Govt guidelines good but redressal norms needed
Given the fact that the Supreme Court was going to examine a PIL seeking the scrapping of Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act, it is just as well that the government decided to introduce some important safeguards in how it is used. The recent outcry against the arrest of two girls over a Facebook status criticising the Mumbai bandh following Bal Thackeray’s death underscores the issues surrounding the Section. The problem with Section 66(A) arises because of its wording, which prescribes strong punishments while being vague about who exactly is culpable. The relevant part of the Section reads: “Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character” or “any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.” A major problem here is that the interpretation of “grossly offensive” is left to the local police. Currently, the in-charge officer of a police station can take action under the Act. The government guidelines, drafted by the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee under IT minister Kapil Sibal, mandate that police officers need the permission of the inspector general of police in urban areas and a deputy commissioner in non-metro areas before they can act.
The problem, however, is that the reality is a lot more complex than those opposed to Section 66(A) make it out to be. A Facebook post, it can be argued, is like a conversation between friends since the number of viewers can be restricted. But the same cannot be said, for instance, about Twitter and other micro-blogging sites, where the reach can potentially be larger than that of a newspaper—newspapers, after all, are subject to libel laws that provide an aggrieved party means of redressal against the publisher or author. So far, the truth is, we haven’t come up with a viable solution to the problem of redressal.