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Govt tweaks enforcement of IT Act after spate of arrests

by Prasad Krishna last modified Nov 30, 2012 08:27 AM
The government on Thursday tweaked the law to make it tougher for citizens to be arrested for online comments that are deemed offensive after recent arrests came in for heavy criticism by Internet activists, the media and other groups.
Govt tweaks enforcement of IT Act after spate of arrests

A file photo of Union communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal. The Union government is expected to issue guidelines to states with respect to the compliance of the new enforcement rules soon. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint


Surabhi Agarwal's article was published in LiveMint on November 29, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.


This took place just before the Supreme Court was to hear a public interest litigation seeking an amendment to the Information Technology (IT) Act.

Complaints under the controversial Section 66A of the IT Act, which criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” online or electronically, can be registered only with the permission of an officer of or above the rank of deputy commissioner of police, and inspector general in metro cities, said a senior government official.

The government, however, has not amended the terms in the section that are said to be vague and subject to interpretation.

The public interest litigation against Section 66A filed by student Shreya Singhal came up in chief justice Altamas Kabir’s court on Thursday. The matter will be heard on Friday.

Two girls near Mumbai were arrested last week for criticizing on Facebook the shutdown in the city for Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s funeral. Earlier in November, a businessman in Puducherry was arrested for comments made on Twitter against finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram.

According to people present at the meeting of the cyber regulatory advisory committee on Thursday, the Union government will issue guidelines to states with respect to the compliance of the new enforcement rules soon. The people didn’t want to be named. An official said the move was not related to the case.

Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society think tank, said that while the change in the law is a step in the right direction and will eliminate a lot of frivolous complaints, more needs to be done to make the legislation specific.

Chief justice Kabir said the apex court was considering taking suo motu cognisance of recent incidents.

Singhal contended in her plea that “the phraseology of section 66A of the IT Act, 2000, is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse and, hence, falls foul of Article 14, 19 (1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution.”

She submitted that “unless there is judicial sanction as a prerequisite to the setting into motion the criminal law with respect to freedom of speech and expression, the law as it stands is highly susceptible to abuse and for muzzling free speech in the country.”

The PIL was argued by Mukul Rohatgi, who said in his opening remarks that Section 66A was vague. Terms such as “offensive” and “annoyance” should be clearly defined as the section is part of criminal law, he said.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, who was also present during the hearing, said India guaranteed the right to “annoy” and there was no need to have a separate law.

Salve, who is in the process of filing an intervention on behalf of some technology companies, added that the section needed to be narrowed to specifically cater to private messages sent electronically and not social media communications.

He said the existing law of defamation should suffice and could be extended to include electronic communications. According to a lawyer who is part of the team representing Singhal, the petition also demanded that the law be made non-cognisable so that the police can’t make an arrest without an order from a magistrate.

“There has been a lot of misuse and abuse of the law recently and we want it to be struck down absolutely and also the court to issue guidelines,” he said.

Apart from the incident at Palghar in Thane district involving the two girls, Singhal’s PIL referred to an April incident in which a professor of chemistry from Jadavpur University in West Bengal, Ambikesh Mahapatra, was arrested for posting a cartoon concerning chief minister Mamata Banerjee on a social networking site.

She also referred to the Puducherry case as well as the May arrests of two Air India Ltd employees, V. Jaganatharao and Mayank Sharma, by the Mumbai Police under the IT Act for posting content on Facebook and Orkut against a trade union leader and some politicians.

Singhal has sought guidelines from the apex court to “reconcile Section 41 and 156 (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) with Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution” and that offences under the Indian Penal Code and any other legislation, if they involve the freedom of speech and expression, be treated as a non-cognizable offences for the purposes of Sections 41 and 156 (1).

Section 41 of CPC empowers the police to arrest any person without an order from a magistrate and without a warrant in the event that the offence involved is a cognizable offence. Section 156 (1) empowers the investigation by the police into a cognizable offence without an order from a magistrate.

The government official present at the cyber regulatory advisory committee said the expressions used in Section 66A had been taken from different statutes around the world, including the UK and the US.

“There has been a broad consensus that the parameters of the law concerned might be in order but from a procedural standpoint there might be difficulty,” the official said.

Prakash said that while some of the terms in the section may be taken from legislation overseas, the penalty imposed under the Indian law is far more stringent at three years of imprisonment than, for instance, six months under the UK law. “Criminal offences can’t be put at the same level as something which causes insult.”

The cyber regulatory advisory committee meeting was attended by minister for communications and information technolgy Kapil Sibal, and secretaries of the department of telecommunications and information technology, besides representatives of technology companies such as Google and Facebook, industry associations and civil society.

The official also said that the situation will be reviewed every three to four months based on “ground realities”.

A government official said on condition of anonymity that the decision to revive the cyber regulatory advisory committee had been taken at a meeting in August. Section 66A was put on the agenda since it was the subject of much debate, he said. The meeting, however, was not a pre-emptive measure ahead of the PIL that was taken up in the Supreme Court. The official also said that the government will spell out its position in court in favour of the legislation.

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