Social Media, Freedom of Speech and Social Development


This week’s SMACK discussion was different. We had Shantanu joining the discussion from Delhi, through Skype. The other usual attendees were Shilpa Srivastava, Sanjib Chakravorty, Shubhra and Namrata Datta. We chose an apparently controversial and debatable topic of discussion: Freedom of speech and social media development. Where do we stand socially?

The arrest of Shaheen Dhada and her friend, Renu Srinivasan on the grounds of her post on Mumbai bandh observed on Balasaheb Thackeray’s demise, created quite a stir online, among activists, media and common people. Which brings us to the question pertinent in a democratic country – What is freedom of speech? Do we Indians really enjoy it? Does the law honor the democratic rights?

For those who are unaware, the Section 66A, of the IT Act, considers ‘ sending false and offensive messages through communication services ’ an offence. Excerpts from the act: «electronic mail» and «electronic mail message» means a message or information created or transmitted or received on a computer, computer system, computer resource or communication device including attachments in text, images, audio, video and any other electronic record, which may be transmitted with the message.

The section covers two different acts

Sending offensive or menacing messages sent by using electronic communication means.
Sending false messages to cheat, mislead or deceive people or to cause annoyance to them.

The real question is, what defines an electronic message to be offensive or of menacing character? A person receiving a message might or might not find it to be offensive. Naturally, the definition of ‘offensive’ differs from person to person and that way its interpretation becomes relative. Thus, the ground for applying the law, itself has a fallacy. Cyber crimes like, intentionally sending SPAM messages, phishing emails, threatening messages, etc. can also be punished under this section.
A study shows that cyber-crime convictions have gone down after the amendment of the IT Act in 2008.

Police, in India these days are hardly interested in pursuing cyber crimes. This brings us to a debatable topic of how local police went on to arrest the two girls charged under 66A. Were they persuaded by the ‘Shiv Sainiks’ to arrest? Was there any political influence of any sort? Isn’t it the arrests a little surprising? Don’t you think the provisions of 66A of the IT Act has been misused and not only in this case, but by various state governments? In West Bengal, professors were arrested for mailing cartoons of chief minister Mamata Banarjee to each other and were charged under 66A, Maharashtra police went one step ahead in explaining that those two girls were arrested for spreading communal violence because Shaheen posted her opinion that Mumbai shutdown on the death of Mr. Thackeray was unnatural and forced. Similar cases have been reported in Puducherry and Delhi where the State government pursued its will.

The real question is, with the power-mongers ready to pounce at any point of time, are we mature enough to handle this freedom and put it to good use? In the discussion Shantanu’s opinion was quite straight forward. He suggested one has to be careful and diplomatic, while commenting on something sensitive.
Sanjib stated that Shantanu was partially correct about being circumspect, the whole approach was incorrect when it comes to defining democracy. We have freedom of speech, which should be preserved by the law, not curtailed by it, is what he mentioned. Saying what one believes in is fine, as long as the person doesn’t cross a line where opinion without substantial proof can be considered an outright act of defamation.

We thought we must bring to your notice that, the Supreme Court of India on Friday (28th Nov, 2012) has issued notice to the central government and the four states on a petition challenging the constitutional validity of Section 66A of the IT Act that provides for proceeding against people posting annoying and inconvenient comments on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Shreya Singhal, a 21 yr old petitioner filed a PIL in the apex court calling the section 66A unconstitutional, which the police resorted to for the arrest of the two minor girls in Maharashtra recently. A bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir issued the notice to the Central Government and also to Maharashtra, West Bengal, Puducherry and Delhi, after Attorney General G. E Vahanvati told the court that the Section 66A was grossly abused and solicited the court’s intervention. He defended the section and added that it was abused by the 4 states mentioned above. Shilpa expressed her support towards Shreya’s views in the PIL about the way the Section 66A has been misused.

Do you feel that your freedom of speech has been curtailed? What do you feel about 66A? Let us know.