“Grossly Offensive…” – Who? How?

At a time when nature of work, labour, forms of organising are fast changing, when physical spaces of associations are increasingly under attack by the state and the neo-liberal forces, ‘virtual’ spaces are providing new possibilities to imagine, to organise, to protest and to fight for ones’ rights. But even this space is under attack. An article written by Venkat Sandeep Bandla of Asian College of Journalism explains how. Although the article is not strictly on labour, but the fact that many worker’s organisations across the country are using facebook, twitter, blogs to educate, agitate, and organise, it makes it relevant for the readers of the TN labour blog.

A long line of colourful placards stood in a crooked line at the entrance of the Besant Nagar Beach in Chennai on December 4th. People gathered around a person dressed in black and blue overalls.

“The main aim of this protest is to educate people about Section 66(A) of the IT Act. It infringes upon the fundamental rights – Freedom of Speech and Expression – of every ‘Netizen’. So, let’s make our intentions clear…” said Sibi Kanagaraj, the organiser of the event.   This human chain protest was planned and coordinated by the members of the  Free Software Foundation Tamil Nadu (FSFTN) to protest the recent arrests under the Section 66(A) of the IT Act.

Two girls, Shaheen Dhada and Renu Shrinivas, were arrested on November 18, 2012 in Thane over their Facebook posts questioning the observance of bandh during the funeral of Bal Thackeray. They were sent to a 14-day judicial custody but were granted bail upon furnishing personal bonds.

Dhada posted comments on the social networking site, Facebook, opposing the shutdown in Mumbai, allegedly saying that one should not observe bandh for Thackeray’s funeral.

“We should remember Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev,” she said in the status update.

Dhada’s friend Renu was also arrested for liking the post., following a complaint loged by a local Shiv Sena leader under Section 502(2) – (Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes)  and 66A of the IT Act.

“How can one consider Facebook as the medium to hurt sentiments of the people? Arresting a person for liking a status message in Facebook is atrocious!” says Yashwanth, a student of IIT Chennai.

In a separate incident, a 19-year-old boy was also detained in Thane on suspicion of an “offensive” post on Facebook against Bal Thackeray, but was later let off.

One of the most talked about cases in the recent times is that of Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist who was arrested on sedition charges for allegedly insulting the national symbols. The case gained lot of media attention and it was subsequently dropped due to the pressure from the court and civil society.

Section 66 (A) of the Information Technology Act covers any information which is grossly offensive, menacing, causes annoyance or hatred and is sent by means of a computer resource or communication device. It is a bailable offence with a jail term of up to three years with a penalty.

“The wording of the law is broad and ambiguous. Anything that is written can qualify as an offence,” says Ki Anbarasan, member of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association.

In light of the controversial arrests of people under the Section 66(A) new operational guidelines were released. They state that cases can be registered against the IT Act by a police officer no less than a rank of Deputy General of Police. In metros the approval should come from inspector General of Police.

Alagunambi Welkin, co-organiser of the event says, “Desired objectives can be met by parliamentary amendments in the IT Act. These changes are cosmetic and are implemented to satisfy the backlash from the society.”

Shojan Jacob, Kerala-based cyber law specialist and advocate, challenged the constitutional validity of the rules defined under the IT Act, through a writ petition filed in the Kerala High Court. He called them ‘unreasonable’, ‘illegal’, ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unconstitutional’ as they infringed upon the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and speech of the internet users.

(More details at: http://www.legallyindia.com/tag/shojan-jacob)

He also mentioned about the internet censorship policies in other countries, in his petition. For this, he cited the example of United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It is surprising to know that the countries, though an absolute monarchy maintain a clear transparency policy while censoring the internet.

The Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), in Saudi Arabia regulates the internet service providers (ISP’s) and is responsible for filtering the online information posted by the users. If there is any indication of malicious content, the commission blocks the website and displays the reason and service which has been blocked. A screenshot of the information can be used as an exhibit in the court by the user to get a fair trial.

This seldom happens in India. There are designated officers to monitor the content on the blogs and websites. They form a part of the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-India).

According to the rules, a user should be notified well in advance before censoring the content. But, this is not followed. Most of the content is taken down secretly and the owner does not get the reason for censorship nor gets the copy of the original article. The right to judicial remedy is absent in this case because there is no provision in the rules to file an appeal in the court.

The blogging platforms, You Tube etc form the intermediaries who engage in monitoring the information on the internet. They cannot be considered as the ‘Guardians of Free Speech’ because they work to serve their company’s interest. Most of the time the content is blocked based on frivolous complaints. The Freedom of Speech and Expression, guaranteed under the Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution is violated, because no notice is given to the user regarding the censorship.

Shreya Singhal, a law student, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) questioning the loopholes of the IT Act. She contended that “the phraseology of the section 66(A) of the IT Act, 2000 is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse and hence falls foul of Article 14, 19 (1) (a) and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.”

The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir decided that the matter required consideration and instructed Attorney General G E Vahanavati to decide the legal issues involved.

Only time can tell whether a simple ‘like’ on Facebook can send you to jail or not.


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