Virtual menace

Section 66A is divided into three sub-clauses. The first sub-clause targets any electronic communication that is "grossly offensive" or of a "menacing character". Neither of these terms are defined or even present in the Indian Penal Code, from which the legal ingredients of most offences can be fished out. This problem occurs again in the second sub-clause, which makes any false information which causes "annoyance, inconvenience, danger" punishable. There are many more terms under this sub-clause, which contains a laundry list of terms such as "insult" and "ill will". Even these are not defined. This clearly demonstrates that the law is vague and goes against a cardinal principal in the drafting of criminal statutes: the law should be defined precisely. Moreover, the section lacks coherence and often seems to be a provision in search of an offence. It is no wonder that in most cases it is used as a residuary provision, adding to the heap of sections already contained in an FIR. The section has been used that way in cases of alleged blackmail through emails, dowry harassment, defamatory internet content and even copyright infringement. These predate the recent cases against Aseem Trivedi for posting cartoons online and Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra for parodying Sonar Kella to mock Mamata Banerjee, not to mention the case in Thane, where two girls were arrested for a status message on Facebook that questioned the shutdown in Mumbai after Bal Thackeray's death.

In all these cases, Section 66A is not the only provision being employed. It is used in addition to the existing criminal offences. Most of such offences are in the IPC, a colonial statute that displays the best Victorian sensibilities as it covers offences such as defamation, outraging the modesty of a woman by signs and gestures, obscenity etc. But such offences are well defined in the statute itself and do not suffer from the infirmities of Section 66A. In many ways, Section 66A is not only superfluous but, because of its shoddy drafting, also likely to be used to criminalise speech that was not considered actionable under law even in the 19th century.

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