Why FIRs are delayed in cyber abuse and harassment, Kerala top cop explains

FIRs are not lodged for most complaints to the Cyber Crime Cell due to a legal grey area, says Manoj Abraham, nodal officer of Kerala Cyberdome.
Online abuse social media
Online abuse social media
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Several women have blamed the Cyber Crime Cell in Kerala for not acting on complaints of cyber abuse and harassment, despite being flooded with complaints. These specific allegations come in the aftermath of dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi and two others attacking a man, Vijay P Nair, for posting a derogatory video on YouTube which abused feminists

The video titled ‘Why feminists, especially in Kerala, do not wear underwear’, were condemned by many well known women, who supported  Bhagyalakshmi but also criticised the Cyber Crime Cell for not acting on their complaints against Vijay Nair.

“Vijay Nair had posted the video back in August and I noticed it recently. On September 25, I had mailed a complaint to the DGP, which was directed to the Cyber Crime Cell. But I received no response to the email,” says Bindu Ammini, an activist who was also targeted in the video. 

However, it is not so easy to act immediately on cyber crime complaints, says Manoj Abraham, nodal officer of Cyberdome, a Kerala Police initiative dealing with cybersecurity.  Reacting to the criticism, the IPS officer told TNM that lodging First Information Reports or FIRs for a majority of cybercrime complaints is tough as they fall outside the scope of the law. Ninety percent of the complaints received are not acted upon, he admits. 

“If we receive 3000 complaints in a month, we only register cases for 200 of them,” he adds. This as a majority of the complaints deal with cyber abuse  and harassment - all of which fall in the grey area, as far as the law is concerned. 

The law governing cybercrime is the Information Technology Act, 2000, with sections 67 A and B dealing with any and all actions involving  electronic material which contain explicit sexual content and child sexual exploitation material.

However, harassment, social media insults and non-sexual abuse do not fall under the legal scope of these sections. "And when there is no section dealing with these instances, it becomes difficult to register cases,” the IPS officer says. Typically, FIRs are mainly lodged for most cybercrime complaints dealing with obscene content or child sexual exploitation material circulated on the internet, and hardly for offensive messages barring those which are communal in nature. 

The grey area in the law arose after the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act which dealt with “punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service.” In 2015, the top court cited the right to freedom of expression to strike down Section 66A of the IT Act, calling it ‘draconian’ as it had led to the arrest of a number of people for ‘allegedly objectionable’ social media posts. 

Section 66 A applied to “Any person who sent, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,-

  1.  Information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or

  2.  Information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult etc 

  3. Electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages.”

This was an appropriate section to be invoked under the IT Act in complaints of cyber abuse and insults, said the officer.

With Section 66 A struck down, there exists a legal vacuum in dealing with cases of internet trolling and harassment. “The only law that can be invoked is public defamation which does not attract serious punishment, and also drags on for years in court,” Manoj Abraham explained. 

Prasanth Sugathan, technology lawyer and Legal Director at Software Freedom Law Centre or SLFC says that several provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) can be invoked to lodge FIRs where the IT Act's sections are not applicable.

"Sections dealing with public defamation, outraging the modesty of a woman and other offences can be invoked. But it also depends on the accused person in the case. If you see, cases are very quickly registered if it is a public figure, political leader or other celebrities against whom the complaint has been filed," Prasanth adds. 

Delay in lodging FIRs

With complaints which do attract relevant sections of the IT Act, the delay comes in verifying the user. “It takes 4-5 days to verify the complaint. You need to verify the accused persons’ profile and ensure it is not a fake profile. For this, you need to write to the social media platform- Facebook, YouTube etc and get the accused user’s IP address.” the officer adds. 

There is also difficulty in taking down flagged or offensive content from the site. This, as the social media platforms each, have their own rules with content that violate community standards.

"The companies do not play by our rule book. For instance, there is a photo of the complainant posted by another user which the former finds inappropriate, we write to the company to take it down. However, they may find that the picture does not violate their rules and hence retain it. We then have to escalate the complaint further and it takes time," he adds. 

With no laws dealing with these offences, the Kerala Cyber Crime Department has requested for a legal provision to be made under the Kerala Police Act. 

“Since the IT Act is a Central act, we cannot do much. But we have prepared a draft and requested the Kerala state to frame a law under the Kerala Police Act (KPA) to deal with cyber abuse. Once the police have the teeth to bite in such cases, more FIRs would be lodged,” he said.

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