The action by cyber-crime cops in case of playback Chinmayi is indeed ground-breaking, at least in India.
Globally, there are quite a few cases of this nature.
The most famous one was during the London Olympics when a 17 year old tweeted something insensitive to diver Tom Daley. If you see the tweets in question here, they are not abusive and merely sound insensitive, from Tom Daley’s point of view. This is vastly different from pointed abuses in Chinmayi’s case.
And then there are many cases involving Facebook, more than Twitter, reported by assorted media across the world.
While there is enough chatter about this incident, there is a lot of discussion on whether this amounts to killing free speech.
If we had perhaps known what the alleged perpetrators said (six of them cited in the news), we may not be asking this question. I have seen at least 2 or 3 of their conversations with Chinmayi and they are indeed mighty vulgar. What we are not aware of may be a whole lot of direct messages, either on Twitter or on Facebook. In this case, I believe Chinmayi and her mom tried to warn the alleged perpetrators to stop the abuse. If that had not stopped them, I guess it is more about they taking refuge in the fact that there is no precedence of action against tweets, in India. Now… there is.
Now, from a non-legal point of view, let us address the free-speech question. To understand that, let us simply transpose Twitter with tools that existed before Twitter.
How would you react if someone prints posters abusing your mother and pastes them all over the city? You could ignore it completely, but it is all over the city and others are seeing it.
Next, how would you react if someone comes to your house, stands outside your balcony and shouts abuses at your mother and yourself? And, perhaps does it everyday?
Harassment on Twitter is quite similar. Worse, in fact, since it is not constrained by geographical boundaries, like posters and shouting outside the house.
Note – in this case, I’m taking an example. It is up to the cops to prove that the 6 perpetrators indeed harassed and abused Chinmayi and her mother via Twitter and Facebook. The cops have made an arrest based on one side of the story, with proof submitted by them – it is up to the individuals to prove that the allegation against them is false, if it is.
You may very well ask – won’t this ground-breaking precedence be misused? Of course, it will be. There is so much blatant abuse happening on social networking sites in India that this case could just open the Pandora’s box of allegations and cyber-crime police action. Amidst this, there is enough possibility of misuse.
And then there is the danger of hacking – how would cyber-crime division handle cases where social networking accounts have been hacked and hacked profiles posting abuses? Given that such hacks have happened to even known figures on Twitter (for example, Kamal R Khan’s Twitter handle was hacked and the hacker posted a lot from the account before handing it over to Khan!), this is a real possibility. But the police machinery could very well work with the sites themselves (Twitter and Facebook) and check archived tweets and Facebook posts to check if there is a pattern from the information that is not currently available.
From a basic free speech point of view, here’s the problem – free speech cannot be equated with pointed abuse. We are in a country where everything and anything can offend some groups of people in some corner of the country. But abuse is very different from broader offending opinion. In case of abuse, the simple thumb-rule is this: would you shout the same thing outside the concerned person’s house, in full view of say 200 people? Would you be ready to face whatever the consequence, after you have said it? If yes, please go ahead and tweet pointed abuse at anybody. If not, be sane and mull over the sentiment inside your head.
Just because you are sitting in your dark room, in your night dress, and tweeting, it does not make you anonymous and removed from the action. Tweet as much as you want and about any topic under the sun – but ask yourself if you’d say the same thing in front of the person/group, with 100,000+ people watching you. If you say yes, go right ahead and tweet. If not, think again before tweeting any abuse. This is critical particularly when your opinion is about an individual, in specific.