Those who use social media as a platform to express themselves need to become familiar with Section 66A of the IT Act, writes Jaideep Deo Bhanj

Under every comment that is posted on Facebook there are three options: like, comment, or share. If you feel the comment is inappropriate you can report it as spam. In India there seems to be another option that is not on the page – the ‘arrest’ option.

This week, Shaheen Dhada (21) was arrested for a comment posted on Facebook and her friend Renu Srinivas was arrested for ‘liking’ the comment after the police received a complaint about it from a political leader.

What followed was an outcry on Facebook and Twitter over the arrests and also a sense of fear from some users as they wondered if the same could happen to them.

Milind Deora, Minister of State, Communications and Information Technology, has tweeted support for the girls by saying that the police acted in haste. An enquiry has been set up and the girls are out on bail but the question still remains whether we should think twice before voicing our opinions online.

The growth of social media has given the youth of the country a space to voice their opinions. Once, people could only write letters to the editor of a newspaper to be heard. Now they can start a blog or tweet about it. With the growth of the Internet, young people have a platform to express themselves freely, invite comments and have a discussion on any topic.

Raghav Mandava, a stand-up comic, says, “The arrest of the girls was stupid, to say the least. But I think freedom of speech is definitely a bit of a double-edged sword in this country. Primarily because the people who approved it are the same people who are sensitive little babies and cry havoc whenever something tickles.”

A perfect example of this was seen when a businessman from Pondicherry, Ravi Srinivasan, was picked up by the police after he tweeted about reports of corruption against a Union Minister’s son. D.V.S.S. Somayajulu, a senior lawyer in Vizag, clarified that it was unjust to arrest the girls under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. “I personally feel that the post was not grossly offensive and the arrests were unwarranted. The youth of Vizag need not fear expressing their views online,” he says.

Section 66A deals with sending information through an electronic communication device. Some critics feel that the section goes against the freedom of speech guaranteed under the Constitution.

Zain Saleh, a final-year law student, feels that the wording of the section is tough for the layman to understand. “The government should come out with some guidelines to make it clear to the common Internet user that they are not restricting freedom of speech but making provisions so that it is not misused. Even the police need to have these guidelines,” he opines.

Renu Srivastava, a family counsellor from Mumbai, says, “After the uncalled for arrests we have to think twice before posting something on Facebook.” There is still a sense of fear as people are unaware about the law.

The speed at which the information can spread is dangerous, as we saw when thousands of citizens from the North East living in other parts of the country started heading home because of fears that arose from rumours of imminent violence.

The movie Innocence of Muslims that was uploaded on YouTube hurt religious sentiments and led to protests on a massive scale that also claimed many lives.

The Internet is a powerful medium and it is very tough to censor it.

It is for the community at large to keep a tab on what is being uploaded and who is saying what.

At the end of the day freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by our Constitution comes with reasonable restrictions. So next time you cry fire make sure you are being responsible.