The public outcry over an internet law that saw two women in Maharashtra being arrested for their Facebook posts has provoked a furious debate - online, in the Supreme Court, and now within the government as well.
The problem, all parties seem to agree, is that Section 66(A) of the internet law is insalubriously worded, making it easy to misuse. The law calls for up to three years of punishment for sending offensive messages via computers.
But while IT minister Kapil Sibal feels the wording cannot be changed, Law Minister Ashwini Kumar contradicted him today. Speaking exclusively to NDTV, the minister said, " My personal view... is that any law, if it is so worded as to leave a wide range of discretion with anyone in the matter of its implementation, does give rise to multiple opportunities of its abuse. Therefore, law, particularly law with penal consequences should be such as is capable of correct and purposive interpretation and should not be so worded as could lead to avoidable misuse."
The Law Ministry shared the same opinion in a note submitted last week to a government committee that deals with cyber regulation and was reviewing the contentious law. (Read note
Last week, Mr Sibal told NDTV that changing the language of the law is not feasible - for one, it would have to go through the lengthy process of being cleared by parliament; also, the IT minister said it is not possible to define "philosophical concepts like menacing character." Mr Sibal said that a similar internet law in the UK uses the same language and terms.
Instead, Mr Sibal said that as a step to check the misuse of Section 66(A), fresh guidelines have been issued making it more difficult for police to arrest people for posts on social networking sites. Any arrest for a social media comment that is perceived to create social unrest will now have to be approved by a senior police official.
Last month, two women in Thane, a suburb of Mumbai, were arrested and the freed on bail for criticising the shutdown of India's financial capital after the death of Shiv Sena president Bal Thackeray. While one woman posted the comment, her friend who "liked" the comment was also arrested.
The Supreme Court last week criticised the Maharashtra government for the arrests and gave the state government four weeks to defend its actions. The court also said that the language of the internet law is "not well-intended. It can be misused."
(With inputs from The Associated Press