Protect online citizens before regulating Web

It's ironic how "powerful" Indians can tolerate poverty, corruption, and female foeticide, but not a post on Facebook and an accompanying "Like".
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

On Monday, a 21-year old girl based in Palghat (located on the outskirts of Mumbai), Shaheen Dhandha, updated her Facebook status about the shutdown of Mumbai due to the demise of the Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray. Within a few hours, she was arrested along with her 20-year old friend who "Liked" her status.

The two girls were booked under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 295A ("hurting religious sentiments"), 505(2) ("promoting enmity or ill-will between classes") and section 66A of the Information Technology Act ("sending offensive messages through communication services").

Such incidences are not new to cyberspace, but what spooked me was that so many of my friends in Mumbai and elsewhere had posted updates and news articles pertaining to Thackeray's demise. One friend, for instance, was asked to leave a restaurant on Saturday evening where she was having dinner because the restaurant was shutting down after news surfaced about the Shiv Sena chief's death. Her Facebook update narrated this incident. Many of her friends commented on the same; most of them asking her to stay safe. They could all have met Shaheen's fate, right?

There was fear in the city, undoubtedly. And now, there will be fear on the cyberspace as well.

The arrest of Shaheen and her friend caused widespread outrage on social networking Web sites, with Netizens denouncing the extreme measure taken by the state police. Even Union ministers, the Maharashtra chief minister, and several senior government officials criticized the arrests.

Telecom minister Kapil Sibal told a news channel that the case might have been mishandled by the Maharashtra police and the government could step in to save the situation. "The Maharashtra police mishandled the law, it's illegal to arrest people like this," Sibal said. "Sending people booked under Section 66(A) of the IT Act to judicial custody is not in accordance with law."

"There was a need to educate enforcement agencies on how not to misuse the law and how better it can be enforced," he added.

While there is much debate, globally, on why the Internet should be regulated, the freedom of speech and expression seems to have taken a backseat. In a democracy, you need to protect the right of Netizens who want to express their opinions and feelings through blogs, tweets, and status updates.

Instead, it seems like "fear" is percolating down, especially among the youth. I read someone's post on the same subject as Shaheen's, and one comment read: "I will not say more. It seems that Facebook, too, has eyes and ears."

More than fear, it is the growing disgust among Indian citizens for politicians and the police. And that definitely does not augur well for a "democracy" like India.

The fact is there is enough scope to misinterpret law. Recent instances, like the arrest of Aseem Trivedi (who was charged with sedition because his cartoons lampooned the corrupt and venal state of affairs in the country) and Ambikesh Mahapatra (a Jadavpur University professor, who was arrested for allegedly circulating a caricature of the West Bengal chief minister--Mamata Banerjee--and former railway minister Mukul Roy, which also found its way to Facebook), prove politicians and police authorities have been misinterpreting law.

These are very dangerous signs. How can we turn a blind eye to so many crimes, scams, and corrupt practices and book people for simply expressing their opinion over the Internet? It's time Indian administrators and political parties focused on the larger issues facing the country and leave the online population alone. 

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