India has one of the fastest-growing social media presences in the world with users engaging with various social media platforms. Nonetheless, notwithstanding the platform, social media users may find themselves caught in the murkiness of online harassment.
We often use the terms online harassment and online abuse interchangeably. PEN America defines it as the “pervasive or severe targeting of an individual or group online through harmful behavior”. Now, let us consider the major elements of this definition, which are:
- Pervasive: Often a repetition of solitary incidents may escalate to the level of abuse or harassment. Eg. A solitary email received from an unwanted source may not amount to harassment, however, repetitive emails could.
- Severe: In other times, solitary incidents can rattle the notions of abuse and harassment. Eg. Even a singular death threat or threat about sexual violation is considered abusive and amounts to harassment.
- Individual or group: Either an individual or a group can face abuse or harassment. In all circumstances, however, such actions are considered unappealing.
- Online: Of course, the mode of such abuse and harassment is online. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok are the most common platforms for spreading online hatred.
A 2017 newspaper publication claimed that four out of five people in India had experienced online harassment in some form. Incidentally, the scope and ambit of online harassment is so widespread that victims may sometimes be unaware of it.
Types of Online Harassment
Some of the most common forms of online harassment are:
The act of using inflammatory or off-topic messages to spread discord and resentment in an online community. The individuals or organizations performing such acts are known as “Trolls”. Trolling is the digital equivalent of mob lynching.
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Threats About Physical Harm and Sexual Harassment
A common reaction to people posting their opinion on social media is the threat of causing physical or sexual harm. Besides, many people forward indecent comments and lewd remarks to women over the internet.
Many women whom I know, have received frequent and sometimes aggressive messages from total strangers over the internet. Stand-up comics and content creators talking about religion or politics often attract death threats and threats of sexual exploitation.
Many people aggressively follow the internet activity of other people. Perpetrators use the internet, email, and other forms of electronic communication, to follow, hound and harass individuals.
Criminals undertaking doxing, collect and share private information such as residential addresses, and social security numbers into the virtual world. These cybercriminals often resort to doxing to gag activists and protestors. It is the online counterpart of the offence of blackmail.
This refers to an intentional attempt to tarnish a person’s reputation through severe, and often unfair criticism.
Almost all forms of harassment fall under the general category of cyberbullying. In fact, these bullies use digital technologies to upset the lives of their victims. Moreover, their activities are aimed at “scaring, angering, or shaming” the victims.
Additionally, DoS attacks, unsolicited pornography, revenge porn, hate speech, and online impersonation are some other forms of cyber harassment.
What Are the Cyber Harassment Laws in India?
Victims of online harassment have recourse to multiple laws to help gain respite. However, there may be a lack of knowledge among the people. Perhaps they are not aware of the rights available to them.
What rights are available under the social media harassment laws in India? Well, they are nestled under the following Acts:
Indian Penal Code, 1980
The Indian Penal Code, 1980 (IPC), is the general Penal Code for India. After the ‘Nirbhaya’ matter, there had been some sweeping changes to make the Act more inclusive and watertight. Though the IPC does not deal with online harassment, it proscribes sexual innuendoes, stalking, voyeurism, and outraging a woman’s modesty. Additionally, it also criminalises defamation and criminal intimidation.
Section 298 criminalises hate speeches aimed at damaging the religious sentiments of individuals.
Section 354A proscribes the many forms of sexual harassment like forcefully showing pornography, making unwelcome physical contact and sexual advances. Demanding or requesting sexual favours and making sexually coloured remarks are also punishable offences.
Section 354C makes voyeurism a punishable offence. It means the act of watching or capturing the image of a woman engaging in a private act, without her permission or consent. Moreover, it is punishable to disseminate such images without the victim’s permission, even if she consented to be captured.
Section 354D punishes every form of stalking including online stalking. An alleged offender must prove that his act was reasonable, justified, and pursued under law, for preventing or detecting a crime. Thus, stalking will not attract punishment only in such circumstances.
Section 499 criminalises defamation, or the act of tarnishing the reputation of an individual through words, signs, or visible representations.
Section 503, 506, and 507 proscribes criminal intimidation. It includes the threat to cause grievous injury or worse still—death. Incidentally, the threat to property, or reputation is also covered under the aegis of criminal intimidation. Additionally, criminal intimidation can be with regards to the reputation of the deceased also.
Section 509 criminalises insulting the modesty of a woman through any act, gesture, or word, and violating her privacy.
Information Technology Act, 2000
A specialised legislation to deal with electronic communications and technology; the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) contains various protective measures.
Section 66C makes identity theft using fraudulent or dishonest means a punishable offence.
Section 66E criminalises the intentional capture, publication, or dissemination of the images of the private areas of any person without his/her consent. This section protects victims of all genders.
Section 66F deals with acts of cyber terrorism including DoS attacks, and the hacking of electronic devices.
Section 67 makes publication or transmission of obscene and lascivious material over electronic medium a punishable offence. It includes sharing pornographic clips or images, obscene messages and screening photos and videos of illegal activities over the internet.
Section 67A forbids transmission or publication of sexually explicit act or conduct over electronic media.
Section 67B criminalises the publication or transmission of material depicting children engaging in a sexually explicit act or conduct. Furthermore, this Section proscribes the download and search for such perverted material. Additionally, the Act condemns acts of facilitating online child abuse, recording child sexual abuse, or enticing or inducing children for a sexual relationship.
Section 4 bars the production, distribution or circulation of any material containing indecent representation of women in any form.
The entire Act is aimed at preventing sexual harassment of women. Section 2(n) defines “sexual harassment” but does not specify any medium. Besides, Section 2(o) defines “workplace” to include “a dwelling place or a house” as well.
So far, we have seen what our rights are under the cyber harassment laws in India. However, knowing about the rights is not enough. Consequently, we must be able to exercise our rights and access the remedies available under social media harassment laws.
In India, victims have multiple options to avail remedies. The Center for Advanced Research in Digital Forensics and Cyber Security (ARDC) recommends three options to explore. They are social media websites, the National Commission for Women, and Cyber cells.
Social Media Websites
Raise awareness on social media websites. Report inappropriate content and perverse behaviour to the various grievance support teams of the respective social media platform.
National Commission for Women and the Ministry of Women and Child Development
Any instance of deprivation of women’s rights or harassment endured by women can be reported to the National Commission for Women. Interested complainants can contact the Commission over email at email@example.com, or call at 011-26944883 and 011-26944880.
One can also contact the Ministry by calling at +91-11-23381611 or by sending an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, you can contact the current Under-Secretary at the Ministry at email@example.com or +91-11-23381611.
Cyber Cell and F.I.R.
The National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal has been formed to assist the victims of cybercrimes. Specifically, their list of Nodal Officers for the cyber cell of each State will help you contact the appropriate authority figure.
Furthermore, one can also choose to file a First Information Report (F.I.R.) with your local police station. Jurisdictional issues should not be a problem here. Thus, the F.I.R. will be proof of your prompt action.
The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) is the national nodal agency envisaged for tackling breaches to computer security. Additionally, they have a set of guidelines for reporting incidents which you can follow.
Food for Thought
As a user of social media, one can only be as careful as possible. Accordingly, you can ensure that your online presence is well-secured by being tech-smart. Here are a few pointers to lead to that direction:
- Keep important information such as your birthdate, address, Aadhar number and financial information private.
- Also, do not store intimate photographs on your electronic devices with an internet connection and cloud storage.
- Be cautious about what you share, and when you share about your whereabouts.
- Furthermore, do not click suspicious hyperlinks or file attachments.
- Additionally, cover the web camera, unless absolutely necessary.
- Besides, always keep a genuine antivirus installed, and update your software regularly.
- Above all, be aware of online safety guidelines.
Moreover, we hope this newfound knowledge on harassment laws will be helpful in case you find yourself deep in the murkiness of online bullying. .