An average of six netizens were arrested every day in 2014 for posting offensive content online under section 66A of the Information Technology Act, a draconian and much abused law no longer in use.
A first-of-its-kind set of statistics compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau reveals that 2,402 people, including 29 women, were arrested in 4,192 cases under section 66A — which was struck down in March by the Supreme Court that ruled that it violated the constitutional freedom of speech.
These arrests made up nearly 60% of all arrests under the IT Act, and 40% of arrests for cyber crimes in 2014. It was also a little less than twice the number of people caught red-handed accepting bribes the same year.
“These statistics are shocking. I had assumed there may be a few hundred cases, at worst,” said Shreya Singhal, on whose petition the top court had scrapped the provision.
“It validates the judgment even more than when it was delivered,” said Singhal, a law student.
Quite like Rinu Srinivasan – one of two Mumbai girls arrested in 2012 for a Facebook post regarding Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackrey’s death — nearly half of those arrested (1,217) were in the 18-29 age group. This included nine girls. Another 1,015 were in the 30-44 age group while 166 were between 45 and 59 years old.
The now-repealed section 66A prescribed a three-year jail term for online content that could be construed to be offensive or false.
This is the first time the NCRB has collected detailed statistics on cyber crimes, listing out the number of cases registered under each section of the IT Act.
A government official conceded that the large number of cases registered under section 66A meant that the Centre’s guidelines — issued after a public outcry in November 2012 against its misuse — had served little purpose. In May 2013, the Supreme Court too put its weight behind the guidelines and made it legally binding on them.
In these guidelines, the Centre had made prior approval of an inspector general of police-rank officer mandatory for all arrests under section 66A. “Either this rule wasn’t followed or the IGPs did not rise to the occasion,” the official said.
The NCRB did not give a state-wise break-up of arrests under section 66A.
But in terms of cases registered, Uttar Pradesh led the pack with 898, followed by Karnataka (603), Assam (377), Maharashtra (375), Telangana (352), Rajasthan (291), Kerala (229), Punjab (123) and Delhi (137).
“It was “unconscionable that 2,402 persons were arrested in 2014, and many made to languish in jail, under a provision that we now know to have been unconstitutional,” said Pranesh Prakash at the Bengaluru-headquartered research and advocacy group, Centre for Internet and Society.
“Even after the Supreme Court laid down more stringent ad-hoc guidelines on arrests under Section 66A, it is clear they were not effective in the least: 860 charge-sheets were filed by the police under Section 66A in 2014,” the policy director at CIS said.