The pressing need to end the misuse of Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act has once again been underscored by the arrest of Jaya Vindhyala, president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Andhra Pradesh. Her alleged offence of putting up posts critical of a legislator, Amanchi Krishna Mohan, and Tamil Nadu Governor K. Rosaiah on Facebook has resulted in heavy-handed police action. Clearly, the Supreme Court’s searching questions to Maharashtra over the arrest of two young women near Mumbai and the national outcry over that incident have had no restraining influence on police forces across the country. Several people have been arrested in recent months, one as recently as in February, for offences involving social media communications that either do not qualify to be prosecuted as offences, or may attract only civil defamation. The absurdity of police action, invariably launched by politically-connected individuals who can influence the course of prosecution, is compounded by the approach of the magistracy. Those accused of nothing more than engaging in ‘annoying’ or ‘offensive’ communication under the poorly drafted IT Act are routinely remanded in custody. This is not what the country expected after Union Minister Kapil Sibal said Section 66 A will not be allowed to be misused, and guidelines will ensure that senior police officers apply their mind before acting.
The Chirala case is depressingly similar to many others, in which identical or similar allegations published by the mainstream media have not invited prosecution. In fact, the publication of the allegations of the PUCL activist by the newspaper Sakshi was followed only by a notice of defamation, but their publication on social media led to immediate arrest and remand. This conflicting interpretation of free speech in the era of the Internet is discriminatory and violative of fundamental rights. It is necessary to point out here that Mr. Sibal’s defence of the legal validity of Section 66 A rests on a weak foundation. The provision in the IT law of the United Kingdom, Section 127 (1) (a), which is cited in its support, has been tightly interpreted by the House of Lords, to include the norms of a free society, the overall context and all relevant factors, in assessing complaints. It is no one’s case that grossly offensive materials should be allowed to freely circulate on the Internet, but equally, to use the law on behalf of power elites and nullify free speech guarantees enjoyed by the citizen is an outrage. Ultimately, the many instances of abuse of Section 66 A of the IT Act confirm that it does little to enhance the rule of law, and must be removed from the statute book.