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When status messages get you into trouble

When was the last time you updated your Facebook status or liked someone else’s? My guess is that if you ask Rampur based writer, Kanwal Bharti he would be quick to tell you that it might be the one that got him arrested a few weeks ago – the ordinary status update he posted expressing his disapproval of the Government’s recent decision to suspend civil servant, Durga Shakti Nagpal. A status update, like so many others, that simply expressed his opinion on a subject of political and public interest.

So much for free speech I guess.

A lot of us use social media to express ourselves – whether we’re uploading photos of our cat on Instagram, tweeting about our experience at a restaurant or sharing an article on poor governance. Whatever your social media poison, it’s obvious that contemporary speech or expression is incomplete and ineffective, unless it’s happening over some kind of social media app.

Social media is fun but we’re all too aware of how things can get ugly over the internet. With online abuse and fraud on the rise, it’s no wonder then that the lawmakers of the country decided it was time to start regulating online speech and content. Unfortunately though, it seems that lawmakers and law enforcers alike often fail to differentiate between regulation and full blowncensorship.

Mr Kanwal Bharti’s arrest is just another addition to an interesting list of “social media” arrests that have been taking place in our country over the past couple of years. Most recently, in November 2012, two young Mumbai-kars, Shaheen Dada and Rinu Shrinivasan were arrested for having posted a status update and then liking it. So what made their Facebook activity arrest worthy? The status update referred to the city’s functioning in the aftermath of erstwhile Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackeray’s death – the language used was simple, non-threatening and apolitical, yet somehow these two young ladies were hauled up for their words that allegedly contributed towards instigating class enmity, religious animosity and were basically a threat to society’s peace and order. Scary.

The blame for a lot of these controversial social media arrests lies with the police and their misuse of the powers given to them under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. This legal provision punishes the sending of offensive messages through the use of communication devices like computers and mobile phones. In other words this legal provision criminalises the act of sending inappropriate material through the internet and other communication networks. The problem with Section 66A is that it’s vague and undefined. Although the provision tries to identify offensive messages as communication that can be described as menacing, grossly offensive, false, deceptive and misleading or communication that incites enmity or hatred between members of society, the provision actually fails to actually define these characteristics. So no one actually knows what grossly offensive or menacing messages could be. There’s no way to be certain whether or not your email qualifies as misleading or lying and worse, no one can be sure if their facebook status update qualifies as being potentially capable of inciting hatred or enmity among members of society.

Getting into trouble over facebook status updates is really just the tip of an even bigger problem – government perpetrated surveillance and speech censorship. You would've had to be living under a rock to not have noticed the recent global uproar on internet surveillance, data protection and privacy. Owing to the recent effectiveness of the internet and social media in facilitating socio-political revolutions (Read: The Jasmine Revolution in Egypt or even the Nirbhaya protest marches organised in Delhi), Political actors and institutions the world over are sitting up and straightening their backs, readying themselves for a serious social media plunge. For gone are the days when twitter and facebook were just about uploading pictures of your best friend’s birthday – according to Mr. Clay Shirky, Professor of New Media at New York University, social media has become the co-ordinating tool for nearly all of the world’s political movements – a realization that is being accompanied by many authoritarian and democratic governments putting in place, measures to limit access to it. Earlier this year, India witnessed the launch of the country’s first social media lab – a specialized police department dedicated fully to the monitoring of India’s social media feeds.

The funny thing about surveillance is that it’s never completely justified. The police of the social media lab in Mumbai claim that their job is limited to monitoring people’s social media activity in an effort to better understand the socio-politico sentiments of the people using it. Unfortunately, we see very little of that happening with the police in other parts of the country using social media updates as a reason to put innocent, free thinking citizens behind bars – all in the hope of suppressing certain forms of speech and expression.

If unchecked, surveillance is only going to get the better of us and it’s going to start seeping out of the boundaries of the internet and trickle into all aspects of our lives. Years ago, I remember watching an episode of the Drew Carey Show, where the protagonist Drew is worried that the Government keeps a watch on guys who have both porn and Cartoon Network on cable. It was funny back then, but now it seems like a not so distant reality. So the next time you’re about to click send or post or upload – make sure you say hello to the Government, because they sure as hell are saying hello right back at you.