Let a body of prominent tweeters expose handles that cross the line of decency

I vividly recollect a jocular comment by my professor of jurisprudence: “There are three sides to every controversy — yours, the other person’s and the right one!” Ironically, some new-age crusaders of free speech vociferously dismiss any remotely contrary view and denounce pleas for introspection. Can abuse, defamation, intimidation, vulgarity, sexist comments, obscene innuendoes and communal hatred pass for ‘free speech’? Ask and you shall receive vitriolic responses. If any of these offences are swept under the broad rubric of ‘free speech’, where do we stop? Can free movement include trespass? Can freedom to practise a religion include the right to denigrate other faiths? On sections of Twitter, we have all this and more. And the sane voice of reason is being drowned in this ‘politically correct’ Bush-style dictum “If you’re not with us, you are against us”. So if you question the free-for-all on sections of the social media, you invite the ‘anti-free speech’s tag.

Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act can seem like a draconian provision of law if invoked in inappropriate cases. A danger the country has woken up to, four years after it was inserted. Words such as ‘annoyance’ and ‘inconvenience’ turn the fundamental canon of criminal law – mens rea or intention, on its head. Criminality must hinge on intention, not impact. Otherwise, anyone can be arrested for exposing an inconvenient truth. It would be ridiculous for journalists to carry their toothbrushes to work every day! Is this provision ultra vires Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution? It’s certainly worth testing in court. But can an accused person be allowed to cherry-pick the course of action against him? How about including inaction as an option?

Last week following the ’50-crore girlfriend’ tweet that went viral, a journalist wrote a blog critical of this post. Out came the trolls. One fumed: ‘u r in the habit of sleeping with others husbands? Being a lady, be in limits’. I found this more offensive than the girlfriend tweet. The shocked recipient tweeted back asking for the sender’s postal address to send a defamation notice. The tweeter was unapologetic with almost predictable ‘Catch Me If You Can’ glee. This is the root of abuse. Anonymity is not a bogey, it’s a reality and it precludes accountability. To all those who insist that defamation is the best shield against abuse on twitter, I ask: How do you get an address to initiate defamation proceedings? If the offender is a public figure, the address would be public knowledge. If not, does Twitter have postal addresses? It does not. Often, there is no profile picture, sometimes there are symbols, pseudonyms and even peculiar profile information that would lead you nowhere. Read the Terms Of Usage and you will realise that even obtaining IP addresses from the office in California is not easy. It is Twitter’s format that is pushing aggrieved users to the cops; turning what can be a defamation case into a charge under Section 66-A. How do you send a defamation notice, say for an illustrative purpose, to XYZ_ABC? Tweet a notice in 140 characters? If you get an offensive SMS, what action will you take? Go to the cyber crime cell. It may also be possible to get the address from the mobile service provider based in your city. Twitter isn’t even based in your country. Moreover, the mobile company would probably have a correct address because you do need to provide an address proof for a SIM card. And unless it’s SMS spoofing, at least the number will be correct. Twitter admittedly “doesn’t require email verification or identity authentication”. It’s only the law enforcement agencies that are equipped to investigate and track down culprits who send offensive SMSes, emails or tweets. A complaint means prosecution. And the cops decide what section or law to invoke. Not the complainants.

A friend who was bullied on Facebook, blocked the offender and also specified if the accused person was harassing or threatening or stalking him. He has a valid point —“Blocking merely ensures that I stop seeing him. I want him to stop doing it. And I do want to see him and what he is up to.”

Just a cursory glance at the ‘Comments’ section on news websites, that are not moderated, will reveal that there are many out there who don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable. Would it help to have a Social Media Standards Authority comprising prominent tweeters themselves for some self-regulation (as regulation is often confused with censorship)? This body can be a sort of watchdog and expose handles or trolls that cross the line of decency. All right-thinking users can then block these handles en masse. And if legal action is taken against real offenders, there will be no hue and cry. Till that happens, if you don’t have a thick skin, it may be wise to protect your tweets and choose your followers. Unless you suffer from low blood pressure.