Netizens in city up in arms over misuse of law to curb freedom on social networking sites

The arrest, last week, of two girls for a Facebook comment on the shutdown in Mumbai following Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s death led to massive outrage all over the country.

Activists and netizens in Chennai though have been up in arms over the controversial Section 66 A of the Information Technology (IT) Act for a while now. In addition to protest meetings, the city’s youth, especially students and IT professionals, have been actively pursuing campaigns on social networking sites and blogs.

The spark for a lot of activism was the arrest of S. Ravi, owner of a small plastic packaging unit in Puducherry, who made comments on Karti Chidambaram, son of finance minister P. Chidambaram, on Twitter.

A Facebook page ‘Chennaites for Internet Democracy’ (CID) sprung up immediately and has been actively generating content and sharing information on the issue ever since.

“Many provisions of the IT Act are a cause for concern. The recent arrests have led to a lot of awareness of the issue,” said Alagunambi Welkin, coordinator of the forum.

The group has used cartoons and meme-based campaigning which are far more likely to have an impact on the youth today.

“Students may not read through an entire article but a shot from a movie with a funny caption or a cartoon often makes them sit up and take notice,” said Welkin.

From Gandhiji’s three monkeys accompanied by a silenced ‘Twitter’ bird to representations of the IT Act as a machine gun and handcuffed wrists struggling to type on the keyboard, activists are using various tactics to get the message across. 

Since the arrests, other cities have been having individuals posting blog entries and mobilising netizens.

“We are attempting a coordinated movement because this issue, if not attended to, is only going to result in more arrests of innocent citizens,” Mr. Welkin said.

Groups such as Save Tamil Movement, mostly comprising working professionals, have also taken up the issue. In the past one month, they have organised seminars with eminent cartoonists, lawyers, software employees, students and bloggers on how the IT Act can affect internet activity.

All of the events are live-streamed with frequent Twitter feeds and Facebook updates to engage more participants. Over the last few days, groups have been formed in many city colleges to advocate the need for social media freedom.

“Never has any other issue struck such a chord with students. All of us are on Facebook and we comment on and ‘like’ so many posts. Such arrests are alarming,” said a student of Hindustan University.

‘The Facebook post that got the girls arrested doesn’t even mention the name of any leader or religion. On what basis then were the girls arrested? How strong/weak is the law and how vulnerable/powerful are we?’ is just one of many such questions raised by people in online discussion forums.  

Anything that is published on social networking sites is for the world to read, say netizens.

“There are people who run forums on the importance of free speech. Then there are those who get arrested for speaking out their mind. If the authorities think arresting a few people can restrict them from speaking their mind, then they have to be shown they are wrong,” said R. Aravindham, a student of Loyola College.

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