Update: SC seeks explanation from Maharashtra on ‘Facebook arrests’, Guidelines to IT act issued


Update: SC seeks explanation from Maharashtra on ‘Facebook arrests’, Guidelines to IT act issued

Update: Hearing the public interest litigations filed by Shreya Singhal, a law student from Delhi that describes Section 66(A) of the IT Act as unconstitutional, today Supreme Court asked Maharashtra government  to explain the circumstances under which administration arrested two Mumbai girls for posting comments on Facebook regarding November 18 Mumbai shutdown for Bal Thackeray’s funeral. The bench hearing PIL was comprised of Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice J Chelameswar asked  Maharashtra government to file its response within four weeks on the PIL.

Yesterday: The central government has issued guidelines that state approval from a high ranking police officer will have to be sought before registering complaints under the controversial section 66 (A) of the Information Technology act.

Recent incidents which  include arbitrary police action on youngsters for posting comments on social networking sites was met with widespread outrage and prompted the government to issue the guidelines.

In an advisory issued to the state governments, the center said that prior approval from the highest level of police need to be sought before acting or registering complaints under the Section 66 (A) of the IT act [source].

“The concerned police officer or police station may not register any complaints 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,”

The section deals with punishment for offensive messages online. However, critics say that its too loosely defined. It gives powers for law enforcement agencies to register complaints on  ‘grossly offensive or menacing’ statements, ‘false information, or information causing annoyance, insult, danger, inconvenience, deceiving, or misleading.’ These phrases are too loosely defined and threaten to stifle freedom of expression on the Internet.

Last week, two women in Mumbai were arrested by the police for protesting a statewide bandh on Facebook. Baffled over the arrest, the press council of India Chairman Justice Katju asked Chief Minister of Maharashtra to initiate criminal proceedings against the police personnel who allegedly arrested the women. Following the incident, various cases of misuse of IT act came to light. Two Air India employees was arrested earlier after a police stormed his house in the middle of the night for sharing allegedly “lewd” comments on Facebook. Most cases were charged under the Section 66 (A) of the IT act.

Supreme court to hear PIL on Section 66 (A) today

Several public interest litigations challenging the IT act are in courts presently. Shreya Singhal, a law student from Delhi has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that describes Section 66(A) of the IT Act as unconstitutional. [via] A PIL was filed in Kerala and Karnataka earlier.

Amended in 2008 by government Section 66(A) of the  IT Act, has provision of jail upto three years as punishment for sending “offensive” or “annoying” messages through a computer or communication device. Internet activists and experts are of view that the law needs to be reworded more precisely, so that potential violations are clearly explained.

Soon after the PIL, Altamas Kabir, Chief Justice of India said that Ms Singhal’s case will be heard urgently this afternoon at 2 pm. He also expressed his wonder on why no one has approached the Supreme Court (over this) and even thought of taking up the issue suo moto.

One other problem with the act was section 79, which was amended to hold intermediaries such as Google, Facebook and Twitter liable for user generated content over which they have little control.

This post will be updated as we hear more from the courts.

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