The internet, like the real world, is a much divided space. So when a controversial leader like Bal Thackeray dies, there are condolence messages and tributes, hot discussions on his legacy and criticism of what he stood for.
But all this made way for a near-united voice that condemned the arrests of two girls from Mumbai, who were arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act for an innocuous message posted on Facebook expressing casually a reaction to the city being shut down “in mourning”.
Perceived as an affront on freedom of speech on the internet, netizens everywhere spoke up against the authorities’ attempts to stifle dissent. In 120 characters, short status messages, casual cartoons, mash-ups and memes, netizens expressed their angst.
Gautam John, a popular Twitter-zen and lawyer, says he was “horrified” by the extent of the overreach by the police and its “misplaced priorities in dealing with the Facebook status update (which caused no physical violence) over the ransacking of the clinic (which was physical violence).” There was a complete lack of application of mind in choosing to apply Section 66A of the IT Act, a legislation he describes as a “world of trouble”.
Mr. John has started an online petition on change.org, titled Amend Section 66A and Relook at the Internet Laws: Protect our ‘freedomofspeech’, where he points all recent incidents where Section 66A was used against netizens.
“It’s hard to [mistake] incompetence for malafide intentions. While I’m willing to give the legislature the benefit of doubt in the normal course, it is much harder to do so in this case. Especially when one looks at how Section 66A came to embody its current form,” he says.
Senthil S., IT professional and a member of the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, agrees. “It’s time for us to ask and push for a complete review of this legislation. Politicians and their cronies now seem to hate any voice of dissent. And because we’re not liquor barons, real estate rajas, mining mafias or media bosses, it appears that ordinary men and women — be it professors, students or artists — can be jailed for just having an opinion,” he says.
The FSMK had earlier organised offline protests in the city following the arrest of the West Bengal professor for emailing a cartoon, and plans to hold protests in the first week of December urging a review of the law.
Cherian Tinu Abraham, social media enthusiast and an active Wikipedia editor, says that though people have spoken up against this, the Mumbai arrests triggered fear among those who share their opinions on social media.
His parents and in-laws, he says, called him the next day to tell him to be careful of what he posts and implored him to not share “strong opinions”.
He feels the government and the police have been unfair as the opinion shared was “fairly neutral”, and “with no intent to incite tensions”.
He points out that the arrest of the man who tweeted about Finance Minister Chidambaram’s son, comparing him and his “amassed wealth” to Robert Vadra, was also unfair. Funnily enough, after the man’s arrest, his number of followers on Twitter went from fewer than 20 to over 2,500 now, he said.