You Can Be Jailed for Internet Blasphemy Before You’ve Even Committed It in India

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If you use the Internet in a particular state in India, you might be jailed for pre-crime.

I wish I was being overly dramatic, but it really does seem to be the case that a law amended earlier this month assumes authorities in the Indian state of Karnataka to have Minority Report-like precognitive powers, allowing them to arrest someone who they think might at some point violate their Information Technology laws.

Let me back up a bit. What first caught my attention was a bit of news hitting the tech blogosphere that Karnataka police were letting it be known that citizens would be violating the law by the mere act of “liking” something on Facebook that has “an intention of hurting religious sentiments knowingly or unknowingly,” and that folks should report any such activity they see to the police. (Never mind that it doesn’t make sense that something could have “an intention” of doing something “knowingly or unknowingly.”) This is reprehensible on its face, criminalizing not only “blasphemous” content, but even the appearance of approval of said content. It’s a human rights violation of the most obvious sort.

But following the links deeper into the originating reports, I find that this is just part of the problem. It seems that this is a way of enforcing what’s called, amazingly, the Karnataka Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug-offenders, Gamblers, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video or Audio Pirates Bill, or the “Goondas Act.” (A goonda is a hired thug.) And it’s the “prevention” part of that title that’s key, because it effectively takes any offenses under the auspices of the state’s Information Technology and Copyright acts under its own umbrella, and aims to stop them before they can actually be committed, according to the Bangalore Mirror:

Until now, people with a history of offences like bootlegging, drug offences and immoral trafficking could be taken into preventive custody. But the government, in its enthusiasm, while adding acid attackers and sexual predators to the law, has also added ‘digital offenders’. While it was thought to be against audio and video pirates, Bangalore Mirror has found it could be directed at all those who frequent [Facebook], Twitter and the online world, posting casual comments and reactions to events unfolding around them. [ … ]

Technically, if you are even planning to forward ‘lascivious’ memes and images to a WhatsApp group or forwarding a song or ‘copyrighted’ PDF book, you can be punished under the Goondas Act.

And once arrested, you can be held from 90 days to a full year before even seeing a judge to make your case. It’s horrifying. One section of the act even prohibits the “publishing of information which is obscene in electronic form,” which includes “any material which is lascivious or appeal to the prurient interest.” Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society provides the Mirror with a terrifying and yet totally plausible example of what could happen:

If I publish an image of a naked body as part of a scientific article about the human body, is it obscene or not? It will not be obscene and, if I am arrested under the [original Information Technology] Act, I will be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours and can explain it to him. But now, I will be arrested under the Goonda Act and need not be produced before a magistrate for 90 days. It can be extended to one year. So for one year, I will be in jail even if I have not committed any wrong.

So what for me began as more fuel for the fire against blasphemy laws around the world, the battle against which my employing organization the Center for Inquiry has taken on as one of its core missions, revealed itself to be a situation with a police and surveillance state run utterly amok, persecuting those who might at some point violate some arbitrary and undefinable religious or moral sensibility.

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