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Update, 19 May: The home ministry plans to release a portal named Cyber Crime Prevention against Women and Children (CCPWC) under the Nirbhaya Fund, developed jointly by the Home and Women & Child Development Ministry to let Indian women post complaints about online harassment, reports DNA. The report adds that Home Ministry’s cyber cell will monitor the portal and act on complaints. The CCPWC scheme will cost Rs 244.32 crore. Additionally, the Home Ministry has roped in NASSCOM and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) to formulate guidelines for online matrimonial sites.

Earlier, 18 May: Maneka Gandhi, the Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development, has stated that online abuse and trolling of women in India should be treated as violence against them, reports NDTV. Gandhi gave an example of women in online matrimonial ads who were “targeted with dirty calls late at night, harassed and stalked.”

She said that companies running online matrimonial services “refused to cooperate” and she had to route this request through the Telecom Ministry to “protect women and reveal details of abusers.” Gandhi also added that she has suggested that the Home Ministry create a department to deal with online attacks against women.

Currently, there’s no further information on this and we’ll be tracking this issue to understand the government’s definitions of trolling (harassment notwithstanding) and the department.

Note that in November last year, the government had set up a five member panel from different ministries to draft guidelines which would set up norms for matrimonial websites. The norms would require users to submit a valid ID proof like passport or a voter identity card to sign up on such websites. The guidelines were yet to be finalised at that point of time and the government would notify the IT ministry and incorporate it under the IT Act.

Aadhaar for verification: In December 2014, the women and child ministry had suggested that Aadhaar should be used to authenticate profiles on matrimonial sites. At the time it was reported that the ministry was concerned of increasing instances of women being cheated while looking for grooms as users would create multiple profiles.

MediaNama’s Take

Nikhil’s view: We’ve heard that the government is considering bringing 66A back, and wonder if this is a ruse to essentially bring in a law that restricts speech online. Trolling is a word loosely used to include even irritating someone online. The Wikipedia definition:

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[2] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.

This would bring it in conformity with the broad definition of what 66A used to be:

a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, or ill will, persistently makes by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
c) any 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 shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.

Note that in March last year, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act, 2008, calling it unconstitutional, and when it did that, it explained the grounds on the basis of which restrictions on speech (including online) are applicable: specifically, that there are “three aspects of freedom of expression: discussion, advocacy and incitement. Only when discussion and advocacy reach the level of incitement, is Article 19 (2) (of the Constitution of India), which puts reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech, applicable.

Justice Nariman also said that Section 66A makes no distinction on whether the communication has any impact on public order. The clear and present danger test and the public disorder test ought to be a prerequisite. What may be offensive to one may not be to another, what may be annoying to one may not be to another. That is what renders 66a unconstitutional and vague. “Governments come and governments go, the law persists. And the law must be judged on its own merit. 66A is invalid and it cannot be saved even if the government says it wont abuse the law,” he added.

I doubt that trolling meets the 66A test, and perhaps the phrase that Ms Gandhi was looking for, is “abuse”, which is a whole different debate.

A female take (from Sneha): I’m not sure of the impact Gandhi is attempting to have on online trolling as such. I see two sides to it: A measure like setting up a team to block or report internet trolls in this case, in India, might have a counter-effect on the online population leading to even more online harassment, given the increasing penetration of smartphones and the internet. (Or we could talk about the ignorance shown by the government when it comes to matters of the internet, where also, hate speech is not defined.)

The other side is, and by and large I can already hear a resounding “No!” within, it might make Indian females on the internet feel slightly safer, given that they can’t feel physically safe in their own cities. It would be interesting to see what the ministry comes up with and I hope it asks for a public consultation as well before it formulates a specific order.

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Related reads:
– Vice’s Female Journalists, Called ‘Presstitutes’, Face Extreme Harassment in India
Of course I had free sex: How feminist Kavita Krishnan’s mom silenced a troll on Facebook

Image Credit: Gil under CC BY 2.0