Death of Democracy

The controversy over the arrest of two girls who posted comments, alleged to be anti-Thackarey by his supporters, on the social networking site Facebook, has once again exposed the loose ends in the Information Technology Act and revived demands for its amendment.

Experts in Andhra Pradesh said that the IT Act is not in consonance with the corresponding provisions of the Indian Penal Code’s Section on defamation.

A non-resident Indian was arrested by the cyber crimes division of the Hyderabad city police in October last year for posting a news item against a Congress MP in the gossip columns of his website Greatandhra.com. Two other cases were booked for posting ‘hate’ comments against actor-turned-Union minister K. Chiranjeevi and actor Balakrishna.

The IT Act is evoked when a computer device is used. The definition in certain Sections of the IT Act are too broad and apply to any kind of transmission using computers, an electronic device or a mobile phone in the form of text or pictures. If someone feels his/her reputation is harmed or hurt, a case can be booked. The so-called offender can be arrested.

The city cyber crime cops arrested the NRI 'Arikatla Venkat under the IT' Act when he for posting news on Greatandhra.com that was held to be detrimental to Congress MP Madhu Yashki Goud.

Venkat said, “If a media house or a person makes allegations and fails to provide proper evidence, then he/she can be arrested. But if merely clicking on the ‘like’ button on Facebook can lead to an arrest, then democracy doesn’t exist. The law has to understand the difference between allegation and opinion. If those girls were arrested, then Digvijay Singh who commented on Rakhi Sawant on Twitter should also be arrested. But in India, the law arrests only as per wish.”

The Act can be interpreted in such a way that any newspaper publishing any news item of a critical nature against any individual or group can result in a case being booked against the concerned journalist and she/he can be held.

It has become more dangerous writing online than in print. Any person or group ‘hurt’ by posts on social networking sites or online in general can lodge a complaint with the police who evokes 66A of the IT Act and arrest the person accused. The Section prescribes three years’ imprisonment and fine.

On the other side of the argument, the nature of the online space is such that it is easy to post hate messages of all kinds. These could be religious or communal in nature or they could be about feuds in the film industry, among other issues. Since there is no self-censorship as in the case of print or television, such messages could cause unrest and even violence. Hence the need for strict legislation such as the IT Act 2000.

Facebook and other social networking sites like Orkut host hate pages like We hate Sonia Gandhi, I hate Jagan, We hate Narendra Modi, I Hate Kiran Kumar Reddy etc. There are hundreds of pages and sites and posts hating actors Chiranjeevi, Balakrishna, Jr NTR, Pavan Kalyan and other actors of Tollywood.

The outgoing additional DG of Crime Investigation Department, S.V. Ramana Murthy, who is the supervising officer of the Cyber Crime police station of AP said, “The IT Act, after amendment in 2008, has become very strong. Before the amendment, not many cases were reported and those who are committing cyber crimes didn’t take the Act seriously. There was a lack of awareness among police officials too. After the amendment, several cases ended up in convictions in 2011 and 2012. In the IT Act, the evidence is straight as there is a signature left and conviction rate will be high.”

Murthy added that if the Act is misused, the courts will intervene. He claims there are no major objections from the public regarding the misuse of the Act. “Every Act can be amended as and when it is needed. In AP, most of the cases booked under these Sections are for spreading morphed images and fake FB accounts opened by jilted or ex-lovers harassing girlfriends. CID, city and Cyberabad cyber crime police had affected many arrests.”

Assistant Solicitor-General of India in AP High Court P. Vishnuvardhan Reddy said that “fair criticism by any individual cannot be treated as offensive communication. Cops can’t apply the IT Act for expressing an opinion fairly as a matter of one’s right to freedom of expression.”

Twitter and Facebook are widely used and the discussions and counter discussions cannot be treated as violations, he said.

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