The arrest and subsequent release on bail of Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan for posting (and liking) an innocuous comment on Facebook regarding the ‘bandh’ in Maharashtra after the death of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray is a brazen misuse of Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (IT Act) by the Maharashtra police.
While the incident has generated protests against India’s cyber laws, specifically Section 66A of the amended IT Act of 2008, blaming the law or calling for its removal is not the way to handle such transgressions. The original IT Act, which was passed in 2000, had Section 66 that dealt with hacking.
As more and more cyber incidents came to the fore, the scope of the section was expanded. These provisions were debated by the then Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology and the stakeholders.
But when Parliament passed the amendments, after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, there was very little debate on the changes.
However in the last couple of years thanks to the controversies surrounding content blocking and monitoring, this particular provision has been criticised but mainly because it has been misused and misunderstood.
According to Section 66A, if the content posted is ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘demeaning’ and is known to be false but made for causing annoyance, inconvenience, enmity, hatred or ill will, the offender can be jailed and face a fine. But in the case of the two girls, the police had no reason to use this section against them. The same holds true for an earlier incident: the arrest of Puducherry-based businessman Ravi Srinivisan for tweeting on the finance minister’s son.
Such misuse of the law is happening on a regular basis because the law enforcement agencies don’t understand the IT Act and have very little exposure to digital technology. This is because they are over-burdened with daily policing.
While in most cases cyber crimes are reluctantly recorded in an FIR form, current incidents also indicate a tendency of the police to jump the gun and use cyber laws to harass people. This is part of a larger malaise: the police are often used by politicians as a tool to threaten adversaries.
There is only one solution to the problem: train the police so that they can understand the nuances of the IT law.
Subimal Bhattacharjee heads a multinational corporation and writes on issues of cyberspace and technology
The views expressed by the author are personal