Given how new media such as social networking sites, direct-messaging apps, etc, are being abused—not just the Isis/sympathisers-linked Twitter accounts, but also the alleged use of WhatsApp to summon a lynch-mob in the JNU sedition controversy is evidence of this—the vacuum left by striking down of Section 66A of India’s IT Act is being acutely felt. Policing and intelligence authorities insist there is a need for a stronger legal root for action against the abuse of digital media even as civil society members and activists say the existing laws offer enough curbs and punitive measures. Keeping in mind Section 66A’s ambiguity, which led to the rampant, sometimes politically-motivated abuse of the provision by the authorities and gave sweeping powers to the police, the government has sought to bring in a milder form of the provision through an amendment to the IT Act.
The proposed provision, as per a news report, will specifically apply to “terror and serious law & order” threats and, in general, to online crimes such as hoaxes, cheating and voyeurism, while curtailing (relative to Section 66A) the power vested in authorities, including putting a threshold on the rank of the officials who can order filing of cases and arrests. While it may serve the purpose of the administration, it will remain a double-edged sword, given the interpretation of what constitutes a “serious law & order” threat can be very subjective. Already, a Union government-constituted panel with representation of central intelligence and investigative agencies has recommended widening the ambit of the law by including provisions on, among other things, spoofing, and allowing police personnel below the rank of inspector to conduct investigations. Besides, once the law is brought in, there will be enough room for inclusion of more draconian provisions through the legislative route. The government must tread carefully on this; otherwise, it will be a short walk to the same mess that Section 66A created.