Drop the clauses

A number of cases of misuse of Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act of 2008 have come to light in the past few months with the police taking highhanded action against people expressing their views in new age media like the internet.

The Supreme Court has done well to take note of these arbitrary actions on the basis of a PIL filed seeking annulment of three clauses of this section. The police in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Delhi and Puducherry have arrested people for posting messages on social network sites like Facebook. 

The arrests of two girls in Maharashtra, one of whom posted message and the other liked it,  were cancelled after a public uproar, and action was initiated against the police men who arrested them. But another youth who posted a comment about MNS chief Raj Thackeray was detained later. There have been other cases too.

The court has sent notices to the Centre and the states on the matter and said that it was planning  to take suo motu notice of the excesses under the Act. The definition of offences under Section 66A is so vague that the most innocuous messages and comments  can invite action from overzealous police men.

Anyone causing “annoyance, inconvenience, obstruction, ill will, hatred, enmity or intending to cause injury” etc can now be proceeded against under the Act. Other ambiguous words are ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘insult.’

All these words and phrases  like ‘criminal intimidation’ can be subjectively interpreted by the authorities to harass people, and even jokes can land them into trouble. A jail term of up to three years can be awarded to those who are found guilty under the clauses of this law.

The whole scheme of the provisions and the procedures to enforce them militate against the freedom of speech guaranteed to citizens under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The new age media encompasses both personal and social realms and it has expanded the frontiers of self-expression.

 To victimise people for their use of the media is to circumscribe freedom. The government has now sought to limit the damage by clarifying that only senior police officers will have the power to authorise arrests under the Act. But they can also abuse power or act under political or other pressures. The law needs to be amended thoroughly and the offending clauses dropped so that there is no scope for misuse and arbitrary action.

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