This module presents different online violence scenarios and examines the legal issues involved. It provides a practical application of legal principles to help readers understand how laws are applied in specific situations.
Sanjana is an animal lover who has been contributing to animal welfare for the past 15 years. She is well known in her locality and among other animal activists. Following a disagreement with her neighbor, Jatin, on the issue of feeding the dogs in their neighborhood, Sanjana found herself at the receiving end of incessant and prolonged harassment on several social media platforms. To begin with, Jatin posted several messages on Facebook groups, alleging that Sanjana has been secretly poisoning the dogs in their society. He called her a “witch” and a “dog murderer”, and claimed she’s a hypocrite who calls herself an animal activist while secretly abusing every puppy she sees. The issue snowballed once people began to respond to Jatin’s post, threatening Sanjana with physical harm and trolling her using profanity. Thereafter, Jatin created several WhatsApp groups where he posted similar comments about her and shared her phone number with unknown individuals who then proceeded to call and harass Sanjana during odd hours. He followed this up by posting video recordings on Facebook which maligned Sanjana and exacerbated the attacks against her. Among those tagged in the concerned Facebook posts, several were common acquaintances of Sanjana and Jatin and were part of animal welfare groups. These false and one-sided allegations prompted those in the animal welfare fraternity to regard Sanjana with skepticism and cut ties with her. Amid the relentless attacks, Sanjana lodged a complaint with the police, who registered a First Information Report (FIR) arraigning Jatin as the prime accused and several others as unknown accused.
Apart from criminal prosecution, Sanjana could also file a civil suit for damages for defamation against Jatin and others. She could claim damages for the mental agony caused by the persistent, vitriolic, and threatening posts and comments by Jatin and other accused persons. Further, she could ask for an injunction directing the defendants, Jatin and others, to withdraw the allegations and accusations made against her on Facebook and WhatsApp.
Mumbai resident Meena had posted pictures of herself on her private Facebook and Instagram accounts. One day, she discovered that these photos were, without her knowledge, morphed in a sexual manner and uploaded on a pornographic website with an offensive and sexually suggestive caption. This was despite the fact that Meena had the requisite privacy settings on her account. Meena registered a complaint with the police and the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal. Upon investigation, the police found that the culprits, Sajan and Wilson, were Meena’s colleagues who, in the past, had disagreements and arguments with her about work. By posting her photos on the pornographic website, they wanted to take revenge against Meena.
The police filed a charge sheet against Sajan and Wilson for offenses under Section 67, 67A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 (IT Act), as well as under Sections 292, 354A, 509, 465 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Penal sanctions can do very little to redress the harm suffered by Meena if the relevant content continues to be published on the pornographic website and circulated on the internet. Hence, while the trial is on, the court should direct law enforcement agencies to take steps to remove or disable access to the offending content from all websites and online platforms. It should also direct search engines and other internet intermediaries involved to de-index all such offending content from their search results, and adopt proactive measures to identify and remove identical or similar content from different websites. The court can make such a direction to internet intermediaries under Rule 3(1)(d) of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules).22The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, Rule 3(1)(d); The Information Technology Act, 2000, Section 79(2)(b).
Tara was on her way to her math tuition when her friend Aniket forced her to enter his car. He gave her a cold drink which was spiked with an intoxicant, causing Tara to lose consciousness after drinking it. Aniket then had sexual intercourse with the unconscious Tara and recorded an intimate video of her without her consent. Later, he used this video to blackmail and extort money from her. But after receiving the money, he still circulated the video on social media, causing Tara immense mental trauma.
Following Tara’s complaint, the police arrested Aniket and filed a charge sheet under Sections 376, 509, 384, 385, and 506 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and Sections 67 and 67A of the IT Act.
Unless Tara’s intimate images are taken down from social media platforms, they will continue to cause her injury even after Aniket is convicted and punished. For an effective remedy, the court, during the course of the trial, should direct the concerned social media intermediaries to take steps to remove the impugned video(s) from their platforms under Rule 3(1)(d) of the IT Rules.33The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, Rule 3(1)(d); The Information Technology Act, 2000, Section 79(2)(b).
Maya, a college student, started receiving WhatsApp messages from an unknown number. The sender professed love for Maya and kept up a continuous stream of messages throughout the day, including emojis, stickers, and requests to video call. When Maya blocked one number, the person used others to keep sending her similar messages. To escape the harassment, Maya was forced to deactivate WhatsApp altogether. A few days later, she received a Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS) file on her phone from yet another unknown number. When she opened the file, she was shocked to find a downblouse image of herself that someone captured at a wedding she recently attended in her neighborhood. Downblouse photography is where a covert camera is used to photograph women from above, focusing on the blouse in the hope of taking an image of the bra, cleavage, or indeed breasts.34Gillespie, A.A. (2008). “Up-Skirts’’ and ‘‘Down-Blouses’’: Voyeurism and the Law. Criminal Law Review, n/a, pp. 370-382. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/9663206.pdf . On the basis of the photograph settings, she gathered that it had been taken, without her knowledge, at a wedding she had attended in the neighborhood. The MMS file was accompanied by a text that threatened to circulate the image online unless Maya agreed to meet the sender and spend a night with him.
Terrified, Maya immediately lodged a complaint with the police. Upon investigation, the police traced the unknown numbers used to message her to Suresh, who turned out to be Maya’s neighbor. The downblouse image of Maya was also found on his phone. Based on these findings, a charge sheet was filed under Sections 354D, 292, 509, 506, and 507 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and under Sections 67 and 67A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 (IT Act).
She could plead to the court to direct the authorities to remove her image from Suresh's mobile phone.43The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, Rule3(1)(d); The Information Technology Act, 2000, Section 79(2)(b).
Kasturba is an independent journalist and writer whose work has included investigations into alleged crimes committed by public and government officials. A day after she had given a speech at an awards ceremony in India about how the freedom of speech in newsrooms was being stifled by the government, an online hate campaign was unleashed against her by supporters of the political party in power. In their comments and posts, the attackers mainly targeted her gender and caste identity. Raghavan, an influential political leader of a ruling party, wrote a post on a popular social media platform, saying that “Kasturba represents the cunning and dishonest nature of her community. These Dalit women deserve to be raped and burnt. Let’s do it.” This post went viral and gained traction as Raghavan’s supporters copied it verbatim and posted it from their own accounts.
Consequent to this online hate campaign, especially the one set off by Raghavan’s post, Kasturba received ridiculing and threatening messages, lost followers on her social media accounts, and was excluded from many important workplace assignments. After she lodged a police complaint against Raghavan, a charge sheet was filed under Sections 153A, 509, and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and Sections 3(1)(r), (s), and (u) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (SC and ST Act).
Kasturba could appeal to the court to direct the concerned social media platforms to redact the offensive post made by Raghavan, and other similar content posted by his supporters. The court could make this order under Rule 3(1)(d) of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules).53The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, Rule 3(1)(d); The Information Technology Act, 2000, Section 79(2)(b).
Apart from criminal prosecution, Kasturba could file a civil suit for defamation under Section 19 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, and seek damages from Raghavan.