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Legal provisions and steps to report online harassment against women

When an individual faces an untoward incident online, it can be difficult to know where to turn. If you are a victim of online harassment or know someone who is, it is important to take action and report it to the relevant authorities. 

Online harassment does not just take a steep tax on women’s freedom of speech, civic life, and democracy, it can and does inhibit their economic and educational opportunities.  For women, harassment frequently perpetuates harmful stereotypes, is sexually objectifying and relies on the threat of violence to be effective. There are legal provisions and several laws to protect women and enable them to take action against harassment. 

Legal Remedies as per Indian Laws

With the increasing use and dependence on the internet globally, it is very important for  women to know the laws that they can rely on to protect themselves. Below is a brief of Indian Laws and provisions for safeguarding women from perpetrators online:-

Although the information technology (IT) Act 2008 (amended) of India does not directly address stalking or online harassment, perhaps, the issue is dealt with as an ‘intrusion on to the privacy of individual’ in the act. 

Section 72A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (amended in 2008), runs as follows: 

Section 72A: Punishment for Disclosure of information in breach of lawful contract (Inserted vide ITAA-2008): Save as otherwise provided in this Act or any other law for the time being in force, any person including an intermediary who, while providing services under the terms of a lawful contract, has secured access to any material containing personal information about another person, with the intent to cause or knowing that he is likely to cause wrongful loss or wrongful gain discloses, without the consent of the person concerned, or in breach of a lawful contract, such material to any other person shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with a fine which may extend to five lakh rupees, or with both. If the cyber harassment is done only to annoy the victim and does not result in serious offences like severe defamation, sexual crimes, identity theft or even grave crimes like terrorism, it is considered as a bailable offence.

In an attempt to secure the freedom of speech and expression of Indian internet users, the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act in 2015 which encompassed the punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services.

However, after the December 2012 Delhi gang rape incident, the Indian government had taken several initiatives to review the existing criminal laws. A special committee under Justice Verma was formed for this purpose and based upon the report of the committee, several new laws were introduced. In this course, anti-stalking law was also introduced. Amendments were made to Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code in 2013 which criminalised the assault or criminal force on a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty.

Following are the laws that can be referred by victims of online trolling: 

Section 507 of the IPC:

Under this provision, any individual who acts in the interest of intimidating or threatening another citizen by anonymous communication is liable to be punished with two years in prison.

Section 354A of the IPC:

People posting lewd comments on social media are liable under this law and can be punished with one-year imprisonment and a fine.

In addition, posting/messaging content related to pornography against the will of a woman or requesting sexual favours are punishable by a fine along with three years of imprisonment under the same provision.

Section 354C of the IPC:

This act deals with voyeurism which is a criminal offence under both the IPC and the IT Act. It deals with cases where a man, without the consent of a woman, captures an image/video of her engaged in a private act. Such an act is punishable by one to three years of imprisonment along with a fine. This provision can be referred to especially in cases when the woman does not expect to be observed by the accused.

Section 354D of the IPC:

This provision of the IPC deals with what is commonly referred to as “online stalking”. The provision covers the grounds of a case where an attempt to contact a woman is made via the internet, e-mail or any other form of electronic communication with the intention of establishing personal interaction despite her visible disinterest. Such an act is punishable with three years of imprisonment on the first count followed by five years of imprisonment on the second count both of which are in addition to a monetary fine.

Case: Manish Kathuria v. Ritu Kohli

Manish the accused used to chat on the internet website “www.micr.com” under the name of Mrs. Ritu Kohli and also gave Mrs. Kohli’s telephone number for further chatting. Mrs. Ritu Kohli is the wife of a senior executive of The Credit Rating Information Services of India Ltd. where Manish worked as a Financial Analyst but had been fired sometime back. To avenge this, Manish reportedly logged on to the site as Mrs. Ritu Kohli and would give her telephone number as a result of which she started receiving obscene calls at her residence. After interrogation, it was found that the accused had logged in through that Email – Id and was chatting from that Id.

Section 499 of the IPC: 

Any individual who believes that his/her reputation is being harmed by a visible representation published on the internet can invoke this provision which exclusively accounts for remarks on social media or obscene images or videos posted for public consumption. Under this provision, defaming a woman online will land the perpetrator in jail for a period of two years.

Section 503 of the IPC: 

In the case of an individual threatening another citizen with the intention to either alarm or malign reputation, the former is liable to be penalised with a jail term of two years.

Section 509 of the IPC: 

Under this provision, a person distinctly posting sexual remarks/pictures/videos comprising of sexual insinuations on social media is liable to three years of imprisonment along with a fine.

Section 228A of the IPC: 

The law prohibits the disclosure of the identities of rape victims. In situations where the images of rape victims including the images and videos of rape are published on the electronic media to make sure the silence of the victims and to intimidate other women, then they can file a case under this section.

Section 66E of the IT Act:

Publishing a visual image of a person in print or electronic form that would result in the violation of the privacy of the individual would lead to three years imprisonment or a fine ranging from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 10 lakh.

According to this provision of the IT Act, while the first conviction would result in three years of imprisonment, a second conviction under the same provision can lead to a jail term spanning seven years along with a similar fine.

Section 292 of the IPC:

Any book, paper, drawing, painting or figure used via an electronic medium that can be proved to contain “obscene” content falls under this provision. One can refer to Section 67 of the IT Act to gain more clarity about the territory that falls under the category of “obscene” content.

Section 67 of the IT Act prohibits and punishes with imprisonment extending up to three years and a fine for the first conviction and to five years and fine upon a second conviction, the publication, transmission and causing of transmission of obscene content. Obscene content has been defined in the same manner as in S. 292 IPC, and therefore the test of obscenity is to be the same as under that provision. As per S. 67, something is obscene if it:

  • Is lascivious; or
  • Appeals to the prurient interest; or
  • Has the effect of depraving and corrupting persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.

Section 67A of the Act carves out a special category of obscene content i.e. material containing a ‘sexually explicit act’. The publication, transmission or causing of transmission or such material is punishable with imprisonment extending up to five years and a fine for the first conviction and to seven years and a fine upon the second conviction.

Case: The State of Tamil Nadu Vs Suhas Katti

This case is about posting an obscene, defamatory and annoying message about a divorcee woman in the Yahoo message group. E-mails were forwarded to the victim for information by the accused through a false e-mail account opened by him in the name of the victim. These postings resulted in annoying phone calls to the lady. Based on the lady’s complaint, the police nabbed the accused. Investigation revealed that he was a known family friend of the victim and was interested in marrying her. She was married to another person, but that marriage ended in divorce and the accused started contacting her once again. On her reluctance to marry him he started harassing her through the internet.

Verdict: The accused was found guilty of offences under sections 469, 509 IPC and 67 of IT Act 2000. He is convicted and sentenced for the offence as follows:

  • As per 469 of IPC he has to undergo rigorous imprisonment for 2 years and to pay a fine of Rs.500/-
  • As per 509 of IPC he is to undergo to undergo 1 year of siimple imprisonment and to pay Rs 500/-
  • As per Section 67 of IT Act 2000, he has to undergo for 2 years and to pay a fine of Rs.4000/-

All sentences were to run concurrently. The accused paid the fine amount and he was lodged at Central Prison, Chennai. This is considered the first case convicted under section 67 of the Information Technology Act 2000 in India.

The Intermediary Rules of 2021, empower women in many ways, and a woman in case of any revenge porn or nude content related to her or outrages her modesty, can complain to the Internet Service Provider’s Grievance Redressal Officer and he has to without delay take down such content. In case she is not satisfied with the outcome, she can escalate the matter to the nodal officer or Compliance Officer appointed by the Intermediary/ Social media platform. It is mandatory for platforms to set up this 3 tier grievance redressal mechanism. They have to have an office in India and these officers have to be appointed and working in India, thereby ensuring that the law enforcement also can gain access to data for cyber crimes, thereby enabling a higher conviction rate.

Any woman who is victimized online should take action and can file a complaint for an FIR registration in the local police station of the area where she resides. An online complaint can be filed on www.cybercrime.gov.in 

Legal steps a victim must take:

The only remedy against these offences is to be vocal about them and by reporting them as soon as possible. Complaints against cybercrime can be filed anywhere because cyber offences do not have any clear defined jurisdiction. Listed below are places where an aggrieved woman can report an offence:

  1. Cyber Cells-  These are specially made for investigating and preventing cybercrimes and in metro cities, there are normally south, north, east and west cyber cells. There are cyber cells at the district level too. However, in case your area does not have a cyber cell, do not worry, you can register a complaint at the local police station of the jurisdiction.
  2. Police Stations- In many states like Maharashtra, every police station has an officer trained to handle cyber crimes and complaints can be filed in the local police station too. A detailed police complaint along with all evidence has to be submitted and further inquiry is conducted by the police officer, after which an FIR is registered. You can view the FIR status online too. In cases of crimes against women, the police is usually proactive and in cases of revenge porn or nude content posted online, they have the power to issue notices to the Social Media Platform or Intermediary for the takedown of the content. 
  3. The National Commission for Women- This organization works differently compared to the cyber cell, as they team up with the police and help the victim. The commission has the authority to set up an inquiry committee, conduct spot inquiries, interrogate, collect evidence, etc. A complaint can be made to them online or physically by submitting a written complaint in their office closest to your residence.
  4. Report to the POSH committee- Under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women Act, a POSH committee to accept and enquire into physical and online sexual harassment faced by female employees is mandatory to be set up by organisations having female employees. In case the perpetrator is from the workplace, a complaint can be filed with the POSH committee which will conduct an internal inquiry into the matter and take the necessary disciplinary action. There have been many cases of well-known corporate personalities being accused by female employees of physical or online sexual harassment and the POSH Act has been an effective remedy, enabling women to reach out to the POSH committee within their organisation itself to seek redressal. 

As working towards women’s protection in cyberspace, I have taken steps recently and set up an NGO Cyber Rights Foundation, which has a Women’s Cyber Rights Committee to educate women about their cyber rights and seek legal redressal when these rights are violated. 

Don’t keep quiet and don’t tolerate online harassment. Speak up and take action against the perpetrators!

This Article has been Written by Advocate Puneet Bhasin, Cyber Law & Cyber Crime Expert on behalf of Studio18.

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Women Helpline Numbers

To Report Harassment

Dial 112 or 181

Log on to

cybercrime.gov.in

Police Control Room

100

India Women's Helpline (All India)

1091

1090

Women in Distress

1091

National Commission for Women (NCW)

011-23237166

Anti Stalking / Obscene calls

1096

Delhi Commission for Women (DCW)

011 23378044

011 23378317

011 23370597

Student / Child Helpline

1098