Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s recent announcement that the State would amend its Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Forest Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Sand Offenders, Slum Grabbers and Video Pirates Act, 1982 to include cyber crimes that are “grave in nature” has given rise to fears that whether it would be a part of the continuing efforts by States world over to gain control over the democratic ways of the Web, especially social media.

Civil rights activist point out that 2012 has not been a great advertisement for social media in the country, where even innocuous acts such as posting Facebook updates and liking them have landed people in detention.

“There is already a huge debate on the Section 66 A of the I.T. Act being Draconian in nature. We have already seen its misuse,” says D. Nagasaila, advocate and member of the People's Union for Civil Liberties. “Preventive detention by itself is an affront to civil liberties. How the Goondas Act would be used to make arrests for cyber crimes and what sort of online activity would be construed to be grave in nature is subject to interpretations.”

Section 66 A of the IT Act pertains to the punishment for sending “offensive messages” through communication service. The definition of “offensive messages” seems too vague and there have been instances when seemingly harmless acts have landed people in trouble.

“There is a huge debate going on over what constitutes being offensive,” the advocate adds. “When that is the case what is the necessity to amend already existing laws to include a definition on cyber crimes that are grave in nature.”

Activists argue that social media must be allowed to flourish in a decentralised, democratic manner. Government control over it could become a serious infringement on the right to expression.

Cyber law consultant N. Vijayashankar, who has conducted various educational programmes for the police, offers a different take on the announcement by the Chief Minister.

He says, “What the Chief Minister intends is that when serious offences are committed under Acts such as the Goondas Act using e-mails or social networking sites, they will not go unrecognised only because they are offence in cyber space. In other words, an offence which would fall under the Goondas Act, if committed through electronic documents, will be booked by the police under the respective provisions of the Goondas Act.”

He adds that already offences under the IPC are being booked even when they are committed with electronic documents. So he does not see need for any amendment to any existing laws.