Recent events in India’s legal system (read Facebook arrests), for all its right and wrongs, did have the social purpose of educating the masses about a certain piece of Indian legislature that treads into entirely new territories. The Information Technology Act, 2000 (and later amended in 2008) was created to regulate Indian cyberspace (here, assuming demarcation of cyberspace based on the geological location of client and server machines – how else, indeed, can one define “enforced within the territory of India”?). This act was a sequel to a resolution passed by the United Nations to create a law regulating electronic commerce.
Regulating Cyberspace – the good, the bad, the ugly
The Internet is a unique flavor of media, simply by virtue of the enormous power it provides to the Individual. Its uniqueness is enumerated by 3 factors:
- Furthering the cause of the Individual – Today, one man armed with a laptop and an internet connection can create global shockwaves, as we have seen time and again during the Arab Spring. One doesn’t need to be a media baron, or own legions of printing presses, or have their own news channel to be heard – a single tweet, a single Youtube video is adequate.
- Speed of getting news across – News is sent out immediately. This gives people the ability to react to events almost instantaneously, and get a blow-by-blow account of happenings. For instance, during the US Marines’ assault on Osama Bin Laden’s hide-out in Abbotabad, the Twitter-ati gave each tiny detail of the assault.
- Audience – The internet gives the ability to reach out to a vast cross-section of society. Irrespective of region, religion, caste, ethnicity or (thanks to Google translate) linguistics, people can reach to news everywhere.
- A Parallel source of information – With the expansion of communication technologies (and backdoors into the same), it becomes very difficult to control the content on the internet. The sort of large-scale censorship the print media is subject to cannot be blatantly used on the internet (although there is no lack of those who try).
And this is precisely why netizens believe that the internet should be off-limits for government regulations. Because the internet (and everything associated with it) belongs to the people, and the people alone, the government should have no say in how it is run. By having a parallel and potent medium of communication, the internet does strengthen democracy and freedom. A legitimate fear that share by users is that the enormous power bequeathed by the internet grants, governments will try to muzzle, fearing the people’s dissent.
While these concerns stand well, the other side of the coin is that regulations are needed to protect these very netizens. The internet created a wave of new types of crimes – free distribution of copyrighted material, for one – and reinvented others, like identity theft. Hence, need was felt to regulate cyberspace and protect one user from another.
Section 66(A) of IT Act, 2000
One of the most contentious sections of the IT Act is 66(A), which reads –
66A.Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc.: Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,- (a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or (b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device, (c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
A cursory glance at this article will assert its importance. People of all hue and cries have suffered from offensive content on the internet. As IPS (retd.) officer, Kiran Bedi, stated, the sort of tweets that she (and other celebrities) receive are extremely offensive in nature. There has to be a legal recourse to address content that offends our emotional, religious, national or other sentiments – the right to freedom (as under Article 19), is subject to “reasonable restrictions”. Hence, a codified, well-defined law to address cybercrime is necessary. Couple this with the fact that India’s criminal laws – the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) – were compiled in 1860 and 1973 respectively, at a time when the internet did not exists, one realizes that the IT Act and its Sections are important.
Hence, Section 66(A) of the IT Act should remain. However, as we have shown in our functioning, there have to be changes made to it. Changes suggested are:
- In order to prevent the misuse of this act, ambiguity in it ought to be removed. For instance, in Article 66(A), terms such as “grossly offensive”, “having menacing character”, “causing annoyance”, “inconvenience”, “danger”, “obstruction”, “insult”, “injury”, “criminal intimidation”, “enmity”, “hatred”, “ill will”, “annoyance”, “inconvenience” should be explicitly defined.
- Furthermore, both legislature and the executive ought to be trained in understanding internet jargon. If a legal or quasi-legal officer is to take a decision regarding implementing the IT Act, he should have adequate training and familiarity regarding information technology to be able to take that decision.
No law is universally true, in spatial or time constraints. As time goes on, application reveals the strengths and lacunas in it. Accordingly, the wording of the law must be modified to make its spirit more relevant for contemporary times.