New Delhi: Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir on Friday asked three central ministries, the states of Maharashtra, West Bengal and Delhi and the Union Territory of Puducherry on Friday to respond within four weeks to a public interest petition (PIL) seeking an amendment to the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act.
Attorney general Goolam E. Vahanvati, while defending the need for Section 66A, said that the recent arrests in Puducherry and Mumbai for messages on social networks were an abuse of the law. The matter will be next heard six weeks from now. The three ministries that have been asked to respond are law and justice; communications and information technology; and home.
Kabir also asked the Maharashtra government to explain why the two girls in Palghar near Mumbai were arrested last week for criticizing on Facebook the shutdown in the city for Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s funeral.
The PIL against Section 66A has been filed by 21-year-old student Shreya Singhal. “This sends out a very strong message in support of our petition,” said Manali Singhal, mother of Shreya.
Just before the Supreme Court was to hear the PIL seeking an amendment to the law, the government on Thursday tweaked it to make it tougher for citizens to be arrested for online comments that are deemed offensive after the recent arrests came in for heavy criticism by Internet activists, the media and other groups.
Complaints under the Section 66A of the IT Act, which criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” online or electronically, can be registered only with the permission of an officer of or above the rank of deputy commissioner of police, and inspector general in metro cities, said a senior government official.
The government, however, has not amended the terms in the section that are said to be vague and subject to interpretation.
Lawyer Mukul Rohatgi, who represented the petitioner, requested the court to give an interim order so that arrests under the section are made only with the permission of a senior police officer. According to one of the lawyers working on the team representing Singhal, a court order is needed as police is a state subject and the Centre can’t issue a guideline in this regard. The lawyer declined to be identified.
According to people present at the meeting of the cyber regulatory advisory committee on Thursday, the Union government will issue guidelines to states with respect to the compliance of the new enforcement rules soon. The people didn’t want to be named. An official said the move was not related to the case.
Earlier in November, a businessman in Puducherry was arrested for comments made on Twitter against finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram.
Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society think tank, said that while the change in the law is a step in the right direction and will eliminate a lot of frivolous complaints, more needs to be done to make the legislation specific.
Singhal contended in her plea that “the phraseology of section 66A of the IT Act, 2000, is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse and, hence, falls foul of Article 14, 19 (1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution.”
She submitted that “unless there is judicial sanction as a prerequisite to the setting into motion the criminal law with respect to freedom of speech and expression, the law as it stands is highly susceptible to abuse and for muzzling free speech in the country.”
Apart from the incident at Palghar involving the two girls, Singhal’s PIL referred to an April incident in which a professor of chemistry from Jadavpur University in West Bengal, Ambikesh Mahapatra, was arrested for posting a cartoon concerning chief minister Mamata Banerjee on a social networking site.
She also referred to the Puducherry case as well as the May arrests of two Air India Ltd employees, V. Jaganatharao and Mayank Sharma, by the Mumbai Police under the IT Act for posting content on Facebook and Orkut against a trade union leader and some politicians.
Singhal has sought guidelines from the apex court to “reconcile Sections 41 and 156 (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) with Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution” and that offences under the Indian Penal Code and any other legislation, if they involve the freedom of speech and expression, be treated as a non-cognizable offences for the purposes of Sections 41 and 156 (1).
Section 41 of CPC empowers the police to arrest any person without an order from a magistrate and without a warrant in the event that the offence involved is a cognizable offence. Section 156 (1) empowers the investigation by the police into a cognizable offence without an order from a magistrate.
The government official present at the cyber regulatory advisory committee said the expressions used in Section 66A had been taken from different statutes around the world, including the UK and the US.
“There has been a broad consensus that the parameters of the law concerned might be in order, but from a procedural standpoint, there might be difficulty,” the official said.
Prakash said that while some of the terms in the section may be taken from legislation overseas, the penalty imposed under the Indian law is far more stringent at three years of imprisonment than, for instance, six months under the UK law. “Criminal offences can’t be put at the same level as something which causes insult.”
The cyber regulatory advisory committee meeting on Thursday was attended by minister for communications and information technology Kapil Sibal, and secretaries of the department of telecommunications and information technology, besides representatives of technology companies such as Google and Facebook, industry associations and civil society.
The official also said that the situation will be reviewed every three to four months based on “ground realities”.
A government official said on condition of anonymity that the decision to revive the cyber regulatory advisory committee had been taken at a meeting in August. Section 66A was put on the agenda since it was the subject of much debate, he said. The meeting, however, was not a pre-emptive measure ahead of the PIL that was taken up in the Supreme Court. The official also said that the government will spell out its position in court in favour of the legislation.
PTI contributed to this story.