IT Act


The Centre’s proposed amendment to rules under Section 79 of the Information and Technology Act for empowering government agencies including intelligence and tax enforcement agencies to swoop down on anybody including individuals and subject their online contents to scrutiny is draconian as it virtually creates a surveillance state and is a major crackdown on free speech. The government has reasoned that the rules are necessary to check unlawful content and to check fake news in circulation. Even if the intentions behind the proposed move are noble, they militate against democratic practices and are violative of the constitutional right to free speech as guaranteed under Article 19 and also the right to privacy that the Supreme Court recently laid down as the absolute right of any citizen. While the very understanding of ‘unlawful content’ and fake news remains murky, the intelligence sleuths to be pressed into service for monitoring content and asking questions are not even qualified to judge what forms ‘objectionable’ as they are known to target people merely on suspicion and often do so to please their political bosses. If the move is inspired by fake news that lead to several lynching, it is for the government to gear up local administrations to promptly counter such fake news and re-assure citizens. The idea of cracking down on technology and people’s right to its use instead is an obnoxious one. Already the existing IT Act, thanks to the previous UPA II government, has provisions that do not adequately safeguard the rights of individuals to privacy and free speech. The rules already allow scope for intrusion and require safeguards to protect IT users. The proposed move goes a step further in seeking that all IT users should be ready to be transparent before the government, making it mandatory for them to share their entire IT content with the slew of agencies named by the government, whenever asked to do so. The very nature of democracy stands overturned when citizens are forced to divulge their most intimate things to agencies of a government while the government uses every unlawful means to dodge information in the face of allegations of scams and protecting scamsters, as happened in the recent Rafale case and the refusal to deny details of bank defaulters or those whose loans have been unreasonably waived off. It is difficult to say at this juncture whether the amendments to the IT Act are being proposed with malafide intention. However, in all its applicability, it will become a convenient tool in the hands of the government of the day to muzzle voices of opposition and dissent. The manner in which the existing Act, with all its loopholes and surveillance powers, has been used to target innocent people, activists, media persons and others whose views are at odds with the government, itself gives an indication that in all probability the law would be used as a weapon to target dissenters and adversaries. Unfortunately, ever since independence of the country, successive governments have used laws and rules to muzzle voices and create a culture of censorship, more so in recent years. The IT amendments shockingly go beyond the usual tactics of the book. They give sweeping powers to the agencies including Intelligence Bureau which will be empowered to snoop down on anyone’s computers with absolute authority. An elaborate report in a leading web portal gives an explicit account of the birth of IB under the British period, essentially to serve the political goal of the government in silencing dissenting voices, and shockingly its very existence draws legitimacy from the British Empire’s order after 1857, not from any act or law laid down in the Indian Constitution. The role of IB in facilitating vendetta on opponents by the ruling powers is all too well known. Elaborating on the intentions of the government in mooting such a law at this juncture may be irrelevant. But the huge implications of the proposal that will wreak havoc on free speech, right to privacy and the very spirit of democracy needs to be fully weighed before taking such knee-jerk measures. The amendments to a law, that is already anti-people and was shockingly brought in by the Congress led government, need to be opposed lock, stock and barrel. Good democratic practices entail ensuring the privacy and rights of individuals and making governments more responsive and transparent, not the other way round.