Strengthening the IT law

THE IT Act has been strengthened with the Information Technology Act Amendment Bill 2006, and among other things, the quantum of punishment for cyber terrorism has been increased to life imprisonment and accessing or distributing child pornography has been made illegal. However, many offences have been made bailable. The Bill awaits the President’s assent to become a law.

There is no doubt that with the increasing use of the Internet in India, more and more instances of misuse are cropping up, and thus there is need to plug the loopholes in the legal framework.

Such loopholes become evident when we take the recent case of a video of a Noida girl doing striptease that has been making the rounds on the Internet. The video was distributed widely through the Net apparently after her estranged boyfriend released it.

Both are B-school students and now the police has registered a case under section 506 and 507 (threat to murder) of the IPC since the victim’s family has not complained about the MMS scandal.

Why was the case not registered under the IT Act? The police version is that no complaint was made about the MMS, another fact is that the police felt that the provisions of the Act are not strong enough.

The Internet became commercially available in India in 1995 and since then, there have been only a few convictions for IT-related crimes.

In April 2001, following a complaint regarding vulgar remarks about a girl studying in Class XI and her classmates, the police in Delhi arrested a male class fellow of the girl who had made the website. The case went to the juvenile court.

In 2003, a person was convicted for a credit card fraud. It was the nation’s first cyber conviction through the CBI, though the IT Act was not invoked, and the man was convicted under sections 418, 419 and 420 of IPC.

The first case convicted under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act 2000 in India related to the posting of obscene messages about a woman on the Internet and resulted in the conviction, in 2004, of a spurned suitor from Mumbai.

There have been a few other convictions, but governments the world over are struggling to deal with crimes perpetuated on the Internet, and since criminals can be located far away from where the crime takes place, there are many problems of jurisdiction and geographical boundaries.

It was the United Nations that took the lead. On January 30, 1997, the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law adopted the Model Law on Electronic Commerce, which recommended that in view of the need for uniformity of the law applicable to alternatives to paper-based methods of communication and storage of information, all countries make their laws similar to the model law.

The E-Commerce Act 1998, brought out by the Ministry of Commerce, was a response to the UN’s recommendation. When the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology was formed, it steered the “Information Technology Bill 1999” which was notified into an Act with effect from October 17, 2000.

Because of the constantly changing situation in the cyber world, amendments to the Act became necessary and following the recommendations of an expert committee, the Amendment Bill 2006 was passed by Parliament on December 23, 2008.

Among the crimes that have been defined in the Act are child pornography, cyber terrorism, phishing, cyber stalking, defamation, impersonation and stealing passwords, and spam.

While there is do doubt that the full might of the law should be used to curb crimes, there are doubts about how effective such laws are in the absence of sensitising those who will implement the law, especially the police.

While the feeling of impunity among those who misuse the Internet should no doubt go, at the same time there are concerns that the government’s control over IT has been ratcheted up a bit too much.

There is too much focus on adding new forms of cyber crimes but not enough concern about privacy of users. There are not enough provisions to deal with issues like integrity of data and breach of privacy.

For example, there are apprehensions that Section 66A can be misused. The section seeks to punish by imprisonment up to two years and a fine, anyone who uses cell phones, PDAs, etc., to communicate any text, video, audio or image that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any content to annoy, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, etc.

While a few would argue with the first part of the statement, many forums on the Internet are worried that the later part would give ammunition to an estranged friend to carry on a vendetta.

Like other Bills passed by our lawmakers in a hurry at the end of the last Parliament’s session, the IT Act amendment too needed to be studied and debated more. While the idea of keeping the Net clean is appealing and the government has done well to plug many loopholes in the existing law, we must remember that cyber crime is here to stay, and we need concerted efforts through various agencies to fight it.

The article was published in The Tribune on February 27, 2009