Tag: cybercrimes

Covid-19 lock- down and cyber victimization of women by Dr.Debarati Halder

Image courtesy: Internet

Since 16th March, 2020 most of the countries started planning for partial lockdown for preventing the fast spreading of Covid -19. By 22nd March, most of the countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and in the USA , Australia etc called for total lock down. India was no exception. Almost all universities, colleges, schools and other workplaces faced the impact of lockdown. People including adults and children became extremely confused as there was no specific indication as when worldwide lock down would be lifted. Europe saw a rapid increase of the Covid-positive patients. USA joined soon. Many Asian countries including India could not afford to let people do their business as usual. Indian government called for a lockdown period for 15 days first. But before the finishing the of 2 weeks period, the government had to reconsider and extended the lockdown period till 3rd May, 2020. However, several State governments in India are considering for further extension because the numbers of Covid 19 patients are increasing.  Schools and universities decided to conduct online classes with huge preference to Zoom. Adults and children shifted more to online entertainment because television industry came to a standstill due to lockdown as well. However, the tele industry did consider sharing old versions of the daily soaps.

While people went in lockdown, many took to internet to entertain each other : social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and digital and internet communication apps like WhatsApp  etc soon saw a flood of user generated contents which are now hugely consumed by others. Not all of these user generated contents are actually for entertainment for all. There were several contents which were and are still being made specifically   to target and harass women and girls. The first platform that started getting contents for gender harassment, especially harassment to women was Zoom app which was being used by most of the educational institutes and workplaces for holding online meetings, classes, webinars etc. In several cases it was seen that Zoom meetings were unauthorizedly accessed by unwanted persons who started posting harassing, sexually explicit comments, disrupted meetings with exposing private parts, showing masturbation etc. Soon Zoom authorities came with a pubic declaration that cyber security and safety measures of the platform were not strong enough to tackle such sudden huge use.[1] Who could actually be held responsible for such unauthorized access then? The web platform implied that organizers of the zoom meetings and classes must take precautionary measures. But were we really ready and aware and to take such precautionary measures? Probably no.  The Zoom app mismanagement actually led to four kinds online crimes :

Unauthorized access to the meetings

Data privacy infringement

Creation of sexually explicit contents

Making gestures etc to harm the modesty of women

While this is just one kind of offence, online harassment of women did not remain restricted to this only. Given the fact that during lock-down most of the stakeholders of criminal justice machinery including the police and courts and the web companies are working with limited man power and infrastructure facilities, perpetrators have taken this time to escalate harassment. The communication apps like Whatsapp, Facebook messenger etc are now flooding with online bullying. This is seen especially in the school and college groups. These platforms have become chosen platforms for throwing harsh, insulting, intimidating comments towards classmates, batch-mates and also towards the teachers, especially female teachers, colleagues and users. I myself had been targeted by some bullies and stalkers  on Facebook messenger and Whats App as well.

Apart from this, the other patterns of online harassment which has raised to a maximum height during the Covid -19 lockdown stage, that came in my observation is creation of impersonating profiles on social media. We must however appreciate the fact that impersonation by using unique identities have been considered as an offence Under S.66C of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008), which speaks about punishment for identity theft and says “whoever, fraudulently or dishonestly make use of the electronic signature, password or any other unique identification feature of any other person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to rupees one lakh”

Several of such impersonating profiles are of the nature of revenge porn.  some may also fall in the category of sexually explicit and voyeuristic contents , but may not have the mens rea as that of revenge porn ( the element of revenge taking mentality is not present), especially since these images may have been captured in the public places or may have been collected from other profiles etc.[2] TikTok and YouTube are of no exception in this matter. People are restricted in their homes; they have taken to TikTok content creations which may include uploading contents including women doing different activities,  that may have been captured in public places. Consider videos showcasing women cooking and sweating, eating at weddings, resting at home by lying down or in a leisure posture, women and girls walking on the roads, at college/school campuses, working in a working place etc: TikTok content  creators may take such audio visual images, pickup any specific posture of women that may be consumed more by viewers and may upload such clippings with texts (sometimes sexually explicit) and background sounds that may be available on Tiktok or may be created by the users . One must not forget that TikTok was questioned earlier on their lack of due diligence for not taking down abusive contents earlier by Supreme court of India: Google Play services removed TikTok from their platform as well. But soon TikTok cleared all legal hassles and came back in android services again. [3] No doubt, the App is back again for being (mis)used to harm the modesty of women and infringing the privacy of women and children during quarantine time when the victims may feel more restrained to reach out to criminal justice machinery and the websites.

But we should not think that this is an exclusive problem of India only. I did get to hear about sudden growth of online harassment targeting women from different regions of the world: be it USA, Australia, South Africa, UK , Ireland or even our neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh or SriLanka .women, including working women, volunteers who may have come to different Asian countries from the US etc, health workers, law students and professionals, every where women are facing similar problems to reach out to criminal justice system to report crimes. Even if they may reach out, the police and the courts and the websites as well are not in a position to offer a quick help.[4]  

Several stakeholders may provide several suggestions to stay safe online and maintain the hygiene of the devices to save ourselves, especially women from rising level of cyber crimes during lock down period.  But are we concerned about the mental health conditions and impact of victimisation of online harassment on women during lock down? Several women may be living with abusive partners, husbands who may have cheated on them, or even other women family members who may have been victimised online and who may in order to share the trauma, disclosed the victimisation to the former. Unlike trauma that may generate from physical harassments, online harassments during lock down may bring unique traumatising effects. Devices handled by women may be detained and they may  not be allowed to contact anyone in case the harasser spreads his vicious net to reach out to husband or other male members of the family. Victim women may even go to the extent of self-harming too. They may even try to destroy the evidences of online harassment by deleting the contents from their phones if the harassment is in the nature of bullying or threatening message etc. In case of revenge porn content or in the case of non-consensual image sharing, victims may even try to block the profiles without saving the evidences. In several other cases, they may take up irrational coping mechanism like counter bullying or contacting the perpetrator asking him to take down the contents. they may even try to contact amateur hackers, which may prove extremely dangerous for them. Emotionally such women victims may become completely withdrawn and may even show aggressiveness as well.

What could be done in such situations as lock down in India has been extended for the third time. My opinion in this regard is as follows:

  • The police control rooms in each district must open a dedicated 24-hour service unit specially equipped with infrastructure and properly trained police personnel who may handle such digital harassment cases and evidences to receive complaints from the victims, especially women victims of online harassment.
  • Some types of online offences have been recognised by our domestic laws; some however have not received any focussed laws. But that does not mean that only offences that may contain complaints towards creating porn contents, threatening and defamatory contents etc, may be given priority and FIR may be registered for such offences which may fall within the meaning of cognizable offences. The police must entertain all complaints and must guide the victims in all cases.
  • Police may rope in NGOs, cyber crime and cyber law experts to create an expert committee in every district and metropolitan area to provide immediate counselling to the victim as how to save the evidences of online harassments and how to share the same with the police for the purpose of investigation.
  • Victims may get an immediate feel of relief when they are told that their complaints are registered. The police therefore must not neglect to look into each type of compliant. Such gestures from the police may prevent the women victims from committing self harm or from taking any irrational steps to saver their reputation and that of their families.
  • Courts and prosecutors must also consider extending their support whereby judicial magistrates may join such endeavours to support the victims. We should remember that it is only adults, but children may also be involved as victims as well as perpetrators. Unless the courts are extending supports through electronic mediums, it would become extremely difficult to win the trust of victims as well as general public for Criminal Justice machinery at this time of lock down.

Last but not the least, we must not forget that in cases of online harassment of women, web companies are the foremost liable sectors. The Due diligence clause must not be suspended due to lock down. The web companies must consider each and every take down request and reports on objectionable contents and must adhere to Indian legal understanding for restricting the access to such contents.

Indeed, the Lockdown period is a testing time for the entire human civilisation. But if we do not restrict unethical and illegal usage of information technology, the impact of online harassment may be more traumatising than the Covid-19 experience.

Stay safe, stay strong and do not misuse the Information and digital communication technology.

Please note : This writeup was first published in https://debaraticyberspace.blogspot.com/2020/05/cyber-crimes-targeting-women-during.html. Please do not violate copyright of this blog. If you would like to use information provided in this blog for your own assignment/writeup/project/blog/article, please cite it as “Halder Debarati. (2020), “Covid-19 lock- down and cyber victimization of women” May 2nd, 2020, published in https://debaraticyberspace.blogspot.com/2020/05/cyber-crimes-targeting-women-during.html


[1] See  https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/technology/govt-of-india-issues-advisory-says-zoom-not-secure-video-conferencing-platform/1930509/

[2] Halder.D(2017) Criminalising Revenge Porn: Why Stakeholders Must Not Be Happy With Present Legal Setup. Published in Livelaw.in magazine @

https://www.livelaw.in/criminalising-revenge-porn-stakeholders-must-not-happy-present-legal-setup/

[3] https://www.indiatoday.in/technology/features/story/tiktok-is-back-on-app-stores-from-ban-to-court-order-here-s-everything-you-need-to-know-1513644-2019-04-30

[4] For more, see https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/04/23/how-one-pokhara-resident-led-a-smear-campaign-to-get-an-american-kicked-out-of-the-country

Liabilities of WhatsApp group admins: A critical legal analysis from Indian legal perspectives by Dr.Debarati Halder

picture courtesy : Internet

Over the years we have witnessed gradual development of internet and digital communication technology and rapid over flow of users of the same who may or may not know the digital socio-legal culture. This internet and digital communication technology that I have mentioned here, primary includes WhatsApp. When this platform started becoming popular in India since 2014-15 onwards, it also became popular platform to form opinions, disseminate news including fake news, harassing remarks for group members and other individuals who may not be group members but may be known to one or other group members. Soon Indian users could get connected with users from other jurisdictions through WhatsApp and the groups formed on the basis of WhatsApp became better connected than networks of people connected on Offline. Consider groups like law teachers’ groups, or groups formed on the basis of common interest like terrace gardeners, animal lovers, theological groups, chartered public vehicle commuters’ groups, health service providers groups etc.: members did not necessarily stay in the same locality, did not work in the same organization or may not speak the same vernacular language. But what bonded them was their common interest. This was some thing more popular than Facebook which was ruling internet during 2012-18 era. Slowly WhatsApp became more popular with specific service people like the IPS or IAS association (non official groups) and judicial officers’ groups. The popularity grew because individuals could actually control who would view their opinion and images that may have been ‘consensually’ shared by the members. It must not be however forgotten that WhatsApp has also notoriously become a platform for several online crimes including crimes against State, against individuals, cybercrimes against women[1] and children,[2] economic crimes,[3] cyber terrorism[4] etc.

Understanding stronger confidentiality setup of WhatsApp, soon workplaces and schools also started their own WhatsApp groups. Presently almost all organizations, schools and educational institutes have their respective division /unit/team-based WhatsApp groups. Some of these groups are moderated and monitored by senior members of the organization or the HR department member or the creator of the group or teachers (in case they are the creators/members of the said groups). The bright side of the story is, people can get the necessary information in their hand phones (which may include WhatsApp services) and they may not necessarily look into their mails unless it is for immediate verification necessity.  Mails now have become more official and WhatsApp groups are more personal. The negative aspect is quick circulation of offensive, harassing and unwanted contents.

Here comes the question of liabilities of three groups especially regarding creation, publication and circulation of offensive and unwanted contents. These liabilities may vary according to the age of the creators/publishers/circulators and position of the creators/publishers/circulators. ‘Position’ here necessarily means the website who is hosting the communication, the admin who is moderating or who may have created the group and general members who may be the creators/publishers/circulators of the content.  This three groups are as follows:

Let me first start with the website. WhatsApp as the web platform of the communications or Facebook as the parent company facilitating WhatsApp, may seek their excuse from any legal tangle in case of creation, circulation, publication of any offensive contents by virtue of Due Diligence clause which they exercise in almost cases of creation/circulation/publication of contents which are offensive. For this purpose, we need to understand the Indian version of Due Diligence law which can be found in S.79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in2008); the first two subclauses address the points which may be used by the websites. To summaries:

Websites or intermediaries who provide services including web hosting services, search engines etc (as per S.(w) of the Information technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008), may not be liable for any third-party activities carried out on their web platforms if such activity (which includes creation/publication/circulation etc. of any offensive, harassing etc. contents) is not initiated by the website, the website dies not select the receiver of the transmission and the website does not select or modify the information contained in the transmission. The website or the intermediary will also be excused from the third party liability in case the same has practiced due diligence as per the laws, rules and guidance as has been mandated by the Indian government. These Rules are mentioned in Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011, which have further been suggested for amendment. [5] As such, these Rules include the following responsibilities of the intermediary or the web platform:

  • Publishing of Rules, regulations, privacy policies and user agreements which will clearly make the user understand that posting/transmission of/uploading/modification  etc of contents which may be grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever;  harm minors in any way;  infringes any patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights;  violates any law for the time being in force;  deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of such messages or communicates any information which is grossly offensive or menacing in nature; impersonates another person;  contains software viruses or any other computer code, files or programs designed to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any computer resource; threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order, or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation. threatens public health or safety; promotion of cigarettes or any other tobacco products or consumption of intoxicant including alcohol and Electronic Nicotine Delivery System (ENDS) & like products that enable nicotine delivery except for the purpose & in the manner and to the extent, as may be approved under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 and Rules made thereunder; (k) threatens critical information infrastructure.
  • Provide all support to the criminal justice machinery to disclose incidences of cyber security, the identity and all other relevant details of the harasser/originator of the offensive content.
  • Not to host/transmit/publish etc any information which the website management known to be illegal and offensive.
  • Provide periodic update on the policy of the web company related to users liabilities, rights and duties etc.
  • Take down reported content within considerable time of maximum 24 hours (as the draft Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018 indicates). [6]

In short, the web companies, intermediaries may not be directly liable for WhatsApp mess-ups that may be done by the individual users.

The second party which may attract the liability for publication/creation/circulation of any offensive content on the platform is the group admin. Now, let us first understand who are called as ‘group admins’:  WhatsApp provides certain features especially for group chats and this includes monitoring of the group by designated persons who are known as admins. Admins may not necessarily be the creators of the group. However, the latter may always remain as admin in spite of creation of multiple admins by him/her. Admins may have the power and authority to include and exclude members, block members, restrict the publication of comments[7] and create group policies which may be used to restrict a particular member/s in case of violation of the same.  Indian courts have in numbers of occasion, held that group admins may not be held liable for the activities of the members of the group in case the said admin had shown due diligence to restrict publication/circulation/creation of offensive comments.[8] This due diligence is however derived from the understanding of criminal law sanctions mixed with tortuous liabilities. For example, consider the followings:

  • If the group admin has not been made group admin consensually and he does not know the subject of discussion of the group, he may have a very narrow defence of being misled  by other admins/creator who forced him to join them in criminal activities like creation/publication/circulation of offensive contents which violate the existing laws of the Land.
  • If the group admin himself had not created/circulated any offensive content and had warned any user for not sharing/posting etc any content which is offensive, he may not be made liable for creating/sharing contents which may be offensive under any law if any member had even for some time (when the admin was not expected to watch/monitor the group) had posted/circulated some offensive content. But in such case, if the content falls in the category of child sexual abuse material which may be categorised under S.67B of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008) or POCSO Act, the admin may not avail any excuse.
  • In case the group admin is a child, the question becomes tricky. If the group is specifically made by minors, the police, the prosecution and the court have to see who may have provided the basic assistance in accessing the web platform and the contents (including the offensive contents). Necessarily in such cases, courts may have to use the principles of vicarious liability because a child may not be eligible to own a SIM card unless an adult provides him the same. Here, the basic understandings of contract laws and age of maturity may be applied.[9] Now, let us see the case of the WhatsApp group of students of an elite school in Mumbai where minor students were discussing about child sexual abuse of their own female classmates:[10] parents may be made vicariously liable in such case, which actually did not take place, may be because here the parents of the accused children themselves alerted the school and restricted further violation of rights of those children who were targeted for the sexual fantasy of the adolescent boys. But here one needs to check whether personal information including images of the ‘victim children’ were disseminated unauthorizedly or not, or whether it was restricted only to the use of names. In both cases POCSO Act may be applied (in the latter case , Ss.11 (sexual harassment), 13(use of children for pornographic purposes) and S.14 (punishment for using children for pornographic purposes) of the POCSO Act may be narrowly applied.

However, if the group admin/s knowingly allow creation/circulation /publication of posts which may be offensive in nature, they may not get any excuse from the clutches law specifically made to punish the commitment of such acts like creation/circulation/dissemination of obscene images (S.67), sexually explicit contents (S.67A), voyeurism and sharing non-consensual images (S.66E of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008) and S.354C of the Indian Penal Code, defamation (S.499, 500 Indian Penal Code), sharing information which has been restricted as seditious material under S.124A IPC or any other law which may restrict freedom of speech in the line of Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India, all of which may be read together with Ss.107 and 108 of the Indian Penal Code and S.84B of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended din 2008)( laws related to abetment of offence ).

            Coming to the liability of the third group of users of WhatsApp, it may be seen that if a user/user create/publish/circulate any content which is offensive in nature, they may be liable as per the respective legal sanctions. However, the act of forwarding any content has also been considered as within the scope of defamation laws (under S.499/500 IPC ) or in case of online harassment of women and children, within the meaning of different kinds of offences recognised by law including voyeurism, stalking, non-consensual image sharing, indecent representation of women, child sexual abuse, grooming etc.

But the question larks on the issue of machine and artificial intelligence, which may make the admins responsible in case they may not be aware about the usage. For example, if the admin is a new user or not accustomed with the privacy and security features of WhatsApp, he may not be able to restrict certain ‘posts’ which may be published because of the machine intelligence: this may include certain words which the phone may suggest presuming the first few alphabets. He may neither be able to restrict a member which may have been suggested by the computer system of the platform and the device. Further, he might also not be able to remove certain posts which may have surfaced in the group due to resharing or forwarding by other members. Here, the group admin’s liability must be seen exclusively. Websites or intermediaries however would not be liable by virtue of the proviso clause of Rule 3 of the  Intermediary Guidelines Rules, 2011 (and also Amended draft version of 2018), which says  “……………….the following actions by an intermediary shall not amount to hosting, publishing, editing or storing of any such information as specified in subrule(2): (a) temporary or transient or intermediate storage of information automatically within the computer resource as an intrinsic feature of such computer resource, involving no exercise of any human editorial control, for onward transmission or communication to another computer resource; (b) removal of access to any information, data or communication link by an intermediary after such information, data or communication link comes to the actual knowledge of a person authorised by the intermediary pursuant to any order or direction as per the provisions of the Act.”           

As may be understood from the above, WhatsApp group admins therefore may not always claim to be immuned especially when they were aware of the group activities, they had not practiced due diligence from their side and they had published or forwarded offensive contents themselves for the wider circulation of the same.    


*Prof(Dr)Debarati Halder, LL.B.,  M.L., Ph.D(Law)(NLSIU) is the Managing Director (Hon) of Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling (www.cybervictims.org) .  She can be reached @debaratihalder@gmail.com

[1] See Halder D., & Jaishankar, K (2016.) Cyber crimes against women in India.

New Delhi: SAGE Publications. ISBN: 9789385985775 for understanding types of cyber crimes against women and laws.

[2] See Halder, D. (2018). Child Sexual Abuse and Protection Laws in India. New

Delhi: SAGE Publications. ISBN: 9789352806843, Halder D., & Jaishankar K. (2014). Patterns of Sexual Victimization of Children and Women in the Multipurpose Social Networking Sites. In C. Marcum and G. Higgins (Eds.), Social Networking as a Criminal Enterprise (pp. 129-143). Boca Raton, FL, USA: CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group. ISBN 978-1-466-589797 for more understanding on types of cyber crimes against children.

[3] See for example, Kurowski, S., (2014). Using a whatsapp vulnerability for profiling individuals. In: Hühnlein, D. & Roßnagel, H. (Hrsg.), Open Identity Summit 2014. Bonn: Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V.. (S. 140-146). Available @ https://dl.gi.de/handle/20.500.12116/2633 Accesed on 21.01.2020

[4] See for example, Broadhurst, Roderic and Woodford-Smith, Hannah and Maxim, Donald and Sabol, Bianca and Orlando, Stephanie and Chapman-Schmidt, Ben and Alazab, Mamoun, Cyber Terrorism: Research Review: Research Report of the Australian National University Cybercrime Observatory for the Korean Institute of Criminology (June 30, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2984101 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2984101 Accessed on 20.01.2020

[5] By way of Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018

[6] The Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018 also mentions that if the intermediary has more than 50 fifty lakh users in India or is in the list of intermediaries specifically notified by the government of India, it shall:

(i) be a company incorporated under the Companies Act, 1956 or the Companies Act,2013;

(ii) have a permanent registered office in India with physical address; and

(iii) Appoint in India, a nodal person of contact and alternate senior designated

functionary, for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers to

ensure compliance to their orders/requisitions made in accordance with provisions

[7] For more understanding, see https://faq.whatsapp.com/en/android/26000118/?category=5245251 Accessed on 12.01.2020

[8] For example, see Ashish Bhalla vs Suresh Chawdhary & others, 2016. Accessed from http://delhihighcourt.nic.in/dhcqrydisp_o.asp?pn=242183&yr=2016 on 21.01.2020

[9] For understanding this, we need to see S.11 of the Indian Contract Act, which says minors, persons of unsound mind and persons disqualified by law may not be able to enter into any agreement.

[10] See India Today Webdesk. Schoolboys at posh Mumbai school talk about raping classmates, ‘gang bang’ in horrific WhatsApp chats. Available @https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/mumbai-ib-school-students-whatsapp-chat-horror-1629343-2019-12-18 . Accessed on 21.01.2020