One of the arguments Union Minister for Communication, Information and Technology, Kapil Sibal, often gives to justify Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act is that it is an essential tool in fighting the online harassment of women. “Many kinds of threats can be given on the Internet which cannot be given on a normal communication network. Therefore, the nature of the law has to be different,” reiterated the minister in an interview to NDTV in November 2012.
Online harassment is indeed a serious problem for women. In April this year, for instance, Chennai based writer and activist Meena Kandasamy found herself at the receiving end of sexually charged verbal abuse and threats of violence in response to a 15 April tweet, which said: “Was at the Osmania university beef eating festival. Awesome experience in spite of violence by ABVP.”
In reactionary tweets, totaling more than a hundred, she was called a variety of names including “bitch,” “whore,” and “terrorist.”
“Bloody bitch, u shud be gang raped and telecasted live. That will be awesome experience (sic),” was an example of one such tweet by @sidhh 108.
In October, singer Chinmayi Sripada lodged a complaint with Chennai police that she was getting casteist and vulgar comments about both her and her mother from six twitter handles. “Most of my tweets were misquoted to give a feeling that I am against Tamil, Tamil Tweeters and bloggers and also against Sri Lankan Tamils. Some even started tagging me on Facebook,” Sripada told The Hindu.
This threatening online environment is an extension of real life in terms of the attitude towards the fairer sex. “Just like in real life, women are expected not to comment online about political issues or anything which needs application of the brain. Signs of struggle of power between two genders are very much visible online,” says Vidyut Kale, a Mumbai based blogger, who has received cuss words, rape and death threats. “By the way, education has got nothing to with it,” she adds.
While the Internet can be a hostile place for both sexes, women face additional sexist abuse in a way that men do not. “Trans people who have written both as male and female bloggers, for example, have reported a sharp difference between the two in terms of the abuse they received, and the way in which attacks became more personalised and gender-based after blogging as a woman. There certainly is a trend here,” says Dr Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project, a Delhi based initiative for online freedom of speech which is conducting a study on online harassment.
However, Sibal is wrong to cite online abuse of women as a justification for section 66A of IT Act, which advocates of online freedom of speech claim is a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease.
Moreover, when section 66A was inserted into the IT Act in 2008, the purpose was not to safeguard women from abuse or stalking. According to Kiran Karnik, former president of NASSCOM and member of the expert committee which suggested changes in the IT Act, the amendments proposed by the expert committee were benign, but the Parliamentary standing committee made the law much tighter in its over-enthusiasm.
“Things were added on the pretext of taking care of spam, defamation and that gave huge power to security agencies,” Karnik told NDTV.
Thus, Kapil Sibal’s ‘protect our women’ argument is a post facto and expedient rationale for the amendments.
The argument is also not based on any kind of supporting evidence, and for one simple reason: the government does not maintain any data on the number of complaints filed by women under section 66A.
Except for the case of Chinmayi Sripada — where the police took action against two men allegedly harassing her — there are few other known cases where a woman has taken recourse to section 66A to fight cyber abuse.
In stark contrast, there are many cases illustrating the misuse of 66A: the arrests of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for lampooning national symbols on his website and Professor of Jatavpur university for mocking Mamata Banerjee on Facebook, the detention of a Puducherry businessman for tweeting that Karti Chidambaram has amassed more wealth than Robert Vadra, and the infamous Palghar case where two girls were arrested under section 66A because they believed that the death of Bal Thackeray did not call for a city-wide bandh.
“After the Shaheen Dada and Rinu Srinivasan case, we know it [66A] is not protecting women, it is jailing some of them who speak. I doubt if anyone who is flaunting Hindutva and threatening gang rape and butchering or calling for a Hindu style fatwa on a writer is going to be going to jail anytime soon,” says Kandasamy.
Therefore, even if we take into consideration Sibal’s argument that Internet is a different beast which wields much more power than traditional media and hence we need a separate law, 66A is so vaguely worded that it can be used at will — not to protect women but to punish those who speak out. If the intent is to crack down on online abuse, then the law has to be sharply and
narrowly defined, and in a way that it does not infringe on the freedom of speech.
Besides, there are many provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which deal with similar offences against women, points out Delhi based lawyer Apar Gupta. “IPC Section 509 deals with words, gestures or acts intended to insult the modesty of a woman. This can be invoked in cases of online abuse of women as well.”
Other parts of penal law may apply as well, including section 499 which deals with defamation, sections 503 which deals with criminal intimidation and and 507 which addresses criminal intimidation via an anonymous communication.
“I think the only space that has any semblance of the free media is the Internet. Section 66A is the only way they are going to go about silencing people who speak their mind. This protecting woman is such a nice facade,” concludes Kandasamy.