Contrary to what many believe, it is possible to punish trolls using existing provisions of the law. Web users need to stop suffering in silence, say experts.
India may soon see the first high profile arrest of an internet troll. On the complaint of a woman television journalist, Delhi Police registered an FIR in June this year against a conspicuous though anonymous Twitter handle. Swati Chaturvedi alleged the handle belonged to a senior journalist who heaped sexual abuse on her and harassed her online, goading his 40,000 odd followers also to troll her.
Unlike other victims who either wind up their account or block abusers, the journalist lodged a case under the IPC for stalking, defamation, and outraging the modesty of a woman. Its effect was instant — the handle disappeared and the offensive tweets were deleted.
Though the abuser remains free, police sources indicate they have zeroed in on his identity. The delay in arrest and prosecution of such cases remains the central challenge for the Indian legal framework when it deals with online abuse through laws that are basically aimed at offline crimes.
Social media has given people a platform to air their views but it has also left them vulnerable to slander, character assassination, intimidation and defamation. Supreme Court lawyer Virag Gupta blames the brazenness of trolls on the high threshold of tolerance among web users. “A troll is a person who sows discord on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic content on a newsgroup, forum, chat room or blog with the deliberate intent of online harassment. The ways in which people are harassed include cyber bullying, revenge porn, trolling, virtual mobbing and so on,” Gupta explains, adding that these offenders are punishable under the IPC.
Along with former BJP leader K Govindacharya, Gupta has been pushing to make social media sites such as Google and Facebook more accountable to Indian users. In a PIL in Delhi High Court, he has accused them of evading taxes, leaving children exposed to cybercriminals and storing information on servers based abroad.
“There are two ways to counter harmful acts committed on social media: New laws or using existing provisions under criminal law. It is not the medium but the behaviour that constitutes an offence. So provisions of the IPC would be attracted even for actions on the internet against the sender of the message and even the platform,” Gupta says.
Till March this year, the government used Section 66A of the Information Technology Act as the remedy for all online abuse, but the Supreme Court struck it off from the law books. The apex court found the section to be not just “vaguely worded” but also in violation of the Constitution since it criminalized speech on the subjective annoyance of a user. SC further faulted the provision for creating a new offence only on the basis of the medium used for communication.
Does this then mean that an important weapon against online abuse has been taken away by the SC? Not really , says Anja Kovaks, director of Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project. Kovacs and her team of researchers studied sexist comments, some of them downright abusive, faced by women vocal on social media and how the victims dealt with these. Their report, ‘An Exploratory Study of Women and Verbal Online Abuse in India’, pitched for greater use of “alternative legal provisions” by victims of online harassment and the “development of a broader women’s law that accounts for systemic discrimination.”
Kovacs says victims, mostly women, “develop a variety of strategies to deal with the verbal threats they face online but these strategies very rarely include the law.”