Nightmare on the cyber street

Women dread being stalked online and being bombarded with nasty messages from strangers on social networking sites. The law will have to evolve


Taru Bhatia | November 11, 2016 | New Delhi

#Kavita Krishnan   #Trolling   #Trollers   #Twitter   #Facebook   #Cyber Security   #Online Harassment   #National Crime Records Bureau   #NCRB  

Prerna Pratham Singh, who works at a media company, had been bombarded with messages from a stranger on Facebook. She ignored those messages. But, in May last year, the stranger made a sexual remark, and Prerna, 23, decided not to suffer the constant harassment in silence.

Not only did she give him a piece of her mind through a stinging reply but also took screenshots of the conversation and posted it on her Facebook wall. In no time the post went viral, gaining attention from the media and the Delhi police. Her action was applauded by all as she was one of the few women who took a bold stand against online sexual harassment.

“After the case was picked up by the media, I received so many messages from women. They told me it is because of this [harassment] that they stopped using Facebook or Twitter.

“Now that they [women] have seen someone standing up against such a bully, they can really speak about it. This is what matters the most. If you make people think that it is not happening just to them and it is not their fault, they just might open up more,” she says.
Prerna filed an FIR and her case is now pending in the court.

There are thousands of women who are targeted on the internet with sexual remarks, rape threats and gender-based hate speech. Not only that, perpetrators use social media platform like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to take revenge against women by leaking private pictures or videos of them without their consent, or by circulating their morphed pictures.

The trolls

Some women also face consequences simply for voicing their opinion on the internet. In 2013, Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, was threatened with rape on the Rediff online discussion forum where she was invited to discuss violence against women. Somebody who used the name ‘RAPIST’ commented: “Kavita tell me where I should come and rape you using condom.”

Krishnan has been trolled on the internet many times for standing up for women’s rights. She says that social media platforms like Twitter have become so abusive that she has decided to limit herself in sharing opinions. She also points out that Facebook and Twitter have often failed to recognise the seriousness of such threats and gender-based trolling that women face.

“Facebook at times doesn’t even understand what is being said. They do not bother to have staff who understand Hindi or other Indian languages. Facebook has been approached by many people but they have not done much about it. There are several incidents where a man will not use the word ‘rape’ but will still have sexual connotation in his remark.

“And nobody is asking them to ban words. They should not let abusers on their platform threaten women with rape,” she adds.

The police

According to the national crime records bureau (NCRB) data for 2015, there is a 20.5 percent increase in cybercrime cases from 2014. Categorising the motive behind cybercrimes, the data notes that 606 cases were reported across India that insulted modesty of women, 588 cases were of sexual exploitation and 304 cases were reported under the category of ‘personal revenge’.

Unlike Prerna and Krishnan, many women choose to ignore online harassment. In cases where they are blackmailed online with their private pictures, most women do file a complaint with the police but prefer not to file an FIR. “Most complainants do not file an FIR because they do not want the case to come into the limelight. They think their family members will not be supportive,” says a police officer at Noida’s cybercrime cell.

The officer adds, “90 percent of cases that come here are of obscene, nude or morphed pictures of the victim being circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp. Very few cases pertain to Twitter. In most cases victims know the accused. He is either a former lover or a frustrated man turned down by the woman.”

In the last six months, 93 complaints of harassment on social media were reported at the cyber cell in Noida. Out of this, the team solved 75 cases, with a warning or a fine being imposed and only six FIRs were registered.

When a woman is targeted online by a stalker or a blackmailer, she has an option to file a complaint either online or in person. The police asks the complainant to give evidence with her complaint, which includes a link to the website/s that contain the obscene pictures or videos, or screenshots of the lewd or threatening comments. If the complainant does not submit evidence at the time of filing the complaint, then it takes 10 to 15 days more to collect evidence and then to start investigation of the case.

Once evidence is collected, the police, under section 91 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), sends a notice to the owner of the website, seeking details of the accused like “login details of the users, IP address to track the person and details of the person who made the profile. We call it users and registrant details”, says an officer at the Delhi police cyber cell. 

Since January 1, Delhi police cyber cell have received 568 complaints, out of which only 39 FIRs have been filed.

The fear of damaging their reputation is perhaps one reason that discourages a woman from filing an FIR. Another reason is long court procedures.

“When a complainant decides to file a case, the process of investigation and filing a charge-sheet takes time. After two to four years, the case will be heard at the trial court,” says the Noida police officer.

The police too have their own limitations in acting against the accused in online harassment cases, says the officer from the Delhi police cyber cell. “Sometimes, complainants file a case online but do not follow up. We cannot close their complaint for a year at least. We give them two reminders and if they do not respond, then we pass it on to the additional commissioner of police to decide what is to be done.”

Also, most of the times the companies that run social media sites do not share information sought by the police. “Twitter has a poor record of sharing details. In 90 percent of cases, social media platforms block the accounts of the accused. However, in very few cases they share details of the account. Without details we cannot file an FIR. So the complaints remain pending and that reflects poorly on our records,” says the Delhi police officer.

But are the police personnel trained to deal with online harassment cases?

“Police handling of such cases is abysmal. It is same as they handle offline complaints. They try to find out what you have done to provoke the incident rather than filing an FIR and investigate the complaint,” says Krishnan.

Cybercrime experts agree that police training is lacking, which leaves the complainant feeling victimised. “We are not dealing with the absence of law here. We hear accounts of people going to police stations but officers are not taking their complaints seriously. It is more of a process-oriented problem and not a legal one,” says Apar Gupta, a Delhi-based advocate.

Dr Debarati Halder, an advocate and counsellor to women who are victims of cybercrime, says that it is necessary to “involve more experts to train police officers in dealing with online harassment of women. It also needs government cooperation to train the police and sensitise general people”.

“When the police personnel have been thoroughly trained, victims may get better cooperation from them. But in cases of semi-urban or rural areas, police officers may be clueless about what the victim is talking about,” she notes. Halder, who runs Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, has counselled women in the age group ranging from 16 to 47, for cases that include revenge porn, cyber stalking, online reputation damage, online bullying and trolling as well as copyright violation.

The law

Pavan Duggal, a supreme court advocate specialising in cyber law, does make a point when he says that “the victims of online harassment in India do not have effective legal remedies, and that calls for immediate action”.

Currently, there are sections under the Information Technology Act, 2000, that deals with abuse against women through the electronic medium.

For instance, section 66E that deals with violation of privacy, wherein a person, “who intentionally or knowingly captures, publishes or transmits the image of a private area of any person without his or her consent, under circumstances violating the privacy of that person”, will be punished with maximum three years of imprisonment or fine up to Rs2 lakh, or both.

Section 67 prescribes punishment for “publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form”.

Duggal says that section 67 “is a very limited exercise. It is only talking about obscene images on electronic platform. It does not talk much of harassment”.

Section 66A of the IT Act criminalised most aspects of verbal abuse on the online platform. It came under the spotlight for all wrong reasons. In November 2012, two young women were arrested for a Facebook post that questioned the call for Mumbai shutdown following the death of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. They were booked under Section 66A, along with Section 505(2) of IPC.

In March 2015, the supreme court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act, calling it a “draconian” law as it was misused by the powerful politicians to curb their critics on social media.

“The unintended consequences of the SC judgment are that online harassment and online stalking have started increasing. The IT Act does not have a cyber-stalking provision. After Nirbhaya case, we did add section 354D of IPC, but that also has limited aspects of cyber stalking,” says Duggal, referring to the December 16, 2012 incident in which six men were found guilty of raping and torturing a 23-year-old physiotherapist.

He adds, “the government is now talking about amending the IT Act. One of the main amendments needed is effective remedy of all the victims of online harassment. Then it needs to be effectively enforced and for that training all stakeholders is important. They need to be sensitive towards handling online harassment cases.”

Experts highlight the need for clarity on when the law can help the victims of online harassment and when it cannot. The law does not define online harassment. Gupta feels that there should be a “clear division between harassment, abuse in terms of our speech and what constitutes a legal crime”.

The way ahead

There should be a larger discussion on online harassment and how gender relations work in Indian society, says Anja Kovacs, founder director, Internet Democracy, a project initiated by Mumbai-based non-profit platform called Point of View.

Kovacs feels that online abuse is faced not only by women but also by men and many minority groups. It affects women greatly because of the patriarchal nature of society. “For a woman to be called names, which is especially related to her body, affects not only her reputation, but also of her family. It is because a woman’s purity is still so important for marriage, which makes her vulnerable in a way men are not.
“What happens online is some of the negative consequences of how gender relations are organised in our society. We need to work on that instead of exploring more legal solutions,” Kovacs says.

Furthermore, training of police forces is essential for handling online harassment cases and for ensuring effective implementation of laws. Besides, there should be discussions on cybercrime against women at larger platforms like social media and campaigning to increase awareness. These are some of the measures that are needed to address the issue of cybercrimes.

Experts also believe that social media platforms too play an important role. Duggal says, “Social media companies cannot be mere spectators. They need to play a proactive role to prevent the misuse once it is notified. They can take action on their own.”

It is clear that if women choose to stay away from online social media platforms because of growing number of abusers, then we cannot expect it to be a tool of empowerment for them.

(The story appears in the November 1-15, 2016 issue)



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