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@ShamiWitness Mehdi's arrest raises questions on online laws

columns Updated: Dec 14, 2014 17:34 IST
N Madhavan
N Madhavan
Hindustan Times

Anyone who's been to Twitter or Facebook knows that you can find any type of people there: political activists, entrepreneurs, social workers, feminists, education evangelists and religious fanatics. The notable thing: some of them are anonymous and merrily flout some laws - including some they may not even know exists or others that are controversial.

The arrest of 24-year-old Mehdi Masroor Biswas in Bangalore, an alleged online activist of the Islamic State who anonymously used the handle @shamiwitness, throws up new questions: Can Indian laws be convincingly invoked in a grey area where an Indian citizen cheers a form of extremism without actually being a physical participant in it?

Biswas was an ITC group employee by day and an IS activist by night - a Digital Age case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, if you will. Was his support for IS just a hobby of sorts for Biswas? How does it affect Indian interests and security? These issues will be debated in the coming days, but two points are relevant.

One, legal provisions under which Biswas is being charged (as per media reports) look controversial: One involves waging a war against an Asiatic "ally" and the other under Section 66F of the Information Technology Act that governs cyber terrorism, mainly through hacking or similar acts.

From current indications, Biswas did not hack into any computer or network.

It is not clear if authorities are invoking Section 66A of the same Act - opposed by free speech activists - which targets those who use information that is "grossly offensive or has a menacing character" or causing hatred. From early reports, this provision is not being invoked for Biswas.

The more forceful provision being invoked is of Section 39 of The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 which cracks down on support given to a terrorist organisation.

Twitter has dozens of Indian handles spew venom and hate. They make allegations and use abusive language on well-known Indian figures and also India's Constitution. Can they be tracked down the way Biswas was tracked? What will be the consequences? How does that tally with even elected lawmakers in India who question aspects of the republic or advocate violence or India having diplomatic relations with governments that it says harbours terrorists?

Amid such a maze of questions, it is clear that India needs to be proactive about a new online global culture and evolve a new legal framework that guards free speech while ensuring security and responsibility.