The Internet space has no doubt come to embody freedom, where monopoly over content is way more difficult than any other medium of expression. However, lack of regulation is also the other side of webspace that is a growing concern for its users. Site crashes, virus and malware infecting systems and spams are amongst some of the problems of the triple “W” world today.
The institution of the Information Technology Act (IT Act 2000) was precisely to handle the latter case, i.e. the increased number of frauds, especially with regard to online transactions. However, the need for surveillance and regulation of content circulating online came to the fore when terrorist groups were reportedly using them for carrying out terrorist activities. With the recognition of cyber crime as one of the excesses of internet world, the State expanded the scope of IT Act (2000) to deal with this problem. Here are the two most contentious sections of the Act as amended in 2008.
- Section 66A criminalises offensive content and makes the source or the person circulating the content legally liable and punishable.
- Section 69A empowers the central government to block sites altogether.
While the former section stands valid given the excesses of the cyber world as mentioned before, the latter becomes problematic as there is no mechanism of challenging the decisions of the central government, if need be. The rationale behind blocking sites and what is considered to be offensive or threatening remains unclear. As a result of this lack of clarity, a series of instances have been recorded in our recent history when this particular section has been misused by those in power and authority. Hacking, site crashing and blocking have been used as means to erase critical attitude to the state or other political parties. Back in 2012, two girls were arrested for posting a statement expressing annoyance at the shut down of the city observed on Bal Thackeray’s funeral day. Three days back some of the participants of the “Kiss of Love” campaign in Kerala complained that their accounts were hacked and that their page had temporarily crashed.
However, this abuse of power is not restricted to the political parties of the state in particular. But interest groups, lobbyists and big corporate sharks can also easily manipulate content and block critical sites and pages. This is exemplified by Arindam Chaudhury, the head of IIPM, who had earned severe criticism for asking the Department of Telecom (DoT) to block 78 URLs and 54 Facebook pages that took a critical stand of either his institute or him. These cases highlight as to how the offensiveness of the content is the monopoly of the powerful. Drawing from these examples, it is no surprise that India indeed tops the list for blocking Facebook posts as well.
Consequently, in the absence of accountability of the central governments discretionary powers regarding the offensive nature of the content in dispute, any statement- be it out of context, or just sarcasm; or simply an individual opinion- can be made liable.
Reason requires one to investigate and analyse the claims of any particular criticism. Therefore, every statement of criticism, if it can be corroborated with real accounts and is a widely held idea, can’t be seen as a threat, obscene or defamatory. Therefore while not every argument or criticism is valid, the validity of the same needs to established through a contestation of conflicting perspectives and not by limiting and suppressing contradicting ideas; or by blocking sites since turning a blind eye does not mean that something does not exist; it just means that reality is hidden from us and I have no idea how this can be reassuring for those who seem to wish for complete control over content.
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