In an age where the hash-tag has substituted the street-slogan and outrage is virtually a keyboard setting, social media has become the new battlefield for most modern ideological clashes. What was once an innocuous platform for sharing pictures and thoughts among a small online community of friends has now transformed into a powerful tool of information, activism, mobilisation - and yes, sometimes, abuse.
With mainstream media increasingly circumscribed by limitations of format, there is something immensely liberating about the less stodgy, more vibrant dialogue that a platform like Twitter enables. If you spend enough interactive time online talking to people, instead of preaching like a pundit, chances are that the number of 'followers' you gather will multiply at an astonishing pace.
As a television journalist who spends more time on Twitter than is healthy for her BlackBerry wrecked hands, I find that my tweets reach more people than the average audience for most English news shows. In fact, it is almost embarrassing to watch newsrooms of mainstream media treat Twitter as the new-age wire service, scouting it for quotes, trends and opinions.
Even some of our politicians, previously contemptuous of the premium placed on communication skills, have cautiously dipped their toes into the waters of the online world, learning to swim against the torrents of voluble and instant feedback.
But, as with all things new, the government has either not understood how social media works, or, even more ominously, has understood it all too well and is thus seeking to police it with a vaguely worded section under the IT Act that leaves it open to gross misuse. Section 66A allows for imprisonment up to three years as punishment for transmitting online information that is "grossly offensive or has a menacing character..." as well as for an "electronic message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience..."
We witnessed a bizarre manifestation of the alarmingly subjective nature of Section 66A, when two young girls in Maharashtra were arrested - one for daring to question on her Facebook page the reverence being accorded to Bal Thackeray, the other for clicking 'Like' on the comment. It wasn't long before vandals ravaged a clinic run by a relative of one of the girls, sending an unmistakable message of the consequences to follow.
There was something grossly ironic about the police pouncing on two hapless citizens supposedly for creating "disharmony," while a school of politics that has been avowedly anti-Muslim and anti-migrant was being deconstructed in mostly timid and ritualistic commentary. In this instance, issues of internet freedom were inextricably linked to a political culture of fear and intimidation.
While Thackeray's writings used to pull no punches in sweeping comments on all things from movies to minorities, that same freedom of expression was hardly accorded to others. Remember how Shah Rukh Khan was treated for opining that Pakistani cricketers should be allowed to participate in the IPL?
Not surprisingly, once released on bail, the frightened young girls hastily apologised for their comments, vowing that they would now watch what they said on Facebook. In effect, a dangerously ambiguous law had enabled the politics of diktat, thereby muzzling speech and imprisoning thought.
Political power seems to be a key ingredient in the over-reach that this obscurely worded law facilitates. Mamata Banerjee sparked anger when she used it against a university professor who circulated a cartoon about her. In Chennai, a man was arrested under it for making online allegations of corruption about Karti Chidambaram, making him a virtual hero of sorts.
At the heart of these controversies is a fundamental question: is social media above the law? It is here that I divert somewhat from many of my friends who are internet evangelists. The published word should be subject to the scrutiny of the law, whether it's on TV, in a magazine or on Twitter. Online anonymity, especially, cannot become an excuse to slander and vilify without evidence. The right to a legal option cannot universally be pitched as a David versus Goliath battle.
Four years ago, I sent a legal notice to a blogger for, among other seriously slanderous comments, suggesting that my reportage on 26/11 was somehow linked to the death of police officer Hemant Karkare. Apart from the irresponsible, sweeping nature of the comments, it was low on facts. As a Delhi-based reporter, I wasn't even in Mumbai the night Karkare was killed.
More funnily (well, I'm trying to see the humour in it) - despite correcting them several times, Wikipedia routinely (and incorrectly) describes me as married and even offers the name of my (imagined) 'husband', providing mirth to communal hate-mongers on Twitter, who think my being married to a Muslim is the basis of my proud secular beliefs. For them, of course, secularism is a bad word.
The misogyny of some online discourse is now well established. Earlier this year, writer Meena Kandasamy tweeted about attending a beef-eating festival. The volley of abuse that followed included calling her a bitch, a whore and a terrorist.
Women who do not serve as an echo-chamber for the prejudices of the extreme right-wing (who most certainly are better organised online than the liberals) are routinely battered on Twitter in the worst language, prompting some of them to now be careful about what they say - just to avoid the unpleasantness. Isn't this also a form of mental censorship triggered by attempted intimidation?
Legal recourse is the right of every citizen. That doesn't mean, however, that Section 66A is either a reasonable law or a desirable one. Defamation laws in the country are sufficient in themselves to cover complaints of unsubstantiated allegations. Let the courts have the last word on those. Not a draconian law that gives the police, and by extension - politicians - overarching, unregulated control over what we write and how we think.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University's India Initiative. The views expressed by the author are personal