Free speech online? Think again

The essence of social networking is connecting with people, sharing thoughts, building relationships etc. Not surprising then that people use the platform to vent their feelings; it could be anything from commenting about the movie they watched, a book they liked, ranting about their job or even voicing their opinion about the recent social or political happening. It’s basically taking interactions that we would normally have with our friends, to the virtual platform. But voicing your dissent or being a smart alec in the virtual world, as recent incidents have proved, could have legal consequences. The principles of free speech and freedom of expression on the web is widely debated. While some believe a degree of caution needs to be maintained, owing to the viral nature of the Internet, others are of the opinion that it shouldn’t be any different than in the real world. We have listed a few instances where posts on social networking sites have landed individuals in trouble with the law.

Even liking a status could land you in troubleShaheen may have deactivated her Facebook account, but many pages have cropped up in her support

Shaheen may have deactivated her Facebook account, but many pages have cropped up in her support


The death of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray brought Mumbai to a standstill. Whether it was due to fear psychosis or reverence, is quite debatable. Not surprisingly, a lot of people took to social networking sites to air their views about the situation. While most of those who aired some not so good comments got away with it, Shaheen Dhada, a 21-year-old Palghar resident, wasn’t as lucky. In her Facebook post, Shaheen questioned the shutdown observed in Mumbai on the day of the funeral. Her post read,  "People like Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a 'bandh' [shutdown] for that." This led not only to her arrest, but also that of her friend Renu Shrinivas who happened to like the post. Claiming that the post hurt their sentiments, local Shiv Sainiks apparently demanded an apology from Shaheen and upon her refusal to do so, they demanded her arrest. Later, a mob also vandalised an orthopaedic clinic that belonged to Shaheen’s uncle, Dr Abdul Dhada. Their arrest was strongly condemned and the actions of the police questioned. Shaheen and her friend were granted bail, and last heard, Shaheen deactivated her Facebook account.    

The Great Wall of China       Zhai Xiaobin who owns the Twitter handle @Stariver, has been detained for his tweet

Zhai Xiaobin, who owns the Twitter handle @Stariver, has been detained for his tweet


The Chinese government has a very strong hold on the Internet and practices extreme Internet censorship. Any criticism of the government will put you behind the bars. News sites, blogs etc. are heavily censored, and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are officially banned. However, this hasn’t stopped people from China from using proxy servers to get access to these sites. Currently in news is the case of Zhai Xiaobin, who was detained over his Twitter post. Zhai posted a Twitter update taking a pot-shot at the 18th Communist Party Congress where the new party leaders were announced. Zhai’s post in Chinese commented that the week-long political event was the plot of the next Hollywood movie ‘Final Destination’. His post read, “Final Destination 6 has arrived. The Great Hall of the People collapses and the over 2000 people at the meeting are dead, except for seven of them. But afterwards, the seven die one after another in bizarre ways. Is it a game of God, or the wrath of Death? How will 18, the mysterious number, unlock the gate of Hell? Premieres globally on November 8th to bring you an earthshaking experience!” Zhai has been detained by the authorities at an undisclosed location; his family and friends are rallying support for his release.

Tweeting news reports is not always safeThanks to the controversy, from 16 followers he now has over 2000

Thanks to the controversy, from 16 followers he now has over 2000


Last month, 46-year-old Ravi Srinivasan, a businessman from Puducherry, discovered that even Tweeting about media reports can spell trouble. This notwithstanding the number of followers you may have, which in Ravi’s case was not even 20. Ravi, an India Against Corruption volunteer, tweeted referring to media reports that he had come across. His tweet read, “got reports that karthick chidambaram has amassed more wealth than vadra.” Karti Chidambaram happens to be son of Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Ravi was arrested under Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act upon receiving a complaint from Karti. However, Puducherry’s chief judicial magistrate declined remand and Ravi was granted a bail. Ravi’s case garnered support not only from online activists, but even on social networking sites, thanks to which he now has over 2000 followers.    

Want to travel to the US? Be careful what you tweetLeigh-Van Bryan and Emily seen here with copies of their Homeland Security reports. Picture credit: Red Kangaroo Media

Leigh-Van Bryan and Emily seen here with copies of their Homeland Security reports. Picture credit: Red Kangaroo Media


In January this year, an incident came to light when UK based Leigh Van Bryan and his pal Emily Bunting were barred from entering US. On arrival at the Los Angeles International Airport, Leigh and Emily were detained for questioning for over 5 hours and then were locked up for about 12 hours. All because of a tweet by Leigh couple of days before take-off; it read, “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America.” How did this lead to his detention at the airport? The US Department of Homeland Security is believed to scan social networks for ‘sensitive’ words and keep an eye on offenders. US based Electronic Privacy Information Centre, a privacy group, was granted access to information about these scans by DHS as a part of the lawsuit filed. The documents reveal the terms that are on radar and these include words like virus, attack, airport, destroy, terror, target, drill, etc. just to name a few. Naturally, Leigh’s tweet was flagged by the DHS and lead to his ordeal at the airport. In his defense, Leigh explained how the term ‘destroy’ was a slang in UK for having a good time or partying, and that he didn’t mean it literally. This was not enough for the authorities, as they were denied entry and were sent back home.   

Keep airports out of tweets

Tweet that cost him his job and peace of mind

Tweet that cost him his job and peace of mind


Earlier in 2010, 26-year-old Paul Chambers was arrested by UK police from his work place. His crime? He took to Twitter to vent out his frustration about the airport being shut down owing to heavy snow as he was scheduled to fly to Northern Ireland—something he was looking forward to. So he tweeted, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky-high!!” For any of his 600 followers who must have read that tweet, it was amply clear that he meant it as a joke and was not about to actually blow up the airport. But the authorities could not see the humour in the tweet and he was arrested from his workplace. Even though his tweet was graded ‘non-credible’ by the airport security manager, it was referred to the airport police and then to the local police who arrested Paul for suspected bomb hoax. Paul found support from all quarters, including some celebrities, and #twitterjoketrial trended for quite some time. After being convicted by the Magistrate's Court, he raised an appeal but his conviction was upheld in the Crown Court as well; he then approached the High Court. And much to his relief, in July this year, the high court ruled that his Twitter post wasn’t menacing and he won the appeal against his conviction.

Cover Image: GettyImages

Published Date: Nov 24, 2012 11:54 AM | Updated Date: Nov 24, 2012 11:54 AM