Much is being debated about social media, the laws governing its use in India and the government’s intent to curb it. To begin with, as a Minister in Government of India’s Ministry of Communications and IT, and as someone who’s an avid user of Twitter and Facebook, I wish to categorically state that we have no such intent. In fact, our intent is to encourage the use of social media and the internet in general. Personally, I believe social media has an important role to play in the Information Communication Technology (ICT) revolution and we are trying to put in place a system that is rooted in the fundamental principles of democracy, inclusive growth, transparency and accountability.

The UPA Government, in partnership with industry, is making large investments to build a non-discriminatory next generation telecommunications network, panning across India. Our objective is to connect our farmers and panchayats, in addition to our cities, to high-speed internet. We believe this will improve governance – particularly the delivery of social services such as education and healthcare, make government departments more efficient, transparent and accountable, allow people to communicate with their friends and loved ones anywhere in the world at affordable prices, and allow everyone to access information in real time. We are even working to convert content into regional languages so that the internet in India becomes multilingual – a global first – and no one gets left behind.

Therefore, to suggest that the UPA Government is trying to curb the spread of the internet, or social media in particular, or curtail people’s freedom of speech, is far from the truth. Instead our government is looking at a far more pragmatic and multi-stakeholder approach to address Internet issues and is decisively against government control over the internet.

All over the world, the internet is governed by laws. India, too, must have its own laws for the internet, just as we have laws that govern other media such as print, TV and radio, as well as the physical, offline world. However, these internet laws have led to some confusion and misconceptions about the Government wanting to muzzle free speech on the internet.

The IT Act 2000 only provides a legislative framework for India’s cyber world, broadly covering communications, piracy, fraud, theft, security, law and order and defamation. Leaving India’s internet lawless, I’m sure you will agree, is neither prudent nor in line with global practices.
While we all know that the internet, its usage patterns and applications are multi-dimensional, dynamic and evolving rapidly, not just in India, but overseas too. Understanding these implications, almost all governments today agree that some reasonable restrictions are required in order to prevent the internet from going anarchic and becoming counter-productive for the civilization. It is critical for us to be up-to-date with technological and social trends while framing laws and communicating guidelines for their implementation. We need to apply foresight while modifying our laws and ensure that existing ones are not abused or even inadvertently misused.

In the case of the Palghar arrests, where innocent girls were arrested under various IPC provisions and Section 66A of the IT Act, the Ministry of Communications and IT spoke unitedly and unequivocally that the Maharashtra Police had wrongly applied the IT Act, as well as the stringent provisions of the IPC. However, our words are not enough. It’s not always that our media highlights such cases or succeeds in getting ministers to opine on them. What we really require are legal and administrative changes on the ground that renew our youth’s confidence in their inalienable freedoms of speech and expression and allow them to continue to perceive the internet as a fun and informative medium.

It is in this context that the Department of Electronics and IT, under the Ministry of Communications and IT, Government of India decided to issue guidelines relating to the application of Section 66A of the IT Act. The power to use this section, after someone has lodged a complaint, has been given only to senior police officers. This will allow Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) to draw a distinction between frivolous complaints and serious ones. Furthermore, Section 66A was deliberately made a bailable offense and will continue to be so. The Ministry of Communications and IT will also sensitize LEAs to use this section carefully when registering cases, so that the same judgment is applied to the IT Act as is with other related laws in the offline world.

Though we are always open to suggestions to re-word various sections of the IT Act and will always have multi- stakeholder platform for policy dialogues, which brings together governments, private sector, academia and the media before enacting any changes, it’s important to put the recent controversies in the right perspective. We should be careful not to dismiss existing laws (or policies for that matter) because they’ve occasionally been misused. Corrective action to ensure that justice prevails, for the complainant and author alike, is always a possibility and is a ongoing process. One hasty and wrong decision should not lead to another.

The internet laws enacted by Parliament are for your protection only. They are not intended to determine what content is acceptable and what is unacceptable, but only to provide legal recourse to someone who feels he/she has been caused harm online. Ultimately, it’s for the judiciary to take a call and pronounce someone guilty or not guilty. The Government’s role is limited to providing an enabling legislative framework to protect nearly 381 million mobile phone users who have online connectivity through phones and 125 million registered Internet users – served by a host of mobile and Internet service providers, regardless of whether someone is a student or a VIP.
I am determined as well as hopeful that wider consultations and participative, non-discriminatory negotiations will lead to a widely acceptable model of internet governance which would make the medium free, safer and more positive for all of us. Soon, we will have a perfect law. Until then, don’t hesitate to surf!
-Milind Deora
Published on 7th Dec’12