The unacceptable arrest of Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for circulating a satirical cartoon depicting West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has given the critics of the 2011 Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) a shot in the arm.
The Kolkata Police slapped the provisions of the Information Technology Amendment Act 2008 along with Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code as the latter was non-cognisable and so bailable.
This was exactly why many raised concerns about the provisions of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008. The Act was passed hastily after the Mumbai attacks without any debate and some controversial provisions on content monitoring and blocking were incorporated. However, those provisions have some built-in safeguards centred around Article 19(2) of the Constitution.
However when the Rules for Intermedi-aries were notified in April, all instances where liability could be slapped on the service providers became subjective. So any content could be taken as slanderous, defamatory and libellous, and become a tool for taking on adversaries, or as in the case of the professor, to teach people a lesson.
While the government might have concerns on security — and had, therefore, brought in the provisions — the moot point is that security fears and privacy concerns have to be suitably balanced and constantly evaluated.
The tremendous growth of the cyber world has been due to the freedom it offers and if curbs are enforced at this stage — when not even 10% of the population use the medium to express themselves — this will be a travesty of democratic norms.
Today, digital footprints allow law enforcement agencies to track security threats emanating from cyberspace. The government must focus on acquiring better technology and qualified and trained manpower to improve on those capabilities and go after terrorists and criminal syndicates, and not after individuals and organisations that have constitutional rights.
Further, provisions of Section 66 A of the IT Act should be used for addressing cyber crimes. But, it seems, that the Kolkata Police were trying to use this provision against Mahapatra. Their act was not only improbable but also in poor taste. It clearly suggests the misuse of the IT Act and could give a handle to the states and agencies to target individuals whenever they use cyberspace to vent their ire against political leaders or even religious leaders. The instances of a pliant administration and sycophantic tendencies on the part of civil servants are growing and cyber laws could be misused more often than not.
This incident should be a wake-up call about the need to keep cyberspace safe from the clutches of motivated people.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee heads a defence multinational in India and writes on issues of cyberspace)
The views expressed by the author are personal