The advent and the increasing use of the latest forms of technology for instant communication, ranging from instant messaging to sending images to social network updates at the click of a key on either a computer or a mobile handset means there is increasing room for the medium to be used to cause mischief and even as a link for committing various crimes. On one level, there are instances where Government agencies including the police have cracked down on people speaking out against perceived slights as in the case of two young students who had updated their Facebook status commenting on the nature of state preparations following the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. There is the reality of cyber crimes like pornography, explicit content being shared online or through other electronic sharing mediums like MMS and a distressing and very prevalent streak of online insults based on prejudices about gender, sexual orientation, political affiliations; misogynist rants and even threats. The later unfortunately tends to generate a virtual online war with people joining in the rant or ranting against it but hardly leads to any sensitivity brought about in the mindsets of those who rant. Right now, the country’s cyber related laws are vague and can be more of a big brother action rather than working for the common good of the country’s citizens. Under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, anyone who sends through a computer or communication device any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character could be jailed for a maximum of three years, with an appropriate fine but in all purposes the Act has been used by the powers that be to throttle the freedom of expression while ignoring the many serious crimes that are being perpetuated online, including making explicit threats on women.
That technology can be abused is a truth. We have seen this in the manner in which social media and mobile phones were used to spread a wave of fear amongst people of the North Eastern states based in Bangalore. A string of forwarded SMS-es was all that it took to trigger of a wave of exodus. The SMS-es then were said to be a response to fake videos of a particular section of a community being targeted by people of the region. Nothing concrete has emerged from investigations into what led to the panic and who started it. Which is why the move by the Chief Ministers of the states in the region saying that social networking sites need to be checked since they can incite communal harmony is interesting but disturbing too. A blanket ban on social networking sites cannot be the cure, for not everyone is using the medium to spread rumor and hate. All it would need is to have a strong technical savvy crack team to track down the origin of particular posts and have them taken down. And while it is equally true that the vague nature of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act is being used to pull the plug on people who take a stand against the powerful with even journalists doing sting stories being arrested, the fact is that cyber laws in the country are also letting off the real offenders.
Even as the Supreme Court has ruled that no person can be arrested for posting objectionable comments on social networking sites, without permission from senior police officers, the nature of the unholy closeness between politicians and the police also means that when the common man, activists working for a cause or even journalists writing or make a statement that the political power class deem offensive to them, action can still be taken on those with the dissenting voice. Comments and written materials available online when treated as offensive is a direct assault on the fundamental right of expression that every citizen of the country is equipped with. In Manipur especially, cyber related crimes are a reality with a majority of such cases being ones where sexually explicit content and comments are made at the expense of women and young girls. But cracking cases and crimes involving the use of technology including the tracking of mobile call records seems to be a weakness for the state police department with most investigations of such crimes being left unsolved or in a ‘status pending’ mode, a sad picture in a world where technology can be used to track a lot of criminal activity. A depressing trend that is picking up is the online trail of intolerance and prejudice that reflects the nature of one’s attitude.