The Supreme Court has asked the Maharashtra government to explain why two young women there were arrested for their posts on Facebook last week. The arrests were made under a contentious internet law whose vague wording makes it easy to misuse - it allows for up to three years in jail for "annoying" and "offensive" messages sent electronically.
The law - Section 66 (A) of the IT Act - has been challenged by a law student named Shreya Singhal in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and violates freedom of speech. Attorney General GE Vahanvati told the judges today that the law is "well-intended." They disagreed. "No, the wording is not well-intended. It can be abused," said Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir, who yesterday shared fierce criticism of "the Facebook arrests."
Outside court, Ms Singhal said today, "You don't get arrested if you air your views on TV or write in newspapers. Why should it be any different if you post your views on the Net? I do not want to be live in fear of being punished for expressing my views on a public forum as a citizen of a democratic nation...I am not doing this for me, I am doing this for the citizens of this country."
Earlier this month, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan had on Facebook questioned the shutdown of Mumbai for the funeral of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. The women were released on bail after a few hours; they had been charged with spreading hatred under the contentious section 66(A) of the IT Act; the case against them was dropped yesterday.
In April, a professor in West Bengal, Ambikesh Mahapatra, was arrested for posting a cartoon on social networks of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister.
The Supreme Court has today issued notice to the West Bengal government too, making it a party in the case. It also issued notices to the governments of Puducherry and Delhi for similar incidents and has sought all responses within four weeks.
The massive public backlash against the arrests in Maharashtra has forced a new scrutiny of internet laws. Yesterday, the government said it has issued new guidelines to control the misuse of Section 66(A), which is widely criticised for its vague wording. A senior police officer has to sanction any action taken citing this law.
So far, a junior officer in charge of a police station has been able to register cases for alleged violations of the law. Critics point out that this new policy is a suggestion and not binding upon state governments.