India's Supreme Court to hear petition against cyberlaw

The government is under pressure to amend a section of the law, which is seen to be vague

India's Supreme Court has asked the government of Maharashtra state in western India for information on what action was taken against police officers there who arrested two girls earlier this month for a Facebook post.

The court has asked for information in connection with a petition filed by a student, Shreya Singhal, challenging a section of India's cyberlaw that has been used in some cases to arrest people for their online comments, her counsel Ranjeeta Rohtagi said on Friday.

The court has also asked for notices to be served to some other Indian states where there have been cases of people arrested for online posts, Rohtagi said.

The petition asks India's top court to strike down section 66A of the Information Technology Act, saying it violates Articles 14, 19, and 21 of India's Constitution which are concerned with basic rights including freedom of speech.

The section is too vague and arbitrary, Rohtagi said.

The federal government has meanwhile said it plans to review the cyberlaw, following widespread protests against the arrests of the two girls by state police in Palghar near Mumbai.

However, the government has indicated it is more likely to issue clarifications disallowing enforcement of the law by junior police officers than it is to amend the law, which has been criticized as very vague.

Shaheen Dhada, who wrote a Facebook post criticizing the disruption in Mumbai after the death of a political leader, and her friend Renu Srinivasan, who hit "like" when she saw the post on Facebook, were arrested by state police under Section 66A and section 505 (2) of the Indian Penal Code which deals with spreading rumors or alarming news that can promote enmity, hatred, and ill-will between religious, racial, and linguistic communities and castes.

Section 66A makes it punishable by a fine and imprisonment of up to three years if a person uses a "computer resource or a communication device" to transmit a message that is "grossly offensive and has menacing character." It also makes it an offence if a person transmits information known to be false to cause among other things hatred, enmity or ill will.

The section is so vague that there have been no convictions under it so far, said Pavan Duggal, a cyberlaw expert who practices before India's Supreme Court.

The government said Thursday that after consultations with industry groups and other organizations, it was agreed that guidelines should be issued to local governments to clarify the intent of the law and enable uniform implementation across the country.

Some civil rights groups argue that there should be more clarity in the law, or it should be struck down.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
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