The incidents in Delhi over the past one week have indicated how the power of the voice of the people can make even the most adamant Government to sit up and take notice. Initially the Government tried to ignore the protests against the brutal rape of a young lady in Delhi. Later an attempt was made to implant hooligans in a filmy style to give a bad name to the protestors and to physically break their backs. Despite such authoritarian assault, the protests are still going on and now there appears to be some movement from the Government in the form of setting up of a judicial commission etc.
While reflecting on an email group about whether a “Cyber Demonstration” of a similar type is possible for moving the Government into taking action on issues such as the appointment of a chair person for Cyber Appellate Tribunal which has been ignored by the Government for nearly 2 years, a question was raised about the legal feasibility of such “Cyber Demonstrations”. Obviously the question was raised in the context of recent cases launched under Section 66A of ITA 2008 against anybody who raised their voice which touched political sensitivities.
I was therefore forced to think on whether there is any way by which a “Peaceful”, “Democratic” “Protest/Demonstration” can be carried on in Cyber Space without attracting adverse legal consequences. I have therefore put together some thoughts on a “Cyber Law Compliant Cyber Demonstration” for a cause and invite a public debate on the suggestion.
If we accept that India is a democratic country bound by a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, then such “Freedom of Speech” subject to “Reasonable Restrictions” is also guaranteed on the Cyber Space. The recent section 66A cases have arisen because the disputed expressions have been challenged as causing annoyance to some body else or causing disruption to the society etc. This will continue to be a factor that needs to be taken into account by any Cyber Demonstrator so that he remains within the bounds of the constitutional framework.
The second aspect that most of the physical agitations need to address is whether the agitation or protest march causes any disruption to the public in the form of holding up of traffic etc. In the Cyber protest if any activity has the effect of causing”denial of access”, then it would be considered as a cyber crime. Hence “Hactivism” in which websites are hacked and defaced are not within the framework of law.
But without hacking into any other website, expressing some thoughts which are not “Defamatory” or “Causing disruption to the society” must be considered as acceptable. Of course, protests become necessary when there is a dissatisfaction by the public about some action taken or not taken by an authority such as the Government. Hence during the protest, slogans such as “Down With…..”, “Hai…Hai..” etc may occur and may cause annoyance to some individuals. In physical protests, burning of effigies is a common form of protest. Some times effigies of leaders are garlanded with chappals as a show of anger. So far such activities have not been treated as “Defamation”. However in the Cyber World considering the precedents set in India recently, it is possible that any “Hai..Hai” type of slogan against an individual may come in for action under Section 66A. In a Cyber Law Compliant demonstration, it is better to avoid such individual defamatory remarks though “Criticism” of any action or inaction of an individual in his/her capacity as an official need not be considered as “Defamation”.
Presently some people use “Petitions.com” type of websites to register their protests and request Netizens to sign the petitions as a form of protest. However the effect of recording a petition in such sites is only of marginal utility as it is seen only by those who visit the site and it is like carrying on a protest within closed doors. It will not be having the effect of demonstrators reaching out to the public in the street.
One suggestion that can be considered in this respect is to carry a “Banner” which the protestors can display wherever they roam in Cyber Space. For example, a banner such as “We Demand immediate Appointment of Chairperson for Cyber Appellate Tribunal” as shown below can be displayed by netizens wherever they have the authority to make such displays.
Such banners can be displayed in the websites of the protestors, on their blog posts and if finance permits, can be advertised on Facebook and other social media sites. The banner may be linked to a document that explains the issue in detail as has been done above.
The banner along with the link to the explanatory article can be made available as a downloadable link so that bloggers can simply import the link to their blogs.
This could be a possible method by which Cyber Demonstrations can happen in future.
I would like to however record two risks that needs to be taken care of.
First is that miscreants may load a malicious code on the protest banner and cause problems. Second is that just as miscreants were planted in the Delhi protest, vested interests may post the protest banners into hacked websites and create a prima facie evidence against the protest originators as if they have indulged in hactivism.
First is an information security issue which can be addressed to a reasonable extent. But the second risk poses the real danger considering the attitude of the Police to pounce on innocent protestors and launch serious cases as they have done against a retired General of the Indian Army and Baba Ramdev in the Delhi incident.
But it would be interesting to hear the views of other persons on how to design a “Cyber Law Compliant Cyber Demonstration”.
I therefore place this thought for public debate.