On Campus

Clear violation of Fundamental Rights

| Updated on January 06, 2013

A human chain protest at Besant Nagar beach in Chennai recently was planned and coordinated by members of the Tamil Nadu Free Software Foundation (TNFSF), in the wake of recent arrests under Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act.

“The Act infringes upon the Fundamental Rights – freedom of speech and expression – of every Netizen,” said Sibi Kanagaraj, organiser of the protest.

Referring to the arrest of two girls in Mumbai for posting on the bandh in connection with Bal Thackeray’s funeral, Yashwanth, a student of IIT-Chennai, said, “Arresting a person for liking a status message in Facebook is atrocious!”

One of the most talked about cases in recent times is that of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi arrested on sedition charges for allegedly insulting the national symbols. The case gained media attention and was subsequently dropped due to pressure from the court and civil society.

Section 66(A) of the IT Act covers any information which is grossly offensive or menacing, causes annoyance or hatred, and is sent by means of a computer resource or communication device. It is a bailable offence with a jail term of up to three years with a penalty.

“The wording of the law is broad and ambiguous. Anything that is written can qualify as an offence,” says Ki Anbarasan, member of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ Association.

In light of the controversial arrests, new operational guidelines were released. They state that cases can be registered against the IT Act by a police officer of no less a rank than Deputy General of Police. In metros, the approval should come from the Inspector General of Police.

But Alagunambi Welkin felt the changes were cosmetic. Kerala-based cyber law specialist and advocate Shojan Jacob challenged the constitutional validity of the rules defined under the IT Act through a writ petition filed in the Kerala High Court. He called them ‘unreasonable’, ‘illegal’, ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unconstitutional’.

In his petition, he quoted internet censorship policies in other countries, such as UAE and Saudi Arabia. It was surprising to know that these countries maintain a clear transparency policy while censoring the internet.

The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) in Saudi Arabia regulates internet service providers (ISPs) and is responsible for filtering the online information posted by the users. If there is any indication of malicious content, the commission blocks the Web site and displays the reason for this, and service which has been blocked. A screenshot of the information can be used as an exhibit in court by the user to get a fair trial.

This seldom happens in India. There are designated officers to monitor the content on the blogs and Web sites. They form part of the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-India).

According to the rules, a user should be notified well in advance before content is censored. But, this is not followed. Most of the content is taken down secretly and the owner is not told the reason for the censorship nor does he/she get a copy of the original article. The right to judicial remedy is absent because there is no provision in the rules to file an appeal in court.

Shreya Singhal, a law student, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) questioning the loopholes of the IT Act. She contended that “the phraseology of the section 66(A) 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 Indian Constitution.”

At the moment the legal issues in the matter are being studied at the behest of the Supreme Court. So now, only time will whether a simple ‘like’ on Facebook can send you to jail or not.

(Venkat did Electronics and Communication Engineering at the Vignans Institute of Information Technology, Visakhapatnam before studying at ACJ, Chennai.)

Published on January 06, 2013

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