On Friday, a group claiming to be the hacktivists Anonymous hacked into the official website of information technology minister Kapil Sibal and defaced it with unflattering comments about his mental abilities.
The ostensible provocation was Sibal's championing of laws that his critics interpret as a licence to police and muzzle social media. "He had used the words 'Victims of freedom of Expression'. He is hiding the fact that #66A is breaking the internet media," said the group, which opposes cyber surveillance and cyber-censorship, on microblogging site Twitter using the handle @opindia_revenge.
The scourge of governments and corporations worldwide for some years now, Anonymous can probably take on the Indian state, which has in recent days spread fear among people using social networking sites such asFacebook and Twitter, and get away with it. But many others have not been as lucky. And for far trifling reasons.
Two girls in Mumbai were arrested last week after one of them wrote on Facebook that she did not support a total shutdown in Mumbai for Bal Thackeray's funeral.
Her friend was arrested because she 'liked' the status message. Before that, a few weeks ago, police came knocking on the doors of a small businessman in Puducherry at the crack of dawn and took him away. His offence: he had tweeted about the son of finance minister P Chidambaram. A few months ago, a professor fromKolkata was arrested for forwarding caricatures of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee using Facebook.
In all the cases, the law enforcers used an innocuous provision of the IT Act - the Section 66A - which allows for the imprisonment of "any person who sends by any means of a computer resource... any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character".
The use of this provision to hound and arrest ordinary people for voicing mildly objectionable comments on social media platforms has shaken up the online world, triggering accusations that the state is infringing on the citizen's freedom of speech — a fundamental right guaranteed to them under the Constitution.
"Sarcasm is not always slander and opinion is not always public. If such silly and draconian laws are enforced, we will soon become worse than Iran and China," says marketing consultant and socialite Suhel Seth, on Twitter.
Outraged by the recent clampdown, a young law student from Delhi, Shreya Singhal, on Thursday, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, terming the section of the IT Act 'unconstitutional'. On November 23, social activist Nutan Thakur filed a PIL with the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, asking for the section be set aside as the terms used in it are not clear and because it violates the fundamental right to expression under Article 19(1)(a).
Section 66(A) of the IT Act was included in the amendment of the Act in 2008 and has been used in a number of other cases over the years, although not known very publicly.
It reads: "Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource... any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult... shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine."
Its critics say the provision is too omnibus, and open to misuse. "Many of the terms used in the section can be interpreted in various ways. They are vague, not clearly defined. If every word is followed, there won't be any freedom of expression," says Thakur, who filed the PIL in Lucknow with her IPS officer husband Amitabh Thakur.
The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad HC heard the PIL and asked the Centre to file its reply by December 11. Singhal's case is being monitored more closely, with the Supreme Court issuing notices to the Central government, and states of Maharashtra, West Bengal, Delhi and Puducherry to explain the recent arrests of users of social media.
There is widespread angst and many are feeling insecure. Some, like investor and entrepreneur Mahesh Murthy, are asking why the section is there at all when all of the aspects it seeks to cover are already handled under existing laws of obscenity, libel and slander.
Adds Supreme Court lawyer and noted cyber law expert Pavan Duggal: "66A is alike an elastic band, you can stretch it any amount. It's a recipe for disaster, antithetical to free speech as all legitimate bona fide opinion will also be included in it."
But not all feel the provision guarantees abuse. Himanshu Roy, joint commissioner (crime) for Mumbai Police, feels this is a welcome guideline. Mumbai Police, he says, for the last six months, have been following a rule wherein any cyber crime related arrest or even a complaint is filed only after permission from an IG-level officer.
But another IPS officer in Delhi, who did not wish to be named, said the scope of Section 66(A) was too wide and open to interpretations. "It basically covers everything and anything under the sun. It needs to be narrowed down to a large extent and should be made more specific, otherwise it becomes very difficult for law enforcers."