Cyber Abuse is not Free Speech and Virtual Reality is not Reality

(This article was first published on bfirst.in)

The tragic suicide of a girl in Salem who could not tolerate the threats to her dignity on the world of the face book and decided to end her life is an indication that Internet coupled with the omnipresent mobile has thrown a serious challenge to the society. The Challenge is to find the means to prevent the adverse impact of the virtual life on the real life of impressionable minds.

This is not the first time that a young life has been lost because of what happened on Facebook or Twitter nor it will be the last time. A couple of years back, an IIM Bangalore student ended her life because one of her boyfriends decided to “Un-Friend” her on face book indicating that even well informed and tech savvy persons who are successful in other aspects of their life can also be victims to this tendency of “Over reaction to Virtual Reality”  which we shall call, the “VROR syndrome”.

This menace needs the attention of the society in general and psycho analysts in particular.

In the Salem suicide case, the suicide note indicated that the girl decided to end her life for multiple reasons which we need to analyze.

The principle reason which was apparent was that a morphed picture showing her dressed in scantily clad clothes was posted by a boy on Facebook who threatened further to post more such pictures. She felt humiliated by the socially unacceptable image of herself being painted by the publication of the pictures. The boy was arrested two days after the suicide and has been charged for “Abetment to Suicide”. There were also two other contributory reasons which Cyber Sociologists should not ignore.

First was that a Complaint made to the Police remained unattended for more than 15 days. Police did not act until the second threat of further pictures being posted came to the girl prompting her to take the next step.

The other little obscure but equally important contributory factor was mentioned in the suicide note of the girl which stated that she did not receive a whole hearted support from her own parents in the matter, who might have distrusted her statement that the photos were fake. The fact that the perpetrator sent a direct WhatsApp message to the parents and threatened to do the same again would have made them mount abuse on her daughter  without understanding her own stress.

If we need to prevent recurrence of such events in the future, we need to address all these three causes that lead to the suicide. While the law will take its course regarding punishing the boy for multiple offences such as “creating false electronic documents”, “Causing defamation”, “Threatening”, “Outraging the modesty of women”, “Publication of obscene electronic content”, which has the potential to cumulatively put him behind the bar for a long period of time,  the society needs to take its own steps so that such incidents do not recur.

In this direction, there needs to be action on the following three fronts.

  1. Fighting the VROR Syndrome

Firstly, we need to ensure that Social media users do not over react to events on cyber space to the extent of considering suicide as a means to escape the adverse turns in their Cyber life.

The Psychologists and Cyber Sociologists should recognize this VROR syndrome as a psychological disorder induced by an addiction to cyber living and believing that the “Virtual Reality” is “Reality itself”. They need develop appropriate measures to mitigate the risks associated with VROR syndrome in their interaction with the vulnerable sections of the society.

VROR syndrome should be recognized as a field of study by the community and measures to counter its adverse impact on society should be identified.

A wide awareness of the adverse effect of VROR syndrome should be created through immediate  programs to be conducted in Schools and Colleges for which the Principals of educational institutions should take necessary action. Such programs should encourage victims to fight cases of harassment or trolling rather than succumbing to the pressures.

  1. Informing the Uninformed

 Additionally,  there is also a need to simultaneously address the older generation in the society who create pressures on the victims of social media abuse because of their won ignorance. The parents of the Salem girl who committed suicide perhaps were not aware of what is “Morphing” and how frequently it is used by deranged criminals to harass girls either for “Stalking”, or “striking vengeance for rejection” or “blackmailing”. If they had the awareness of such happenings, they would have sympathized with their daughter as a “Victim” and come to her moral support to fight the injustice meted out to her both by the erring boy as well as the delayed delivery of justice by the Police.

The “Social Media” related awareness programs should therefore be also directed towards those who are today non-users of the social media. This “Social Media Awareness Program for Non Social Media users” is therefore also an important strategy in prevention of incidents of VROR.

  1. Strengthening the Law

Our discussion will  be incomplete if we do not point out that there was a “Section 66A” in Information Technology Act 2000/8 which addressed the issue of harassment through messages in Mobile or Internet and acted as a deterrrant to the offences of abuse and harassment through messages.

Unfortunately, Supreme Court scrapped it in March 2015, under the false pretext of “Upholding the Right to Freedom of speech” and a wrong message was sent to all abusers that “Abusing a person on Facebook or Twitter is Free Speech guaranteed by our Constitution and protected by Courts”.

This has created confusion amongst the Police on how to address internet related harassment complaints and a fear that they will be criticized by the Courts as well as the media if they invoke harsh measures. This could well be a contributory reason why Police failed to act in the first 15 days though they were able to crack the case in the next to two days as soon as the seriousness of the complaint was realized after the suicide.

It is now time to correct the perception that “Cyber Abuse is Free Speech”  which can be done only by re-instating Section 66A of Information Technology Act 2000/8 by the Supreme Court taking up a Suo Moto review of the Shreya Singhal judgement and reversing the decision.

 

Naavi

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About Vijayashankar Na

Naavi is a veteran Cyber Law specialist in India and is presently working from Bangalore as an Information Assurance Consultant. Pioneered concepts such as ITA 2008 compliance, Naavi is also the founder of Cyber Law College, a virtual Cyber Law Education institution. He now has been focusing on the projects such as Secure Digital India and Cyber Insurance
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