With the advent of modern technology and increased accessibility, the Internet has seamlessly integrated itself into our lives due to its ability to provide us with information and entertainment whenever we choose to access it. It has greatly facilitated the process of globalisation, connecting people immediately who are otherwise geographically unsuitably located. Its benefits largely outnumber its defects, but those defects may sometimes hinder the process of human interaction, sometimes to such a large extent that they initiate a dark downward spiral from where there is no going back. I refer particularly to offensive content on the Internet and people’s reaction to it.
On a daily basis people are subjected to constant online harassment and humiliation by others who use the anonymity provided to them by the Internet to perpetuate verbal, textual and photographic violence, especially against women. The comments made are usually engendered by the very fact that the subjects are women and not due to the work they have done. Such comments and posts are often very highly sexist, sexualised, derogatory and violent, even more so when religion gets involved. A prime example is the Praagaash row, when an all-girls rock band in Jammu and Kashmir was the target of hate and offensive posts on social media because they were girls and because they were Muslim. A fatwa was issued against them to quit, which they respected out of fear due to the daily organised threats of malignant abuse, rape and murder they were receiving.
Such offensive content can cause severe psychological damage to the recipient, especially as in this case, the recipients were three teenage girls who only wished to produce music, and not cause any harm to anybody else. Constructive criticism is a good thing; it helps one learn and grow as an individual, but receiving highly offensive negative reviews, derogatory condemnation, threats and insults to one’s work and body can cause even the most composed and thick-skinned people to flinch. It may lead sensitive people to contemplate suicide as a means of escaping shame.
The question then arises of what offensive content constitutes. There is no legal definition in India of what the word ‘offensive’ encompasses. The standards of a reasonable man are generally taken, by the courts, as the benchmark of what may constitute as offensive. The law regulating offensive content and messages on the cyberspace is Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 which provides the widest legal recourse to justice for offensive content on the Internet, with a term of imprisonment that may extend upto 3 years and a fine. It seeks to punish people sending information through a computer or any other communication device that is (a) grossly offensive or has a menacing character or (b) causes annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will towards others or (c) leads the recipient to misconstrue the origin of a message. Given that a lot of the words contained in this provision have no specific legal definition, the scope for interpreting the law is huge and left to the discretion of the judiciary. This also increases the scope of its misapplication.
But the legal system is secondary to when it comes to immediate reaction to offensive content and what it is constitutive of. The first reaction comes from the people, and taking into account the diversity that exists in this country, be it religious, cultural, political or societal, everyone is bound to have different views on different issues. When conflated with the ability of people to take offense at almost anything, the resultant is a highly charged atmosphere. Everything that is rendered public must be done so with careful thought behind it, keeping in mind the context of your surroundings.
If that isn’t done, one may suffer the same fate as that of Shaheen Dhada and Renu Shrinivasan, two girls based in Thane district of Maharashtra. The former posted on Facebook, questioning the shutdown in Mumbai following Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray’s death. The other merely clicked the ‘like’ button. Dire consequences were to follow as both girls were arrested for ‘promoting hatred and ill-will’. The workplace of Shaheen’s relatives was also vandalised by Shiv Sainiks, outraged by the fact that a teenage girl dared to voice her opinion on a social media platform that is meant for doing just that. Criminal cases were instituted against them, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Section 66A of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 and they were sent to judicial custody for 14 days before furnishing bail bonds which guaranteed their release.
Another case in the same year happened when a man with 16 followers on Twitter alleged that P. Chidambaram’s son was corrupt. He too was arrested under Section 66A and faced the prospect of 3 years imprisonment. These incidents only serve as a reminder of the period of suffocation of freedom of speech that this country is currently undergoing because legislators fail to draw the line between social media regulation and the freedom of speech and expression.
Seeing as how the offence is a cognizable one (which means that it is upto the police to decide whether the crime committed comes under the ambit of the provision or not), it gives greater power to law enforcement officials and adds another stage where the law may be misapplied. Given the various instances already iterated in the preceding paragraphs and the general attitude that subsists in this country, it is easy to see that the police do generally buckle under political pressure and religious sentiment, even if it is not the right thing to do.
It is very important to curb offensive messages that cross the barriers of decency but the same should not be done at the cost of a fundamental, human right that is free speech. Unfortunately, Section 66A has come to be seen as just that, a powerful tool in the hands of powerful people, an individual or the State, that allows them to silence dissent and in the face of opposition, even people by using the wide provisions to harass innocent, unsuspecting people. The line between regulating offensive posts on social media and curbing the right to free speech must not be crossed at all costs because the day it becomes acceptable for the State to censor this freedom is the day citizens become powerless to wield their right to express what they have to say.
- ‘Section 66A: Do Not Send Offensive Messages’, The Internet Democracy Project, available at: http://internetdemocracy.in/laws/section-66a/
- Richa Kaul Padte, ‘Keeping Women Safe? Gender, Online Harassment and Indian Law’, The Internet Democracy Project, available at: http://internetdemocracy.in/reports/keeping-women-safe-gender-online-harassment-and-indian-law/
- Richa Kaul Padte, ‘Section 66A, Sexual Haraasment and Women’s Rights’, The Internet Democracy Project, available at: http://internetdemocracy.in/2012/12/section-66a-sexual-harassment-and-womens-rights-2/
- Vishakha Saxena, ‘Lessons From 2014: The Flip Side of Social Media and the Need for Self-Censorship’, Hindustan Times, Last updated on Dec 30, 2014 06:32 IST, available at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/socialmedia-updates/2014-lessons-need-for-media-literacy/article1-1301542.aspx
- Krishnadas Rajagopal, ‘The Reasonable Man vs. the Hypersensitive Man’, The Hindu, Last updated on January 18, 2015 00:49 IST, available at: http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/sunday-anchor-reasonable-man-vs-the-hypersensitive-man/article6797226.ece
- Ishfaq-ul-Hassan, ‘Quit Band for Islam: Praagaash Member’, DNA, last updated on Wednesday, 6 February 2013 9:00am IST, available at: http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-quit-band-for-islam-praagaash-member-1796742
- Shehla Shora, ‘The Praagaash Row: An Attack on Free Speech’, The Internet Democracy Project, available at: http://internetdemocracy.in/2013/02/the-praagaash-row-an-attack-on-free-speech/
About the Author
Shuchita is pursuing her B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) degree from National Law University, Delhi and is currently in her first year. She likes reading books dealing with Indian history and politics. To further her love for writing, she manages a blog here. She is currently interning at the National Commission for Women and Model Governance Foundation.