Section 66A, sexual harassment and women’s rights

by Richa Kaul Padte

Kapil Sibal, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, has argued that section 66A of the IT (Amendment) Act, 2008 is needed to fight harrassment and abuse of women online. Is he correct?

What is Section 66A? #

Section 66A of the IT (Amendment) Act, 2008 prohibits the sending of offensive messages though a communication device (i.e. through an online medium). The types of information this covers are offensive messages of a menacing character, or a message that the sender knows to be false but is sent for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will.’ If you’re booked under Section 66A, you could face up to 3 years of imprisonment along with a fine.

What does it have to do with women? #

On the Internet, women face large amounts of sexist harassment, abuse and discrimination on the basis of their gender, rather than their opinions, thoughts or beliefs. Bloggers, Tweeters, journalists and Facebook users with prominent profiles face rape threats, violent pornographic vitriol, sexual harassment, accusations of promiscuity, and various forms of humiliation on a daily basis – simply because they are women. This is a global problem with very little conversation or legal recourse surrounding it. For women who face such abuse, the first law to which they could logically recourse is Section 66A of the IT Act. Recently, Chinmayi Sripada, a Tamilian singer and Tweeter was the subject of an allegedly targeted and sexist campaign against her, which eventually led to two men being arrested under 66A. (Subsequently the singer has been accused of originally making caste-based remarks against the community of fishermen the two men belong to. However, the use of 66A to file a case against cyber sexual harassment seemed to be a victory for the law vis a vis cyber misogyny).

So, what’s the problem? #

Section 66A is full of vague, undefined terminology, which means that its implementation will always be a subjective matter for those trying the case. What is insulting’ or injurious’? A rape threat? A comment about your physical appearance? A slandering of your public opinions? Is annoyance’ the same as criminal intimidation’ or enmity’? Under whose purview does the defining of these ambiguous terms fall? Internet activists along with others who defend the freedom of expression as a human right find Section 66A standing in direct contradiction to these rights. Particularly when the people enforcing the laws are working for a State that isn’t too fond of criticism.

For example, two young women were booked under 66A (alongside another law) for criticising the total shutdown of Mumbai city following the death of right-wing party Shiv Sena’s leader Bal Thackery. A little while later, another Tweeter (with only 16 followers) was arrested for claiming that the son of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram was corrupt. He now faces up to three years in jail.

As a result of the law’s fluid nature and the ways in which it has been used to protect an already powerful State and its politicians, even some of the most harassed women on Twitter say that they would never turn to a law that is ultimately a restriction on their freedom of expression on the Internet. Despite the sexual abuse and harassment they face on a daily basis, Section 66A does not seem to be the answer.

What are the alternatives? #

Many sections of the Indian Penal Code can be used by women who face sexual harassment – these sections can be called into play for online harassment too.

Section 509: Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. 

Acts of sexual harassment demeaning a woman on the basis of her gender or sexuality — and other forms of sexual abuse faced by women online — can fall under this.

Section 499: Defamation

Harming the reputation of a person through words, signs, or visible representations. Many women bloggers and Tweeters say that the violent sexist slander they receive goes on to create an irrecoverably negative message for them within their communities, societies, etc.

Section 503: Criminal Intimidation

One of the most widespread incitements to violence against women on the Internet is through the form of rape threats.

Section 507: Criminal intimidation by an anonymous communication 

Rape threats – and other threats of violence – where the harasser is unknown (useful in a cyber world of trolls’ and fluid identities) can be addressed under this section.

Section 228a: Disclosure of the identity of victims of certain offences 

Disclosure of the identities of rape victims is prohibited by law. Images of rape victims as well as images and videos of rape are sometimes published on the Internet to silence victims and intimidate other women – this is not legal.