New Delhi: The Supreme Court will on Thursday examine the constitutional validity of Section 66A of the IT Act in the wake of recent arrests of people for posting comments critical of politicians.
The apex court headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir directed the hearing of a public interest litigation (PIL).
The petition was filed by Shreyansh Singhal, drawing the court's attention to the largescale misuse of section 66A.
The section provides for action against people for posting offensive and annoying comments on websites or other electronic mediums.
A Facebook 'like' could land you in jail - courtesy Section 66A of IT Act
As senior counsel Mukul Rohtagi mentioned the matter before the court, the chief justice observed: "We were wondering why nobody has filed a petition on the issue. In fact we were considering taking suo motto cognizance of these incidents."
The PIL petitioner has drawn the attention of the court on some incidents of misuse of section 66A of the IT Act.
In April, Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested in Kolkata for circulating a cartoon depicting West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
More recently, a young woman, Shaheen Dhada, and her friend were arrested in Maharashtra for a Facebook post questioning Mumbai's shutdown following Bal Thackeray's death.
SC seeks AG's help in deciding plea to amend IT Act
After the Supreme Court on agreed to hear a plea to amend the Information Technology Act, the court sought Attorney General G E Vahanvati's help in deciding it.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, however, refused the petitioner's plea that no coercive action should be taken by the government authorities against people for posting such messages on websites during pendency of the case.
The court posted the matter for further hearing on Friday.
While agreeing to hear the case, the bench said it was considering to take suo motu cognisance of recent incidents of arrest of people and wondered why nobody had so far challenged the particular provision of the IT Act.
The court was hearing a public interest litigation petition filed by Delhi student Shreya Singhal, who contended that "the phraseology of Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 is so wide and vague and incapable of being judged on objective standards, that it is susceptible to wanton abuse and hence falls foul of Article 14, 19 (1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution."
She submitted that "unless there is judicial sanction as a prerequisite to the setting into motion the criminal law with respect to freedom of speech and expression, the law as it stands, is highly susceptible to abuse and for muzzling free speech in the country."
The arrests which have been referred to by Shreya in her petition include that of a 21-year-old girl for questioning on Facebook the shutdown in Mumbai after Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's death, which was 'liked' and shared by her friend, who was also arrested.
Govt to issue fresh guidelines to prevent misuse of IT Act
No less than a police officer of a rank of DCP will be allowed to permit registration of a case under provisions of the Information Technlogy Act that deals with spreading hatred through electronic messages, following uproar over recent arrests under the controversial law.
In the case of metropolitan cities, such an approval would have to come at the level of Inspector General of Police.
"... the concerned police officer or police station may not register any complaints (under Section 66 (A))unless he has obtained prior approval at the level of an officer not below the DCP rank in urban and rural areas and IG level in metros," a top source said.
The guidelines are being issued after controversial arrests by Mumbai police under Section 66 (A) of Information Technology (IT) Act that deals with spreading hatred through electronic messages.
The cases against two teenage girls who had objected to a bandh-like situation in Mumbai after Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's death and were arrested, are now being dropped.
Yesterday, a 19-year-old boy was detained in Thane district on suspicion of posting an "objectionable" Facebook comment against MNS chief Raj Thackeray but later let off.
Currently, a police station in-charge or an inspector can register a case under the said provision.
Section 66 (A), which is a bailable offence and provides for a jail term of up to three years, makes it an offence to send, by means of a computer resource or communication device, any information which is grossly offensive, menacing, causes annoyance or hatred.
The source expressed confidence that such instances can be avoided once the new guidelines were put in place.
"There are procedural difficulties faced... we are going to circulate to all state governments as guidelines with regard to registering any complaints under Section 66 (A)," he said.
The IT Act is not being amended, an official clarified, adding that powers vest only with Parliament and what the government intends to do is only to issue operational guidelines.
Maharashtra Police drops case against girls
Facing flak, Maharashtra Police on Thursday decided to drop charges against the two girls whose arrests over their Facebook post criticising the shutdown of Mumbai during Bal Thackeray's funeral sparked a national outrage.
In a relief to the girls, the dropping of charges came on a day when the Supreme Coourt said it was considering to take suo motu cognisance of recent incidents of arrest of people for offences under Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act which deals with online offensive content.
In a related case, a 19-year-old boy from neighbouring Thane district, detained on suspicion of posting an "objectionable" Facebook comment against MNS chief Raj Thackeray, was let off after police found that a "fake account" was used by some persons in the teenager's name.
"No chargesheet will be filed in the case of arrest of two girls from Palghar. There will be a closure report," Director General of Police Sanjeev Dayal said.
The closure report in a case is usually filed by police before the court concerned when investigators conclude that no case is made out against the accused.
Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan, both 21, were arrested after Dhada had criticised in a Facebook post the November 18 shutdown due to Thackeray's funeral. Shrinivasan had 'liked' the post. The two were later granted bail shortly after they were remanded in 14-day judicial custody.
Though Dhada did not name Thackeray, a local Sena leader complained against the girls and police arrested the duo on November 19, sparking an outcry.
Maharashtra government on Tuesday suspended the two police officers, SP (Thane rural) Ravindra Sengaonkar and senior police inspector Shrikant Pingle, for arresting the girls.
A bandh was observed at Palghar town in adjoining Thane district on Wednesday following a call by Shiv Sena against suspension of the two police officers.
"Sunil Vishwakarma is cooperating with us in the case and was allowed to go last night after initial questioning. He is nowhere involved in the case," a senior police officer said.
Police in neighbouring Thane district had picked up the boy after receiving a complaint alleging that he had posted some "objectionable" comment on Raj Thackeray on the social networking site. The boy has not been charged.
According to police, a "fake account" was used by unidentified person or persons in the teenager's name and a case was being registered in this regard.
Police to file closure report
Maharashtra Police are likely to file a closure report in the case of arrest of two girls for questioning on Facebook the Mumbai shutdown following Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's death, the state police chief said on Thursday.
"No charge sheet will be filed in the case of arrest of two girls from Palghar. There will be a closure report," Director General of Police Sanjeev Dayal told reporters.
Dayal hinted that since a charge sheet had not been filed in the case yet, there did not arise the need to formally drop the charges. However, the case will be closed and a report will be filed.
Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil on Tuesday said the two police officials involved in the arrests of Shaheen Dadha and her friend Renu Srinivasan have been suspended and others given strict warnings.
Police arrested Shaheen Nov 18 for posting a comment on her Facebook page questioning the shutdown after Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's death Nov 17 and when he was given a public cremation the next day.
Her friend Renu, who had 'liked' the comment, was also arrested.
Patil said that based on the report submitted by Inspector General (Konkan Range) Sukhvinder Singh, it was decided that Superintendent of Police (Thane Rural) Ravindra Sengaonkar and Palghar police chief senior inspector Shrikant Pingle would be suspended and a departmental probe be ordered against them.
Additional Superintendent of Police (Thane Rural) Sangram Nishandar was also told to be alert while dealing with such cases. The officer is alleged to have played a role in ensuring the arrests of the two girls.
The Bombay High Court has also transferred the magistrate who released the girls on a bail of Rs.15,000 each.