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Growing Concerns over Cyber Harassment Against Women

The use of internet in India started in 1995 and since several decades our lives have been fused directly and indirectly with the use of the internet and the virtual world. Internet has facilitated and eased out a lot of physical burden as we can virtually do many activities that include communication, social interaction, financial transactions, booking, ticketing, information gathering to name just a few. However, the other side of the coin exists too as each interaction on the internet leaves digital footprints which have given rise to the darker side of the internet, namely cyber offences and crimes.

Several types of crimes have been reported such as cyber bullying, cyber defamation, cyber stalking, internet banking fraud, cyber terrorism, child pornography, cyber Intellectual Property Rights crimes, data diddling, cyber frauds relating to e-commerce, electronically transferring funds and telecommunication frauds. One of such an offence is cyber harassment where a substantial number of times the victims are only women.

Therefore, there was a need to enforce laws which would deal with the internet offences relating to cyberspace and so the Indian Parliament passed the Bill of Information Technology which got approval from Union Cabinet on 13th of May, 2000 and from both the Houses on 17th May, 2000. Then on 9th June, 2000 the Bill became an Act that came to be known as Information Technology Act (herein referred as ‘Act’) and on 17th October, 2000 the said Act was enforced. Some of the provisions of this Acct are read with provisions given under Indian Penal Code, 1860 (herein referred as ‘IPC’).

The Act in a strict sense does not define ‘harassment’ or ‘cyber harassment’ but in general terms harassment means any kind of behaviour or attitude or gesture by a person towards the other which is unwelcoming by the latter is repeatedly done. In the same sense, cyber harassment involves sending unsolicited, abusive, obscene and obnoxious e-mails, messages on chat rooms or posting anything derogatory to or about the victim on any social media website.

In todays’ world with internet being an imperative part of our lives it is necessary for the laws to be continually updated for an efficient functioning, so that as much as possible, it can ensure that no woman is harassed and internet becomes a safe place for everyone to interact without any fears.

IT Act dealing with cyber harassment:
The very first case of cyber stalking was registered in 2001 in India wherein a woman named Ritu Kohli was being stalked by Manish Kathuria on the internet. He was illegally chatting with her on the website called MIRC. He used to use obnoxious words and had circulated her residence number on the internet because of which she was receiving obscene and loathsome calls from various persons unknown to her.

She immediately reported the matter to the Delhi police and they registered her case under section 509 of IPC which punishes the person who intends to outrage the modesty of women by some word, sound or gesture or exhibits any object.

The police later on found the accused, Manish Kathuria, had hacked into her mail account which enabled him to gain access to her photos. He had not only sent Ritu Kohli threat mails but also was chatting to people known to her on her behalf using abusive language. Therefore, he was arrested by the police and was booked under section 509 of IPC where the punishment of insulting a woman’s modesty is imprisonment that may extend up to three years.

This was a landmark judgement as there was an amendment in the Act, wherein section 66A came into force which punishes a person for sending offensive messages and causes inconvenience to that person through communication services.

The section reads as- providing punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services to any person who sends, by means of a computer resources or a communication device:
  • Any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character to it.
  • Any information that is known by the offender is wrong or false yet just for causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, ill will, criminal intimidation he sends such offensive messages.
  • Any e-mail to cause annoyance or inconvenience to the person,
Shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of three years with fine.

However, this section was declared to be unconstitutional as it violated the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution and so was struck down by the Apex Court in the landmark judgement of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India.

After the 2008 amendment in the Act, any e-mail means any message or information transmitted through communication devices that includes any text, image, audio, video or any other electronic record, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, deceive or mislead the addressee about the origin of such message.

Some of the other provisions are:
Section 67 which prohibits publication of information that is obscene in electronic form. The offence is said to have accrued when any person has published or transmitted to publish any material that are:
  • Lewd or lascivious.
  • Appeals to prurient interest or
  • May effect and corrupt persons who are likely to read, see or hear the material contained in it, shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment that might extend up to a term of three years and fine of five lakh rupees and with second or subsequent conviction the term of imprisonment may extend to five years and fine of ten lakh rupees.

Section 67A was inserted in the IT Act by the amendment of 2008. It is to expressly prohibit the publication or transmission of pornographic content in electronic form. The punishment under this section for publication or transmission of such content is imprisonment that may extend till five years with a fine that may extend up to ten lakh rupees on first conviction and imprisonment for a term that may extend up to seven years and a fine that may extend up to ten lakh rupees on second and subsequent conviction.

Although, both section 67 and section 67A provide with exceptions as they do not include any book, painting, drawing, pamphlet, representation or figure in electronic form which is:
  • In public good.
  • In use for science, literature, art or learning any other subject.
  • Used for bona fide for religious purposes.

IPC dealing with cyber harassment:
The Indian Penal Code of 1860 too provides with legal redressal to women with Section 292 that defines obscenity as:
  • Books, paintings, drawings, paper, pamphlet, representation or figures which are obscene or importing and exporting any obscene object for the purpose of selling, hiring, distributing, publicly exhibiting or circulating or,
  • A person taking part or receiving any profit from doing a business which involves selling, producing, purchasing, importing, exporting, conveying or publicly exhibited or circulating such obscene objects.
  • Advertising or any person who is ready to engage in any act that is an offence under this section,
shall be on the first conviction, punished with imprisonment for a term that might extend to two years or a fine of two thousand rupees and on second or subsequent conviction, punished with imprisonment that might extend up to five years or fine of five thousand rupees.

Furthermore, section 292A was inserted to deal with printing or circulation of any picture or a written document that is grossly indecent or is scurrilous or intended to blackmail the person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend up to two years or fine or both and for second or subsequent offence shall be imprisoned for a term that may extend up to six months but not two years.

Section 354C defines voyeurism as any man watches or captures images of a woman engaging in a private act where she would not be expecting to be observed either by perpetrator or disseminates or circulates such images shall be at first conviction be imprisoned for a term not less than one year which may extend up to three years along with fine and on second or subsequent conviction of not less than three years that may extend to seven years and shall be liable with fine.

Section 503 states, criminal intimidation means threatening a person with injury to his person, property, reputation, with a clear intention of causing an alarm to do such an act which is not legally bound to do so.

Section 506 which provides with punishment as imprisonment for a term that may extend up to two years, or with fine, or both, to the person who commits an offence of criminal intimidation. And if there is threat to cause grievous hurt or to impute, unchastity to a woman shall be punished with imprisonment for a term that may extend to seven years, or with fine or both and if to cause death, then imprisonment is for life.

Section 507 states that a criminal intimidation can also be anonymous as the person can conceal their identity to threaten the other person. That person shall be imprisoned that may extend up to two years.

Section 509 this particular section is the only section that mentions women specifically. It states that whosoever intends to insult the modesty of any woman by uttering a word, making any sound or gestures, exhibits any object, intrudes their privacy shall be punished with imprisonment that may extend up to three years and fine.

Psychological impact on victims:
Punishing the perpetrator and delivering justice to the victims may not always prove to be enough for the latter. Any criminal offence against a person can leave an emotional and psychological impact on their minds, likewise, cyber offences too leave an impact which makes it difficult for the victim to carry on with their lives.

Most women have to face humiliation and are ostracized by their known ones as they are made to believe that somewhere they have bought disgrace upon themselves or their family members. This ostracization is more painful than the actual harassment. The suicide committed by the 21-year-old Vinupriya in 2016 had shown that the victim not only suffers harassment in the hands of the harasser but also has to face a lot of social stigma.

Therefore, aside from spreading awareness about the laws among women and enabling them to protect themselves from being harassed is an important facet that needs to be achieved, but, empathizing with the victim and providing them with counselling, guidance and redressal are equally essential. This would surely embolden them and provide them with enough courage to take appropriate actions against the wrongdoer.

References:
  • Criminal Manual including Guide to Criminal Proceedings (2018). Universal Law Publication an imprint of LexisNexis.
  • http://www.caaa.in- Overview of Cyber Laws in India.
  • Bender, D. Computer Law- A Guide to Cyber Law and Data Privacy. Volume 1.LexisNexis.
  • http://www.legalservicesindia.com- Singh, R (2015). Analysing the Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression through a recent and important case.
  • https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com-Indiarankshighestinonlineharassment.
  • https://blog.ipleaders.in-Pandey, A. Laws Punishing Cyber Stalking and Cyber Harassment.
  • Combatting Online Violence Against Women & Girls: A Worldwide Wake- up Call available at https://en.unesco.org.

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