrested for writing the lamest of things,” said Supreme Court lawyer Pavan Duggal.

“My suggestion to all users would be, be careful about what they write, abstain from posting anything that can be interpreted as defamatory without any proof.”

But Supriya and her friends would rather “get off” Facebook and Twitter than upload posts that sound like news reports.

“I have read and heard everything that is being said about the arrests of the two Mumbai women. My friends and I have decided officially to get off FB and Twitter. This isn’t because we are scared, it is because these politicians and cops have turned a fun thing into a bore,” she said. “What is the fun in making FB and Twitter sound like some serious news reports?”

Critics say Section 66A, added as an amendment in 2008, violates the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. While this right is limited by “reasonable restrictions”, the IT law, they say, goes beyond the scope of such restrictions and curbs legitimate opinion.

Legal experts said the law’s problems could be partly because of its hasty conception.

The first version of the law, enacted in 2000, was overhauled in 2008 after the Mumbai attacks exposed the country’s vulnerabilities in cyberspace. The changed law was passed hurriedly without debate or discussion.

The experts now say there is no way the effects of the act can be curtailed unless another amendment is brought in. “The government needs to seriously relook at some of the provisions,” Pranesh Prakash, the policy director at the Center for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bangalore, said.

Duggal said the act in its present form left almost everything being transmitted online open to interpretation for everyone in the way they like. “What is annoying for me might not be so for you. So how do you decide which post is offensive and which isn’t? The law has a wide ambit of words. There is an enormous amount of discretion in its implementation. How can the police decide what is ‘grossly offensive’?”

Criminal lawyers said even if an offence was registered under the IT Act, the power to arrest is drawn from the Criminal Procedure Code which, under Section 157, clearly lays down that arrests must be made only “if necessary”.

“The law does not have a provision which says that writers of all ‘annoying’ posts are to be arrested. Each case has to be decided on merit,” said a senior lawyer who didn’t want to be named.