Reporting Online Threats And Abuse
The internet and especially social media platforms have always been a way for everyone and anyone to share their opinions on things they feel should be talked about. If what you are saying is within the purview of the law, it is a forum without censorship, a place to speak without any encumbrances and limitations. However, increasingly, it happens that if people disagree with your opinions, you will face abuse that is personal in nature, based on your gender, sexual orientation, religion, place of origin and other identifiable personal characteristics. Sometimes these threats spill over from the internet to real life. Even where it doesn’t, the fear keeps people from speaking up further. If you are a woman, there is a higher chance of abuse being sexual in nature and threats of sexual assault are common. It’s easier to abuse online because the internet provides an encouraging sense of security due to the ostensible anonymity that it provides.
Here are some of the common situations that can happen online, and what you can do if you are faced with them. We have not covered children in this article, though there are laws that exist for protecting children online.
Someone took private photos of mine and is posting them everywhere without my permission
The first step can be to try and approach the social network to get the pictures taken down.
How to remove photos
- Tap (☰) at the top right corner of the page.
- Scroll to the bottom of the list and tap “Report a Problem”.
- Select a product (i.e. “Profile”, “Photos”, or “Pages”) from the list provided in the drop-down menu.
- In the “What went wrong?” text box, include the information outlined in the four points above.
- You have the option to attach a screenshot of the reported content. Of note: If the picture/video being reported contains individuals under the age of 18 whose sexual organs are visible and/or who are engaged in sexual activity, we suggest that you do NOT screen capture this content.
- Tap “Submit”.
- Access https://support.twitter.com/forms/abusiveuser.
- Select the most appropriate option regarding how you are involved (i.e. “Directed at me”).
- Select the most appropriate type of complaint (e.g. “Harassment” or “Specific violent threats involving physical safety or well-being”).
- Complete the form, including providing a link to the content, the individual’s username, Twitter username, and email address in the appropriate fields.
- Fill out the questionnaire based on information about the reported content.
- In the field marked “Further description of problem”, provide the information outlined in the four points above.
- Tap “Submit”.
The instructions given above are for mobile. For details on how to do this on a desktop, and on other social media platforms, check this out.
If you have tried this out and it’s not working or you are unhappy with the results, then you can also take the legal route. For women, the situation mentioned above is a crime under the Indian Penal Code. There is also a section of the Information Technology Act which deals with this and is generally applicable to everyone.
Section 354C of the Indian Penal Code: This section deals with Voyeurism. It is a crime to view and/or capture the image of a woman going about her private acts, where she thinks that no one is watching her. This includes a woman:
- using a toilet, or
- who is undressed or in her underwear, or
- engaged in a sexual act.
If the woman agrees to private photos, it is not a crime to take them. However, if she expects them to remain with only certain people, then sharing them is a crime. Explanation 2 makes it clear that the woman must expressly consent to both, watching/taking pictures as well as sharing them, for it to not be an offense.
The punishment for this can be jail between three to seven years and a fine.
Section 66E of the Information Technology Act: This section deals with violation of privacy. It is a crime to take pictures of a person’s private area, share them or publish them without their consent. The punishment can be jail for up to three years and up to two lakh rupees in fine.
While the IPC section can only be used by women, the section in the IT act applies to everyone and is not gender specific.
Someone’s found all my online accounts and keeps sending me messages on email, Facebook etc.! I’ve made it clear I don’t want to communicate with him, what else can I do?
Hey, the first thing to do here would be to try and block the person from your social media and on email.
- For Gmail, the process to block people from sending you emails is simple and can be accessed here. Similar options are available on other platforms.
- Adjust your settings on social networks to block the person. If this option is not available, you may need to send a formal complaint/report to the provider (e.g. Instagram, Facebook).
- If the communication is happening over the phone, then there are options which allow you to block calls and texts from certain numbers.
- Some sites allow users to set limits on who can search for them, who can send friend requests, etc. Learn about the privacy settings on your social networking accounts to control who can contact you.
Now let’s check the law on this. The law that deals with this applies only to women. It would fall under the definition of stalking, covered under Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code.
Stalking is –
- Continuously following a woman or contacting her,
- Either online or in person
- Where she has clearly shown, she doesn’t want the attention
It is punished by three years for a first offense, and five years for repeat offenses.
The section makes an exception if a person is stalking a woman as part of a legal duty to do so.
Example: Jeevan is a police officer tracking down a drugs shipment and has been monitoring emails received by Stuti. This would be covered by the exception.
Someone is sending me obscene material without my consent
The first thing to do would be to block the person and prevent them from communicating with you any further.
If that doesn’t work, then there are some options under the law:
- Section 354A, dealing with sexual harassment, covers showing pornography against the will of a woman.
- Section 67 of the Information Technology Act punishes sharing obscene material in electronic form. The punishment can be jail for five years and a fine of ten lakh rupees.
- Section 67A of the act punishes sharing material containing sexually explicit act in electronic form with jail for seven years and a fine of ten lakh rupees. The provisions of the Information Technology Act are not gender specific and apply to everyone.
Someone keeps abusing me with bad language on a social media platform
Most social media networks have terms and conditions that apply to all users and that prohibit certain activity associated with bullying like harassment, violating privacy, etc.
- If you notify the network, they may issue a warning to the person doing it, close their account and/or block contact between your account and the other person.
- They may also have records of the contact between the other person and you which may be helpful (e.g. if reporting to law enforcement).
- Remember that the person abusing you can also create a new account and start again. If this occurs, prompt and continued reporting may be needed.
- Ask your friends to block the abuser to help control the problem.
- It would also be useful to point out these instances in public on social media, in your own network, and to the networks themselves.
The type of legal recourse you can take depends on the type of abuse you are getting.
- If you are a woman, and the abuse is sexual in nature, this would fall under the definition of sexual harassment as per section 354A of the Indian Penal Code. The section covers making a demand for sexual favors and making sexually colored remarks towards a woman. It contains a punishment which can be between a year to three years in jail.
- There is also section 509 of the Indian Penal Code. This section deals with word, gesture or act which intends to insult the ‘modesty’ of a woman. What does modesty of a woman mean? The IPC isn’t very clear on that. Courts usually make the determination based on the circumstances surrounding the incident. The Supreme Court referred to ‘modesty’ as “feminine decency” and a virtue that women possess due to their sex. For this section to apply, the offender should have uttered any word, made a gesture or sound, or exhibited any object, or intruded on the privacy of a woman, with the intention that this should be seen and heard by the woman. Under this section, punishment can be a term of simple imprisonment up to three years. If someone found your contact details online and tries to contact you constantly against your will, then that could fall under Section 509 as an intrusion of privacy intending to insult the modesty of a woman.
- The above-mentioned laws are gender specific and apply only to women. There are some other laws which apply generally. Section 294 of the IPC punishes any obscene words uttered in a public place. In case of religious abuse, section 295A of the IPC punishes words, either written or spoken, which insult someone’s religions or religious beliefs. For caste-based abuse, the SC/ST POA Act has a specific provision, section 3(1)(x) that deals with such abuse.
It’s no longer limited to abuse! Now they are sending threats to hurt me physically.
The threat of physical injury or harassment can be more intimidating. Depending on the nature of the threats, this could fall under the purview of section 503 of the IPC. This section deals with threatening to injure any person, their reputation, or their property. The punishment for criminal intimidation is given in section 506 of the IPC. The offender can be punished with jail for seven years and a fine.
Account hacked/fake account in my name?
If your account has been hacked, then there some options within the social media networks that can help you recover the account. Read them here.
Now let’s check the law. If your account has been hacked, and/or a fake account has been created in your name, different sections of the IT act would apply:
- Section 66C deals with identity theft. This would be useful in case your account has been hacked. For the section to apply, it must be shown that someone stole or dishonestly used your password, digital signature, or any other unique identifying feature. The punishment for this can be jail for three years and a fine of a lakh rupees.
- Section 66D applies to cheating by personation by using a computer source. If someone has created a fake social media account in your name and cheated anyone through it, then this section would apply. The punishment here can be same as for the section given above.
When do you file a complaint?
There is no minimum threshold, for how much abuse is too much, or when you should file a complaint. In the first instance, it may be useful to report such instances to the platform on which the abuse is taking place. In case that is ineffective, you can check whether the harassment falls under any of the provisions of the law given above. For the IPC sections, the medium on which abuse happens is not important, it’s the behavior that constitutes an offense that is important.
How do you file a complaint?
- Gather as much information as you can. Taking screenshots of relevant messages, conversations and comments can help your case.
- For online crimes, you can approach the cyber-crime branch of the police. Unlike other crimes, cyber-crimes are not limited by jurisdiction. You can report to the cyber-cell of any city, even if the offense was committed when you were in a different city. A list of details of cyber-crime cells can be accessed here.
- In case you are unable to file a complaint in the cyber cell, you can file a FIR with the local police station. Not sure how to file and FIR or what to do if the police refuse to take your complaint? This guide should help. A lot of the offenses mentioned above are cognizable, which means that the police can act, without waiting for the magistrate to issue a warrant.
- The women and child development ministry has also set-up a dedicated cyber cell to help women receiving online abuse.
A lot of the abuse and threats come from anonymous users, what can we do in that case?
For filing a FIR, it is not necessary to know the name of the person responsible for the crime to lodge a FIR. You should try and tell the police whatever you know, but you don’t have to know all the details.
There is also section 507 of the IPC, which says that any anonymous communication, which constitutes criminal intimidation as explained above, can be punished under this section. It allows the victim to file a complaint without knowing the identity of the harasser.
While the laws do exist, implementation has been questionable. However, with more awareness of the law and how it operates, engagement with authorities can help to improve implementation as well in the long term.
This article was written by Nyaaya, which is a free, non-profit resource explaining and documenting all Indian laws. If you want to read more about this law, then go through their explainer on this act, where they have explained the different sections of the law in simple English.