New Delhi: The Indian government gave itself more rights to fight terror by passing a proposal pending for two years that will let authorities intercept messages from mobile phones, computers and other communication devices, and block websites in the interest of national security.
The legislation also provides measures to tackle cyber crimes, including terrorism, digital pornography, video voyeurism, e-commerce frauds as well as improve data protection in India.
The Information Technology (Amendment) Bill, 2006, was hurriedly introduced and passed in the Lok Sabha without discussion amid somewhat unrelated chaos as Opposition members sought the dismissal of minority affairs minister A.R. Antulay over comments he made about the Mumbai terror attacks.
The Bill is expected to be approved by the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, the last day of this Parliament session.
The IT Bill is now the third such legislation passed in this session that began immediately after the Mumbai attacks on 26 November.
The National Investigation Agency, or NIA, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendement), or UAPA, Bills were passed last week.
“The Information Technology (Amendment) Bill, 2006 has been pending for some time now. But in the wake of the Mumbai terror strikes, when the House met, the government decided to give it priority because all these legislations—UAPA and NIA—are linked,” parliamentary affairs minister Vayalar Ravi said.
The Bill was introduced in Parliament on 15 December 2006 following which it was referred to a parliamentary standing committee.
Based on the committee’s recommendations, minister for communications and information technology A. Raja moved amendments to the Bill on 16 December, bringing in new provisions to tackle cyber terrorism and strengthen India’s cyber security.
India’s outsourcing industry, for one, likes the legislation, especially the laws about data protection.
“We have been working on it for a long time,” says Som Mittal, president of National Association of Software and Service Companies or Nasscom, the Indian IT software and services industry trade body.
Section 69 of the Act had originally given the Union government the power to intercept and monitor any information through computer systems in national interest, permitting it to monitor any potentially “cognizable” offence.
However, the amendments now give the Union and state governments freedom to investigate “any offence”.
This, according to some experts, has the potential to infringe on basic constitutional rights, such as the right to privacy, and freedom of speech and expression.
“This is a concern as it allows the government to snoop the Internet. If misused this could lead to an invasion of right to privacy,” says Rahul Mathan, cyber law expert and partner at the Bangalore office of law firm Trilegal. The Bill also doesn’t specify safeguards or guidelines for the execise of this power. “It would have been helpful if safeguards had been articulated in this case.”
According to an analysis by PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based independent research organization, “the Bill enables the Central and state governments to intercept computer communication for investigation of any offence. Telephones and letters may be intercepted only to protect national interest, sovereignty etc. Neither the IT Act nor any other law covers how personal information may be collected, processed, shared and used. While the Bill provides compensation for unlawful loss or gain arising from unauthorized use of data, it does not address the issue of breach of privacy”.
However, Nikhil Kumar, a Congress lawmaker and chairperson of the standing committee on information technology, says, “The amendments in the IT Act are in tune with the recommendations of the standing committee.”
“This interception provision is not unprecedented or out of law. The Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 also has this provision which was upheld by the Supreme Court in a judgement in 1996. The court then directed the government to frame rules under this law,” he added.
“Further, the IT (Amendment) Bill is meant to enable the UAPA passed by Parliament last week, in which section 46 makes messages intercepted admissible as evidence, all of which has become important in view of the need to strengthen laws against terror,” the member of Parliament said.
This sentiment was shared by members of India’s opposition parties.
“I do not think that the Bill has provisions that infringe on privacy,” insists Tathagata Satpathy, another member of the standing committee on information technology and Lok Sabha member of the Biju Janata Dal, a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
Liz Mathew and Shauvik Ghosh contributed to this story.