The alacrity with which the enforcers of law are able to put ordinary netizens behind bars for slighting the egos of politicians with their harmless comments has raised the ire of the Supreme Court, also reveals the governments utter incompetence in dealing with a powerful and open medium like the internet.
A vaguely worded sentence in the Information Technology Act under Section 66A, which criminalises any comments made online or electronically causing annoyance or inconvenience, has come under very heavy criticism, forcing the government to tweak this regulation by stating that only a high ranking police officer or government official will be allowed enforce this law. Section 66A was just another innocuous clause under the IT Act but its draconian impact was seen following the immediate arrest by the Maharashtra police citing this law of two young women for posting certain online comments on Mumbai shutting down after the death of the Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray.
The powers that be should realise that internet as a medium is here to stay for a very long time and would benefit a larger section of the society from the time one embraces it wholeheartedly rather than trying to curb its influence. Given the demographics of the country, with majority of the population below the age of 27, internet has become the most preferred medium for this class of people in expressing their thoughts and communication. This anger among younger population is also amply reflected in the public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court against Section 66 of the IT Act by 21-year-old Shreya Singhal.
Responding to the notices issued by the Supreme Court, Attorney General Goolam E Vahanvati admitted that the arrests were wrong but said Section 66 (A) of the IT Act need not be scrapped.
Similar such high handedness, like the Mumbai incident, was also seen when so called critical postings were made on the internet against the governments in West Bengal, Delhi and Puducherry. These actions actually reveal high strung nature of these very public personalities against online criticism and what is surprising is that there are more virulent content in other forms of media like print and television. Given the ever increasing reach of the internet, it would be prudent on the part of the government to devote their time and attention in dealing with issues which have more damaging consequences like content preaching communal hatred, anti-nation seditious materials or child pornography.
The fact that some information is grossly offensive or that it causes annoyance or inconvenience while being known to be false (s.66A(c)) cannot be a reason for curbing the freedom of speech unless it is directly related to decency or morality, public order, or defamation, according to a blog post by Pranesh Prakash, policy director, The Centre for Internet and Society.
This would not mean that any individual should have the complete freedom in expressing their thoughts which might actually cause hurt to others. A sense of balance has to be evolved which is in strict compliance with the guiding principles of the Constitution of India and other acts which determine criminal offence. This would go a long way in realising the true potential of the internet in India.