In the age of technology, social media is a powerful tool. Even to a nation where merely a fraction of citizens have access to the Internet, interactive social media platforms can be what localised gatherings can be to a national movement. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000 was widely viewed as an exaggerated, corrupted version of a line drawn to regulate them before the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and ushered in a victory for free speech online. A few social media users have, however, been leading one to wonder if “free speech” as a phrase should be open to a little more interpretation. Kamal R. Khan telling people to throw stones at actress Anushka Sharma’s house after India’s ouster from the World Cup, Ram Gopal Verma wishing a happy Ganesh Chaturthi to “all morons” or troll accounts personally abusing specific actresses are a few among several instances of free speech being regrettably misused, most often at someone else’s cost. Model-turned-actress-turned-politician Gul Panag, who has been around on Twitter for several years now, has often found herself at the receiving end of social media hate speech and abuse. “What social media has done is that it has taken the power once held by the media and given it to the people — which is the power to influence public opinion,”  Panag says, adding, “There is a lot of public shaming that takes place online. Earlier, when there was no social media, we used to live in a very sanitised environment. Now, everyone who doesn’t agree with your viewpoint or political leaning or simply just does not like you, can say that to your face in a public forum.” SOFT TARGETS Celebrities have been quite the soft target in this context, with their presence in the limelight exposing them to concentrated abuse from volatile users. Tamil and Telugu actress Dhanya Balakrishna has been one of the most high-profile victims of cyber-bullying after venting out her frustration online following Royal Challengers Bangalore losing to Chennai Super Kings in the 2012 IPL play-offs. Unable to bear the backlash to her controversial tweet, she issued an apology and announced that she was leaving Chennai as well as the Tamil film industry for her safety. Among celebrities, women have often been the worst hit, especially with abuse laced with sexual overtones. Actress, model and anchor Ranjini Haridas, who has also been subjected to social media bullying earlier, points out that the abuse is especially targetted at women. “The comments are mostly sexual in nature. I don’t have a problem with people pointing out my flaws or giving me constructive criticism. But when what you say takes on a sexual overtone, it becomes unacceptable,” she asserts. Ask her how she deals with the abuse hurled at her and she says, “You can’t really spend time bothering about these things. I lead too busy a life to go online, read every comment written about me and feel bad about it.” Panag, on her part, has chosen to respond to social media abuse of all kinds — including the circulation of morphed sexually explicit images of  herself — with the simple application of a filter. “It doesn’t bother me anymore. You can be upset for a few weeks, but what good will come out of it? You just have to ignore it and move on,” she says. RIGHT TO FREE ABUSE? Does section 66A being taken down, then, really mean that anyone can say just about anything on the Internet? Cyber crime lawyer Karnika Seth explains that while the freedom of speech and expression online has been upheld by the apex court’s recent ruling, the said freedom is still not absolute. She elaborates, “A lot of people are under a misconception that Section 66A being declared unconstitutional enables them to say whatever they want without consequences ensuing. The Indian Penal Code still exists and it contains several sections and provisions that prohibit defamatory speech, threats and such like. You see, the IPC is a general law that applies across all crimes and all media while the IT act is a special legislation that applies to the Internet specifically. Whenever and wherever there is a vacuum in a special law, the general law is still very much applicable.”
Advocate, cyber law and cyber security expert Prashant Mali, chairman of Mumbai-based Cyber Law Foundation, agrees and adds, “Netizens have just received respite from immediate arrest which was possible because Section 66A saw offensive speech online as a cognisable offence. Section 500 of the IPC is still applicable if you make defamatory statements about someone online. It is a non-cognisable offense though, so an arrest will only be possible with the permission of a judge. Section 153A would be used in case of hate speech and it is cognisable and non-bailable which amounts to worse than section 66A, which was a bailable offence.” STAND UP AND SELF-REGULATE Talking specifically about personal abuse on social media and what can be done to speak up legally against it, Seth shares, “The first question to be asked is whether the abuse is being meted out by a real account or a fake one. If a real account is sending abusive messages to a girl, then even Section 509 of the IPC can be applied which deals with words, gestures or acts that are intended to insult the modesty of a woman. The Indecent Representation of Women Act can also come into the picture in certain instances such as morphed images. If an anonymous account is being used — and there are lots of servers and services available today for people to be able to send anonymous messages to anyone they want — then within the IPC, there are sections that prohibit criminal intimidation by anonymous communication. As far as other social media offences such as instigation go, abetment is also a crime and amounts to an offence under the IT act itself.” Looking towards a solution to this widespread evil, Panag believes that the answer lies in setting an example that eventually leads to self-censorship. “I think the Internet will self-regulate eventually. It has the power to do so. One day, someone will cross a line and the one at the receiving end will take the former to court. There will be a landmark ruling, and when people finally see a perpetrator getting punished for being abusive online, it will serve as a massive deterrent. Another way I think it will self-regulate is that whenever there is an openly abusive account, enough people will start coming together to block it, thereby ridding social media of the nuisance,” she optimistically affirms. From a legal point of view, Seth, however, argues that there is a dire need for a special legislation to protect netizens against mindless abuse online. She says, “I stand firmly by the notion that it is in the interests of the Internet community to have a special law in this regard because the nuances and peculiarities of the medium are definitely more complicated than what we face in the offline world. For instance, one blog can damage the reputation of a person within seconds. It is most definitely advisable to have a specific law to deal with this medium.” Mali argues for an amended version of Section 66A itself as he affirms, “I strongly feel that Section 66A with new language that complies with our constitution and honours free speech while punishing defamatory hate speech and trolls is the immediate need of the hour. What the government can do is draft a new section 66A and put it on a public domain for deliberation and consultation.” With inputs from Arun Venkatraman, Gautam Sunder and Shreejaya Nair