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66A ‘cut & paste job’

New Delhi, Dec. 2: The controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act has borrowed words out of context from British and American laws, according to lawyers here who are calling it a “poor cut-and-paste job”.

Section 66A, passed by Parliament in December 2008, draws on laws passed in the UK in 1988 and 2003 and the US in 1996. But some lawyers say that, unlike 66A, those foreign laws impose only reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech.

“The text of 66A seems to be the result of a cut-and-paste job done without applying the mind,” said Snehashish Ghosh, a lawyer with the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a non-government organisation in Bangalore.

Some of the language in Section 66A is taken from Britain’s Malicious Communications Act (MCA) of 1988, which begins with the words: “Any person who sends to another person....”

This provision in MCA 1988, Ghosh said, is intended to curb malicious messages from one person to another. “It does not cover a post on a social website or an electronic communication broadcast to the world.”

Section 66A has also borrowed words from Britain’s Communications Act of 2003 which, Ghosh said, is intended to prevent abuse of public communication services and does not directly deal with messages sent by individuals.

Government officials have said that 66A has also plucked language from the US Telecommunications Act of 1996.

This was a landmark legislation that overhauled America’s telecommunication law by taking into account the emergence of the Internet and changing communications technologies. Among other things, it made illegal the transmission of obscene or indecent material to minors via computers.

“Section 66A in its current form fails to define a specific category (context) as defined in the laws from where it has borrowed words,” Ghosh said. “This is what has led to its inconsistent and arbitrary applications.”

Ghosh and his colleagues say that 66A, through an “absurd” combination of borrowed and ambiguous language, curbs freedom of expression and threatens people with three years’ imprisonment for certain offences that would otherwise, under existing Indian Penal Code (IPC) provisions, draw a fine of only Rs 200.

Section 66A(b), for example, clubs together the offences of persistently repeated communications that might lead to “annoyance”, “inconvenience”, “danger”, “insult”, “injury”, “criminal intimidation”, “enmity”, “hatred”, and “ill-will”.

This is “astounding and unparalleled”, said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the CIS, who has posted an analysis of Section 66A on the NGO’s institutional blog.

“We do not have such a provision anywhere but in India’s information technology law.”

This is “akin to... providing equal punishment for calling someone a moron (insult) and threatening to kill someone (criminal intimidation),” Prakash wrote in the blog, where he has listed existing IPC provisions that can deal with the offences that 66A seeks to cover.

Lawyers have also questioned 66A’s effect of criminalising what the existing IPC would label as civil offences. For example, Prakash said, while the punishment under IPC for criminal nuisance is Rs 200, the penalty imposed by 66A is jail for up to three years.

Several sections in the IPC, they said, can effectively address offences that 66A attempts to address exclusively for electronic communications. For example, the IPC has sections for defamation (499 and 500), outraging religious sentiments (295) and obscenity (292).

“We do not require extraordinary laws when existing laws suffice,” Ghosh said.