By Karthik Shankar:
There was very little discussion about it, but February 26, 2015, was a landmark day for India as far as our freedom of speech is concerned. Yesterday was the last day of Supreme Court’s hearing about one of the most contested provisions of the IT Act. The much excoriated Section 66A allows the centre to arrest any individuals who post ‘offensive’ messages on social networking websites.
This clause is not only poorly defined, it has rampant potential for misuse. An infraction under this law can send someone to jail for three years (Just for reference, the Commonwealth Games scam sent Suresh Kalmadi to jail just for nine months). In the aftermath of Bal Thackeray’s death, two girls were arrested under the provision. Their crime? The first had posted an innocuous comment questioning why the state had to shut down because of his death. The second had simply agreed with the post. I shudder to think of the blow back if they had actually posted something edgy. Others have faced the brunt of it too, like the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for his astute political cartoons or businessman Ravi Srinivasan who had the temerity to tweet against Karti Chidambaram, son of the former finance minister.
It’s interesting to note how the definition of offensive varies. Are we really living in a democracy where Sakshi Maharaj’s comments are not legally counteracted but anything that questions our state’s moral credentials are? It’s also disappointing that the BJP has taken U-turn on the issue. After criticising 66A during UPA’s reign, they are now using that unassailable argument of ‘national security’ to justify its existence.
Shreya Singhal, the budding law student who filed a PIL against Section 66A, explained in an interview last year that anything as small as a person commenting on Zomato could be booked under this act because it literally criminalises causing ‘annoyance’ online. That’s not something that should be codified in laws. I find almost everything that comes out of Subramaniam Swamy’s mouth annoying, but there don’t seem to be any cases filed against the man who said all Muslims were previously Hindus.
So why isn’t this causing more of a furore? Most of the people who are raising a voice against this are young educated netizens. As of 2014, we have over 200 million users, less than a fifth of our population. Not to mention a very small fraction of those will be active considering the fact that uninterrupted internet access is a luxury not afforded to many. However, the number of internet users are set to double by 2018 to more than 500 million. It’s hardly going to be a niche issue when it’s something that will affect people across the youngest country in the world.
Additional solicitor general, Tushar Mehta, said that the internet needs more checks because it does not ‘exist in an institutionalized form’. That’s exactly why it’s so valuable for freedom of speech and expression.
The thoughts and views that come through the mainstream media are filtered through the prisms of editors, writers with personal connections to the ruling elite and multinational conglomerates. The internet, on the other hand, is a domain of the common public. The internet is the medium all of us use to express our opinions. The very reason it works is because we don’t have a filter. And in this era of social media, a comment made by the common man can capture the zeitgeist as much as one made by a prolific columnist. It’s what makes the internet so powerful. Such laws will only ensure we pre-censor our words and I can’t think of a more frightening thing than that. Then our transition to the kind of dystopian political environment that exists in the pages of Orwell’s 1984, will only hasten.