Consider the following Tweet that a 17-year-old made to British swimmer Tom Daley, who failed to get a medal at the London Olympics, "i'm going to find you and i'm going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat your a nobody people like you make me sick."
That’s not all. The youth also lashed out at other users who didn’t like his Tweets. Sample this: "do you want me to come to your f***** house now with a rope and strangle you with it." Other Tweets had even more profane language and are difficult to reproduce in a news site like this one, especially with Indian sensibilities.
These are clear death threats even if the boy didn’t know the full implication of what he was Tweeting. The local police promptly arrested him, released him on bail after giving him a "harassment warning" and launched an investigation into his entire Twitter account.
That seems fair enough. Such kind of language and threats are unpardonable in any country. No-one criticised the British police for making such a call, even though it is one of the oldest democracies in the world and they value free speech.
Now take the case of India. The Twitter handle @ravi_the_indian, going by the name of Ravi Srinivasan Tweeted the following: "got reports that karthick chidambaram has amassed more wealth than Vadra".
The interesting part was that this was quite an obscure account. Mr Srinivasan, a businessman, was certainly not very popular on Twitter. He had only slightly more than a dozen followers and followed a few more. He had just come out with a 100+ Tweets. For regular Twitter users, this could well be called a defunct account.
However based on that Tweet, the police came calling at his doorstep. They arrested him, even denying him bail initially. It is a chilling move because, there must be thousands of Indian Twitter users who have at one point of time Tweeted something which could be considered much more offensive that the above Tweet.
Any one of these thousands could be picked up under the dreaded Section 66A of the Indian IT Act. That means that any blog, Facebook status message or Tweet that you post online if it causes "annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will" you can be arrested!
So if you "annoy" politicians online, it could spell huge trouble for you. In the case of Mr Srinivasan, he had annoyed someone who happens to be the son of P Chidambaram, Finance Minister of India and former Home Minister.
Section 69 empowers the governments (both at the States and Centre) or their authorized agency to "intercept, monitor or decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource". That means that tomorrow the Chief Minister of a state can follow the Centre’s cue and start throwing people in jail for their blogs, Tweets or Facebook status messages.
While the original law was passed in 2000, the amendment of 2008 has led to a situation where there are not enough procedural and legal safeguards as are present in other parts of the world. In fact, the 2008 amendment was passed without any discussion in the Lok Sabha and that is a cause for concern.
Most media houses were undeterred by the amendment at that time as they see the social media as a direct competition and cannot stand its critics in social network forums, merely dismissing them as "trolls".
However a couple of journalists have also had their Twitter handles suspended showing that the IT Act can be used on anyone whether they represent a media house or not.
With increasing Internet penetration and the rising use of regional languages in the computer world, this problem will get more and more acute. This was brought to fore when fake PMO Twitter handles were banned in the wake of the Assam violence, two totally unrelated issues.
Statistics have also shown that most of the websites that are brought down have more to do with the criticism of the government than those causing communal disharmony or perpetrating criminal activities.
Some time back a very popular hashtag started trending on Twitter called #Emergency2012. While it seemed quite an extreme concept at first, it is now slowly gaining ominous proportions with more and more people getting arrested.
In one manner, the Congress government has already imposed a vague form of Online Emergency, as the arrest of Mr Srinivasan showed, which was not an isolated case but one in many.
So remember, for the Indian online user, jail is only a click away now!
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