66A scrapped, but 69A can still do the same job!

66A scrapped, but 69A can still do the same job! Just the other day, many people in the country celebrated the quashing of section 66A, which meant the ‘freedom of speech’ in the country was restored. Or, so we believed.

The contentious section of Information Technology Act, which was introduced by UPA government in 2009 gave powers to penalize those people who wrote messages on public fora in the Internet, which could be deemed offensive. Supreme Court said the act itself was vague, owing to the use of the term ‘grossly offensive’. The court noted this is a subjective term, which has no absolute meaning.

Who decides what would be grossly offensive? And what are the parameters to arrive at this conclusion? The court noted all these aspects and struck down 66A of IT act. The country celebrated. But, hang on. Is it over yet?

According to legal experts, though 66A is gone the state will still hold same reining powers on the social media or Internet thorough another strong legal tool, which is 69A. This will pretty much do the same job as 66A, except that one cannot get arrested for posting something offensive. The content can be blocked, as deemed necessary by the government.

Did you think China at this point? The country, which is ruled by iron hands of dictatorial premiers who will not tolerate anything remotely democratic in their country? Well, we did too!


Let’s put this in perspective. What powers does 69A enjoy?

Firstly, the impetus to fight 66A came from the fact that 66A was used in ‘bad faith’ with numerous cases being booked using this section. Well, it sure couldn’t be a coincidence that the country was tumbling out corruption charges one after another and social media gained prominence assuring much needed platform for discussion and debate. Internet made it easy for people to vent their ire. It was their faux pas that was noted, jotted and beaten at.

The section 66A is cast so widely that it literally gives a whip into ANYBODY’s hands who holds the key to power. It was arbitrary to say the least. But, having said that, it is also important to note that section 69A isn’t angelic either, which would come to the rescue of people at a larger level.

One instance when 69A was used is the mass exodus that happened during the time when North Easterners left Bengaluru in hoards. The government then used 69A to block rumours adding fuel to the already charged atmosphere. But, the court seemed to have been in agreement with this section for the sake of retaining some grip over socially volatile situations. Does that mean this cannot be used against individuals? Certainly not!

Here’s what 69A says:
Power to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource

(1) Where the Central Government or any of its officer specially authorised by it in this behalf is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above, it may subject to the provisions of sub-section (2), for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct any agency of the Government or intermediary to block for access by the public or cause to be blocked for access by the public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource.

(2) The procedure and safeguards subject to which such blocking for access by the public may be carried out; shall be such as may be prescribed.

(3) The intermediary who fails to comply with the direction issued under sub-section (1) shall be punished with an imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven year and also be liable to fine.

This apart, the section also has a huge set of blocking rules that are in annexure alongside the Act. The cause of worry starts exactly where this Act ends.

In the past, governments have blocked websites and blogs that have spoken or criticized in a language that’s not agreeable by them. That State holds larger power than the democratic process is something that’s alarming as far as 69A is concerned. While 66A was about penalizing, 69A is about silently finishing off the detractor without even his knowledge. So, anything contrary to government may not be acted upon, but silenced forever.

Incidents like mass exodus, mob lynching, violence breaking out etc have been a cause of human anxiety that could give rise to more unrest in the volatile society. But, in case of 69A, volatility will be absent because the atmosphere can never be vitiated – whether with positive or negative news.