- Associated Press
- A poster at a protest against online censorship in Bangalore
India’s telecom ministry plans to make it harder for police to register cases against people accused of online hate speech, a move that follows criticism the law was being misused to stifle freedom of expression.
Any complaint on content deemed offensive will now require the approval of senior police officers, a telecom ministry official said at a press briefing Thursday. The official said the department will share these guidelines with all state governments.
Earlier this month, the arrest of two girls over a comment sparked widespread outrage against local police and the IT law under which they were charged. Shaheen Dhada, 21, was temporarily arrested in a town near Mumbai for complaining on Facebook about the effective shutdown of the city for the funeral of Bal Thackeray, the founder and head of a Hindu right-wing party, the Shiv Sena. A friend of Ms. Dhada was also detained, for “liking” her comment.
Both were charged under Section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act, which punishes sharing offensive Internet content. But the act’s vague wording, critics say, allows too much room for interpretation – and abuse – by law enforcement officials.
The guidelines introduced by the telecom department mean that, in metropolitan areas, the approval of police officers ranked inspector general of police or higher will be required to register complaints under Section 66A. They will also have to justify in writing why the case is being registered. In non-metropolitan areas, the approval of officials ranked deputy commissioners of police or higher is required.
Station-level officers, like those who registered the case against the two girls in the town of Palghar, will no longer be able to do so. On Tuesday, two police officers in Palghar were suspended over the Facebook case, which has been transferred to a police station in nearby Boisar.
But it’s unclear whether the new guidelines are legally binding. “Without the law being amended these cosmetic changes are of no consequence,” argues Pavan Duggal, a Delhi-based lawyer and cybercrime expert. Others disagree, saying that these are only clarifications, and don’t require an amendment of the act. The IT Act says that “a police officer not below the rank of Inspector” can investigate criminal allegations under the law.
Many free speech activists welcomed the move. “I think this is a great step forward,” said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society. “There is still a lot to be done, but for now I am content with the government’s decision of wanting to monitor the situation on the ground,” he added.
Some activists were disappointed that the IT ministry said it has no plans to reword the law. Critics see Section 66A as problematic because it uses terms like “grossly offensive” and “menacing” to describe online content, without defining the terms sufficiently.
Anja Kovacs, who heads the New Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project, a non-profit organization, welcomed the guidelines. But she also said that if they fail to make a difference, she will press for the wording of the act to change.
Meanwhile, a court in the southern city of Chennai recently started hearing a case challenging the constitutionality of Section 66A on the grounds it goes against the right to free speech.
Indian IT minister Kapil Sibal earlier argued that the application of the law – not the law itself – was what threatened free speech. Backers of the law say it’s necessary to protect citizens from defamation.