Abuse Of India's Information Technology Act Results In India's First Arrested Twitter User
from the #guinnessbookofhorribleworldrecords dept
India's somewhat schizophrenic relationship with privacy and freedom of speech has been discussed here before. The Indian government, on one hand, seems to want to do the right thing and safeguard its citizens from censorship and surveillance… but only up to a point. Once the going gets rough (i.e., outbreaks of violence, demonstrations), the government begins ramping up its surveillance and cracking down on free speakers.
Given this background, it's a bit surprising to hear that India has only just recently chalked up its first Twitter-related arrest. After all, the UK and the US have been doing it for years already. The person on the receiving end of this unfortunate record-setting event made the mistake of criticizing a politician (of course).
On 20 October, he (Ravi Srinivasan) posted a tweet to his 16 followers saying that Karti Chidambaram, a politician belonging to India's ruling Congress party and son of Finance Minister P Chidambaram, had “amassed more wealth than Vadra”.
He was alluding to Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, who was at the centre of a political row after allegations over his links with a top Indian property firm.
This message (“got reports that karthick chidambaram has amassed more wealth than vadra“) went out to all of 16 followers and somehow found its way to Karti himself, who responded like anyone else would when mildly insulted: by contacting law enforcement…
Karti Chidambaram (@KartiPC) did not take the tweet in good humour and filed a police complaint on 29 October.
… which immediately responded with the sort of speed reserved for appeasing angry politicians.
They arrested Mr Srinivasan early next morning, charged him under Section 66A of India's Information Technology [IT] Act, and demanded 15 days of police custody.
Srinivasan's single allegation could have been addressed through India's libel laws, but since that route takes time and money, the offended politician instead used the police department to take care of the “problem” by using the “sweeping power” of Section 66A of the IT Act of 2000.
[Section 66A] can send you to jail for three years for sending an email or other electronic message that “causes annoyance or inconvenience”.
On the face of it, this protects citizens against online harassment.
In reality, the law is more often used by the state as a weapon against dissent. In each such case, police action has been swift and harsh.
In April, the West Bengal government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee used Section 66A against a teacher who had emailed to friends a cartoon that was mildly critical of her.
Loosely worded laws, ostensibly designed to “protect” citizens, usually devolve into tools of censorship. For some strange reason, those with the most power are the ones who feel the most “threatened” by open criticism and dissent. It's little wonder that legislators are more than willing to push through open-ended “cyberlaws” that can be bent to fit any situation. The end result is this fact, which is perhaps least surprising of all:
And, interestingly, Section 66A has never been used against politicians.
To Srinivasan's credit, he refused to back down from his statement. In addition, his arrest and subsequent appearance on television led to him gaining another 2,300 followers, many of whom are wondering if his arrest was tied to his anti-corruption campaigning. Despite the public support of the arrested tweeter, the politician behind his arrest remains unrepentant, tweeting out this amazing statement in his own defense:
“Free speech is subject to reasonable restrictions. I have a right to seek constitutional/legal remedies over defamatory/scurrilous tweets.”
There's nothing “reasonable” about arresting someone rather than following the “constitutional/legal remedies” set up by India's libel law. This is simple thug tactics being deployed by someone operating without fear of reprisal. Section 66A needs to be cleaned up if freedom of speech and privacy are going to be protected, rather than just paid lip service at convenient intervals.