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Debate on Section 66A rages on

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 10, 2012 09:44 AM
Last week, a reputed BPO in Chennai took down its Facebook page and introduced stricter moderation for posts on its bulletin board.

Vasudha Venugopal's article was published in the Hindu on December 10, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

The measure, an official said, was aimed at avoiding any "callous remark by any employee." "We have discussions on many raging topics here, and we are just making sure the content is clean with no intended defamation."

The need to present only ‘unobjectionable content’ is just one off-shoot of a controversy that has gripped the country after at least five persons were arrested in recent months for posting their views online. But what started as an outcry by a few voices against the IT Act has now turned into a campaign against the constitutional validity of the Act itself. Last week also saw concerted protests to demand the repeal of Section 66A of the IT Act, under which most of the accused were booked. Human chains and protests were conducted in Chennai, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Guntur, Kakinada, Vijaywada, Visakhapatnam, Pune, Kozhikode and Kannur, among others.

In the past few months, the debate on the use of Section 66A in particular, and the Act in general, has gathered momentum. The arrests of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for circulating a cartoon lampooning West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee; cartoonist Aseem Trivedi; businessman Ravi Srinivasan for tweets against Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram; and the two girls in Maharashtra for criticising the bandh after Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s death have sparked popular anger.

“Public anger and media attention have been so strong that the government has been forced to retreat, which is a good first step,” says Alagunambi Welkin, president of the Free Software Foundation Tamil Nadu, which organised the protests in Chennai. "The next step would be to plug the loopholes in the IT Act. After all, this same government has declared in various international forums that it is all for promoting openness online."

Activists say that along with the increased pressure on the government, collecting information on cases of the misuse of the Act are the tasks that have to be fulfilled immediately. Human rights activist A. Marx, who has filed a public interest litigation petition against Section 66A, says the selective application of the law is very troubling. From a broader perspective though, this is also an issue of global proportions. Recently, a man in the U.K. was jailed for 18 months after he was found guilty of posting abusive messages on an online memorial. In July this year, a young Moroccan was arrested in Casablanca on the charge of posting “insulting caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook.”

As recently as Tuesday, a Shenzen resident was arrested for posting a letter online, accusing a senior village official of corruption, and last week, a man in Kent was arrested for posting an image of a burning poppy on a social network site.

However, Pranesh Prakash, policy director, Centre For Internet And Society, Bangalore, notes that the more problematic parts in India’s laws are ones that result from adaptation. India’s own adaptation of the U.K. law, for instance, considerably increases punishment from six months to three years. However, if it is any consolation, there are voices worldwide being raised on this issue. Till last week, Google’s search page had a message: "Love the free and open Internet? Tell the world’s governments to keep it that way," and a link for comments directed to the Dubai conference, which will see a wide-ranging discussions and key decisions on global internet governance.

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