Section 66 A of IT Act
Based on the UN resolution on Electronic Commerce, India passed the Information Technology Act 2000 in May 2000. This act was substantially amended through the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008 in 2008.
The Section 66A of the IT Act penalizes ‘sending false and offensive messages through communication services’. The section reads as under:
Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,
- Any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
- Any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
- Any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages.
Punishment – Imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
The section covers two different acts:
- Sending offensive or menacing messages sent by using electronic communication means.
- Sending false messages to cheat, mislead or deceive people or to cause annoyance to them.
While proving false message is relatively easy, but the real question is ‘what constitutes an electronic message to be offensive or of menacing character?’ Indian law has not defined anywhere the meaning of ‘offensive’ or ‘menacing’. Hence the interpretation becomes relative and differs from person to person. Cyber crimes like, intentionally sending SPAM messages, phishing emails, threatening messages, etc. can also be punished under this section. The section 66A is also applied along with Section 67 or 67B which is related to cyber and child pornography respectively.
Recent incidents of use of section 66A of IT act
In November 2012, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan from Palghar, Maharashtra had on Facebook questioned the shutdown of Mumbai for the funeral of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Based on a complaint, the women were arrested for spreading hatred under the Section 66(A) of the IT Act, triggering a nationwide uproar.
A businessman Ravi Srinivasan was arrested by Puducherry police in October for having tweeted against Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram.
In April, the West Bengal government had arrested a chemistry professor of Jadavpur University Ambikesh Mahapatra on charges of making a cartoon of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and two Trinamool Congress leaders. Police also arrested his neighbour for allegedly circulating it.
Debate on the validity of section 66A of IT
- Recently a PIL has been filed in front of Supreme Court, saying the section 66A of IT act is unconstitutional and void on the basis that it violates Article 14, 19 (1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution.
- Article 14 guarantees Equality before law. It states that the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
- Article 19 (1)(a) guarantees to all the citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of Speech and expression means the right to express one’s own convictions and opinions freely by words of mouth, writing, printing, pictures or any other mode. It also includes the right to propagate or publish the views of other people. Hence the freedom of press is also included in this category.
- Article 21 guarantees Right to Life and Personal Liberty. According to it no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
- The Supreme Court accepting the PIL filed, asked the Maharashtra government to explain the arrest of two Palghar girls under Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act over a Facebook post. It has also sought explanation from the governments of West Bengal and Puducherry where similar incidents happened.
Govt issues new guidelines on section 66 A of IT Act
- The government recently issued new guidelines in the wake of alleged misuse of the section 66A of the IT act.
- According to it the cases dealing with spreading messages of reported hatred by electronic medium will be decided by a senior police officer not below the rank of DCP in rural and urban areas.
- An IGP rank officer will have to give prior approval for registration of cases relating to the section 66(a) of IT Act in metro-politan cities.