December 15, 2014

For Better Signage on the Cyber Highway

The following article originally appeared in The Hindu on December 15, 2014. An excerpt is below, and the full text can be accessed here.

If you are reading this article, you have in all likelihood committed a crime. According to Indian law — specifically, Section 66A of the amended Information Technology Act — you could be facing a fine and a prison sentence of up to three years for having sent “by means of a computer resource or communication device” information that is “grossly offensive or has menacing character” or information you know “to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will.”

The IT Act’s vagueness and comprehensiveness are troubling at many levels. Instances of Section 66A’s use have been infrequent but arbitrary. Several prominent examples date from 2012, such as a Jadavpur University professor arrested for disseminating a cartoon of Ms. Mamata Banerjee, a businessman in Puducherry charged for a supposedly offensive tweet against a politician, and the arrest of two young women in Maharashtra over comments related to Bal Thackeray’s funeral. Last year, the IT Cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) compared the ostensibly draconian nature of Section 66A to the Emergency, with several leaders urging that it be amended or watered down.

Just last week, the Supreme Court requested clarity on Section 66A from the Centre, pointing to the inadequacy of the law and the arbitrariness of its use. The government, in its reply, defended the law: “even a single unlawful/illegal message or image has a potential to tear the social fabric and destroy peace and tranquillity.”


The inadequacies of India’s Internet regime are not relegated to this one particularly contentious piece of legislation. In reality, the Indian state, Indian society, and the Indian economy confront a series of interrelated dilemmas pertaining to the future of the Internet. The manner in which these dilemmas are addressed will be crucial to determining India’s future as an open society, a secure state, and a competitive economy.