By Michael Malpass

In response to criticism at home and around the world of its draconian Information Technology Act, India’s Telecom Ministry has issued new guidelines that make it more difficult to arrest people for their comments on social networking and other online sites. The particularly controversial section of the act is 66A, which states that anyone who sends information that is “grossly offensive” or “menacing,” or has the purpose of causing “annoyance, inconvenience,” etc., can be fined and imprisoned for up to three years. The BBC reported that under the new guidelines a senior officer must express approval before a complaint can be registered under Section 66A.

The amendment comes after outcry over the arrest of two women who posted comments on Facebook about the death of politician Bal Thackeray. Mumbai was brought to a standstill by the funeral, causing many commuters to gripe on Facebook. One such grumbler and her friend who ‘liked’ her comment were soon arrested. According to the Huffington Post, they were arrested for “hurting religious sentiments.” And that was only the most recent incident. In October, a businessman was arrested under Section 66A for a post on Twitter in which he criticized the son of India’s Finance Minister P Chidambaram. If convicted he could face up to three years in jail.

Section 66A was an amendment added to the Information Technology Act in 2008 after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. According to the New York Times, India’s Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, said that “[a]t the moment, there is nothing unconstitutional about the section.” According to the Times of India, critics of the section are calling the new guidelines a mere “cosmetic job” on a law that is in violation of Article 19 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. The Indian Supreme Court is currently considering a petition that challenges the law.

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