New Delhi, Nov. 29: Police can no longer register complaints of online hate content without clearance from officers of the rank of inspector-general in the metros and deputy commissioner or superintendent of police in other urban or rural areas.
The government specified this today following criticism that the Information Technology Act, specifically Section 66A, was being misused to stifle freedom of expression, as in the recent arrest of two young women over Facebook comments in Palghar, Maharashtra.
The directive coincides with a Supreme Court decision to examine the IT Act to prevent the recurrence of incidents such as the Palghar arrests which, the court said, had "outraged" the country.
Under the new guidelines, inspectors or officers in charge at police stations cannot register cases of online hate content by themselves. Even when a case is registered with the approval of an IG, DCP or SP, the police must explain why in writing.
It was inspector-level officers who registered the case at Palghar police station. In Calcutta, where Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested for emailing a joke on the chief minister earlier this year, a DCP had been kept in the loop and an officer of inspector rank consulted before Section 66A was invoked.
Under the new directive, informing a DCP ' who is junior to an IG ' will not do in a metro like Calcutta.
The IT ministry is confident that the latest guidelines will stop misuse of the IT Act but critics say the act's vague wording still allows too much room for interpretation and abuse by the police.
Section 66A of the IT (Amendment) Act, 2008, treats the sending of information through a computer or communication device as an offence if the material is "grossly offensive", or "menacing", or has the potential to cause "annoyance", "inconvenience", or "insult". Such acts can be punished with jail terms of up to three years. (See chart)
"Section 66A is overly broad and patently in violation of our Constitution," said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society.
"That some information can be 'grossly offensive' or cause 'annoyance' while being known to be false cannot be a reason for curbing the freedom of speech unless it is directly related to decency or morality, public order or defamation."
Prakash told The Telegraph that today's guidelines might eliminate only some "frivolous" complaints but not all.
Cyber crime expert Pavan Duggal said issuing guidelines can only bring about a cosmetic change; the need is to amend the IT Act, especially Section 66A.
Prakash today attended a meeting of the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee ' the country's apex cyber law panel ' that debated what words used on social media platforms can be considered "objectionable".
Some activists who were at the committee meeting were disappointed that the IT ministry did not plan to reword the law or provide definitions for terms such as "grossly offensive" and "menacing".
The panel also discussed the need for a clause that will make it mandatory for the authorities to inform an online forum user before blocking or removing his or her content. No decision was taken, however.
Headed by IT minister Kapil Sibal, the committee is expected to meet regularly to discuss the ground realities about the IT Act's application.
Recently, human rights group Amnesty International wrote to Sibal seeking a review of Section 66A to bring it in sync with international human rights laws. Sibal had earlier argued that the law's application ' not the law itself ' was what threatened free speech.