Why online harassment goes unpunished in India

By Prasanto K Roy
Technology writer, Delhi

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image captionIndia's first conviction for cyber-stalking comes 15 years after the information Technology Act of 2000 was passed

When a Mumbai court recently sent Yogesh Prabhu, 36, an executive in a private company, to jail for three months, it was a tiny landmark.

This was India's first conviction for cyber-stalking since cyber-laws came into existence in 2000.

In March 2009, Prabhu had sent a series of emails from an anonymous address to a colleague who had earlier rejected his proposal.

"I would go to a movie, and then get an anonymous email saying, How was the movie, you enjoyed it?" says the woman, whose identity is protected by law.

The police tracked down the IP address of the sender, and arrested Prabhu a month later.

This isn't, however, the first cyber-stalking case in India.

That was in 2001, when Manish Kathuria was arrested by the Delhi police for impersonating a woman in an internet chatroom.

Kathuria was charged under a section of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for "outraging the modesty" of his victim Ritu Kohli: he would pretend to be her, use obscene language, give out her home phone number and invite callers. That IPC section, however, did not cover internet crimes, and Pavan Duggal, Delhi-based cyber-law expert who worked on the case, explains that it finally fizzled out when a frustrated Ms Kohli moved out of India.

In 15 years since the information Technology Act of 2000 was passed, dozens of online harassment cases have been reported, but many more go unreported.

Vicious trolling

The most visible of these cases are those that involve trolling on social media.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's fans, known for low tolerance of criticism of their leader, are often at the forefront of such attacks.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen faced them on 8 July, after criticising the government's interference in academia and saying he didn't want Mr Modi as his prime minister.

A severe backlash followed on Twitter.

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On 28 June, Mr Modi asked Indians to tweet pictures with their daughters. Thousands responded with the #SelfieWithDaughter hashtag, but there were some critics.

Actor Shruti Seth questioned the tokenism of the contest by a "selfie-obsessed" prime minister.

And then, as Seth puts it, the "floodgates of hell opened, I was subjected to a tsunami of hate. Men spewed sexual abuse shortly after posting selfies with their daughters".

It was worse for activist Kavita Krishnan, who tweeted: "Careful before sharing #SelfieWithDaughter with #LameDuckPM. He has a record of stalking daughters." She was referring to an allegation that police in the western state of Gujarat had spied on a young woman in 2009, at the behest of Mr Modi, who was then the state's chief minister.

She was attacked online, with some men posting graphic threats on her Facebook page. "Modi supporters threatened me with rape," she said.

Prominent actor Alok Nath tweeted: "Jail the bitch."

Police 'reluctant'

Do such attacks get reported to law-enforcement? Very rarely, but not for want of trying.

"I was travelling, so I sent an email with details and screenshots of the worst rape and violence threats to the (Delhi) police commissioner," says Ms Krishnan. She didn't get a response.

Ms Seth also spoke to police, but they were not encouraging. "They say it's very difficult to track down the abusers, and it's not worth it. Then they tell you, be careful, don't get out of your house. Okay, then what are the cops there for, if I have to hide at home and look after myself?"

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image captionMany people have complained that police are not very encouraging about complaints related to cyber bullying

Mr Duggal says that police are more likely to take action when they see threats that are physical. "They're more comfortable with the traditional laws for the physical world like the newer 'Nirbhaya sections' (added after the 2012 gang-rape on a bus in Delhi, where the victim later died). IPC section 354D, for instance, covers stalking, though not cyber-stalking except for a cursory mention of a man monitoring a woman's communications."

The IT Act needs to be amended to take into account cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying, which are the two most under-reported offences in Indian schools and colleges, he adds.

"Nine of 10 victims of cyber-stalking are women. The IT Act's section 66A gave some protection against cyber-stalking."

That law, however, was challenged as sweeping and draconian, and struck down by the Supreme Court in March.

Apar Gupta, an advocate who argued against 66A in the court, disagrees, saying there's enough in existing laws to tackle cyber crimes like stalking and vicious trolling, especially "after Nirbhaya".

"It isn't that cops have problems just with cyber-crime complaints," he says. "They are reluctant to file most complaints, because it increases their burden."

Experts and victims both agree that it's very challenging to do anything about vicious trolling online.

"I faced all the harassment, even the court summons," Ms Krishnan says. "Nothing happened to my abusers. So I would think 20 times before making a police complaint. Even when I write to Twitter pointing out a gang-rape threat, Twitter writes back saying it doesn't violate their community guidelines."

Twitter India says they do take action and block abusive tweeters.

Some, meanwhile, have gone into the "vigilante" mode. A new handle called @BhaktHunters claimed in its first week that it reported and successfully suspended 10 right-wing Twitter handles for abuse. One such handle, followed by the prime minister himself, was later restored.

There has been a backlash saying that similar abusive accounts that are not right wing are being left alone. Similar "hunter" accounts are being set up to target these.

In the meantime, it looks as though the trolling will continue unabated.