India is a democratic country. And democracy also includes the right of freedom of speech, that is, anybody
in this country can present his/her opinion. But the recent happenings have shown that our leaders have slightly diverted from the actual meaning of democracy. This is in regard to recent attempts by Govt. agencies to tame social networks and internet freedom like the arrest of two girls after their posts and comments (on the social networking site, Facebook) against the bandh in regard to a deceased Maharashtra political icon. Their arrest had created sensation across the nation and questions on the basic freedom of speech have surfaced.
The IT Act of India
On 30th January 1997, the United Nations General Assembly had adopted a law on electronic commerce (the buying and selling of products or services through electronic systems like internet etc). Following this UN resolution, our country had passed the IT act in 2000 and was brought into effect the very same year. The IT act was amended in the year 2008. It got the Presidential assent in 2009 and was brought to effectiveness in the same year.
One of the major crimes, which, unfortunately, are on the rise in our country, is the cyber crime. With the age of technology booming in India, and more and more people getting easy access to technology and internet, there are cases where all these aspects have been misused to create havoc and disturbance in the country.
Cyber crimes can be classified into two groups:
- Computer as a target, that is, using a computer to attack other computers. Like hacking, virus attacks, etc.
- Computer as a weapon, that is, using a computer to commit real world crimes. Examples are cyber terrorism, credit card frauds, pornography etc.
To curb all these crimes and put a check to the repercussions of such crimes, the Indian government had brought into effect the IT act in the year 2009 ( as discussed above).
IT Cyber Act and section 66A
What has this ‘Section 66A’ got to do with the IT cyber act? What does ‘section 66A’ actually mean?
Section 66A of the IT Cyber Act prescribes punishments for sending offensive messages through any mode of communication etc. This section of the act, which when amended, received comments from lawyers and legal academicians as something unconstitutional, meaning that the act doesn’t support the rights that are included in our Indian Constitution. In simple words, the Section 66A of the IT cyber act, doesn’t support the Right to Speech which is included in our constitution.
What the Section 66A of the IT act says:
Punishment will be given to any person who sends a message through a computer device or any other means of electronic communication, which is
- OFFENSIVE OR MENACING CHARACTER
This includes messages that are offensive to a particular group or sect of the society. Such messages may also contain images or terms which are very much offensive, and sometimes, might also be obscene or vulgar.
- A PIECE OF FALSE INFORMATION THAT CAUSES INSULT, ANGER OR DANGER
Such messages tend to propagate false information and might create rumours on an extremely large scale, thereby disturbing the peace of a state or the nation. For example, any message containing the location of an explosive bomb invokes unrest and tension in the society. But that might be a hoax message. The message might also contain content which may hurt the religious sentiments of various people, thereby creating anger and violence in the society.
- CAUSING INCONVENIEVE TO THE RECEPIENT
This might include messages that are threatening to a particular recipient or a group of people. Messages containing sexually or personally harassing content, which are deceitful to the recipient also are included and are subject to serious punishment.
The punishment is imprisonment up to 3 years along with a huge fine. Only the police officers of or above the rank of DCP have the powers to allow the registration of all the cases that come under this act. When it comes to metropolitan cities, the approval has to come from the level of Inspector General of Police.
The right to speech
After the arrest of the two girls (for their comments on Facebook against a deceased Maharashtra political icon), and the implementation of the section 66A of the IT act, various statements questioning the right for speech have come up. Somehow, the act was controversial as it was contradicting the very rights written in our constitution.
The constitution of India provides the right to freedom of speech and expression (which is one amongst the 6 fundamental rights), and states that this right to speak has no geographical limitation. Also, it carries with it the right of any citizen of this country to gather information and exchange thought with others, not only in India, but abroad also.
Having talked about the right to speech, there is something more that needs to be discussed. Is technology policing proving to be an obstruction to the right to speak? Are the acts being implemented by our government contradicting the very lines in the Indian constitution?
If we have a look at what the girls had posted, we can understand that they don’t fall in any category in the section 66A which deserves punishment. What they had posted wasn’t offensive, false, inconvenient or deceitful or threatening to the recipients. It was a general statement that tended to question the bandh imposed in the city of Mumbai following the politician’s demise. It was the very basic freedom which the girls had exercised, the freedom to express and question, which was very basic and in fact, a must have right for every citizen of this nation. Why, then those girls were taken to task? If they had posed the same question with regard to some other person, would the repercussions have been the same?
Section 66A : Beneficial or destructive?
The points in this section are quite strong and are very much capable in curbing the cyber crimes to a large extent. Child pornography, which can be said as another monster issue, can also be cross checked thereby preventing the young minds from getting spoilt, misused or molested. Other crimes like sexual harassment, hoax calls or messages etc. can be almost eradicated if the law is put into practice more speedily and effectively. But, one question rises here, which makes the legal fraternities to think over again; is this law, in addition to curbing cyber crimes, also going to hinder the rights of the citizens, that is, the right to speech?
Two things need to be focused upon to decide if this section is beneficial or destructive.
One, the government should act responsibly while using this law. If the government reacts in different ways for the same message to different groups, that is where discrimination starts, again violating the statements in our constitution. Every citizen of this country has his/her own right to express opinions or thoughts in the medium they wish to. The government, in this regard, has no right to obstruct our rights.
And two, it is also a responsibility of ours, as citizens of this country, to see to it that before expressing anything in any way, we should make sure that we have got the correct facts and information. Right to speech does NOT mean one can make baseless and rubbish remarks about the government, or any other person or group. Right to speech invariably means the right a person deserves to express his opinions, provided what he wants to express has sense, is true and is based upon established facts, rather than hearsay.