Here is what the said section of the law states:
Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,—
a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages.
Punishment - Imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
Explanation — For the purpose of this section, terms “electronic mail” and “electronic mail message” means a message or information created or transmitted or received on a computer, computer system, computer resource or communication device including attachments in text, images, audio, video and any other electronic record, which may be transmitted with the message.
I can understand the probable reasons behind such laws. After all, the Internet has given a never-before avenue to the common man to broadcast opinions; something that was hitherto available only to qualified journalists, published authors and the like. Not that I condone the restriction of free speech for any reason at all, but mockery of religious symbols on social media has caused violence in our country. Fake photos designed to inflame communal passions have been responsible for causing riots.
While it begs the larger question of the immaturity of the general public in being so touchy, there have also been unpardonable crimes - MMS scandals have destroyed the lives of young girls; terrorists have piggy-backed (please note, it is NOT hacking) on unsecured wireless networks to send emails about attacks; cyber criminals have conned and looted many in phishing and 'Nigerian 419 scams'... the list can go on. So there definitely was a case for a law broad enough and potent enough to deal with such offenses.
Being an IT professional, I can understand how vague and abuse-friendly this law is, as has already been borne out in many cases. Also, the sheer absurdity of 66(a) was not lost on me, when I realized that you could write anything "grossly offensive and/ or menacing" in a newspaper, magazine or book (so long as it is not circulated online), but all that you might be liable for is a defamation suit, a non-cognizable offense for which you cannot be arrested without a magistrate's sanction, unlike in this case, where the police can arrest you, as they did Shaheen and Rinu, and cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and many others.
It also made me wonder if Google's employees could be arrested under 66(b) for spreading "any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience" by way of their annual April Fools' Day pranks. Also, does "any information which he knows to be false..." mean that women cannot be accused of this offense? Some might think I am being ridiculous. I am not a legal expert, but what if some day it is indeed argued thus in a court of law?
That brings me to the title of this piece. What is the correlation between the IT Act and Lokpal, readers must be wondering. It is this. Throughout the Anna Hazare-led Jan Lokpal agitation, politicians, many members of the media, many intellectuals writing opinion pieces in newspapers and arguing in TV debates had bemoaned that Team Anna's pressure tactics were a "subversion of parliamentary democracy". "Laws cannot be made on the streets", they said, as they asserted that Parliament was the only body authorized to (and capable of) framing laws. "They must respect the parliamentary process", all those agitating with Team Anna were told. Whether Team Anna's demands were right or wrong is not the point. The point here is that the political class and a large section of our intelligentsia vigourously defended the supremacy of Parliament in so far as lawmaking is concerned.
So was the due parliamentary process followed in passing the amendments to the IT Act in 2008, the horrendous Section 66(a) being one of them? This insightful piece published in The Times of India illustrates how miserably the parliamentary process can fail, and yet be unchallenged till it has destroyed the lives of many innocents.
I cannot say whether politicians had the vested interest of stifling public dissent in mind when they passed this law. But if we give them the benefit of doubt on that one, then just imagine, if this is the mess they can make in the absence of any malice, what they will do to the Lokpal, a law because of which they have everything to lose and one they've tried maliciously to scuttle for more than forty years? Can they ever be trusted to give the country an effective anti-corruption law? Team Anna and Arvind Kejriwal should not miss the opportunity to highlight this to their critics.