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The explosion in crimes that originate on social networking sites is creating new dilemmas for the police and law enforcement agencies. Aasheesh Sharma

| Updated on: Sep 25 2011, 01:17 IST

*On September 19, a Facebook post by her boyfriend saying he had dumped her, allegedly drove IIM-Bangalore student Malini Murmu to suicide

*On September 16, Arun Narayan and Musafir Baitha, assistants in the Bihar Legislative Council, were suspended for discussing sarkari red-tapism on Facebook

*Last week, a Hyderabad couple was reportedly harassed for showing up on the Facebook profile of their cousin. Recovery agents threatened to send objectionable e-mails to their FB friends if they didn't give out details of their cousin who was in a dispute with them, the couple alleged.

*In July 2011, the cyber cell of Bhopal police arrested a youth for creating Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan's fake profile

*On August 10, the Kerala police arrested a 35-year-old man in Thrissur on charges of posting indecent morphed photos of journalists working with a Malayalam news channel

*Earlier this year, in April, a former colleague posted morphed photos of an air-hostess when she turned down his marriage proposal.

These are not one-off incidents. The explosive growth of social networking sites in India, the rising popularity of mobile devices offering them and the ease of putting personal content on the Web have fuelled a rise in cyber stalking, fake profiles and offences that emerge on the pages of Facebook or Orkut.

Till September 2011, Delhi's Economic Offences Wing had received 151 complaints regarding misuse of social networking sits, fake profiles and cyber stalking, — a jump of 200 % over the 75 complaints they got over the entire 2010.

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As a people, Indians are woefully ignorant of Internet etiquette and privacy issues, says Dr Subho Ray of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).

"Although there are plenty of legal deterrents in place, most of us are not aware of Internet etiquette and the consequences of our actions on a public forum. Most Web users believe that the anonymity of the Net gives them an immunity of sorts," he says.

Some of this perceived immunity might be real, but most times, the perpetrator does it in the heat of the moment. "American Congressman Anthony Weiner might have been a responsible politician otherwise. But he had to quit after a momentary loss of judgment in putting up provocative photos on Twitter," says technology lawyer Rodney Ryder, who has represented Facebook in India in some cases.

Today, Ryder's firm gets 15 cases relating to fake profiles on social networking profiles every month. Two years back, the number was just two.

A majority of offences related to cyberstalking and offensive behaviour involve people in their teens or early 20s, says Supreme Court lawyer Pawan Duggal. "Many youngsters want to get nasty after a breakup and most times, the nastiness emerges in the form of obscene, abusive, defamatory and derogatory content."

A few years ago, Chennai-based Suhas Kutty became the first Indian to be convicted under Section 67 of the IT Act, 2000. "After his relationship with his girlfriend was over, he morphed photographs of the girl on the face of a nude model and circulated them to her friends and family. It was a form of Facebook flaming," says Duggal.

Flaming, also known as bashing, says Duggal, is a hostile and insulting interaction between Web users that usually occurs over Facebook, chat or e-mail.

How the law can keep up

With social networking sites invading our lives like never before, the judiciary and law enforcement agencies are facing new dilemmas. In the case of IIM student Murmu, for instance, there is no direct provision under the IT Act 2000 that could link her boyfriend's pronouncement of dumping her on Facebook to the suicide.

"But, in the wider context, it could fall under section 306 of the IPC that relates to abettment of suicide," says Ryder.

Unlike Australia and the United States, where matrimonial lawyers often fall back on evidence from Facebook in divorce cases, there isn't a precedent of an Indian court delivering a verdict on the basis of a social networking site, yet.

Still, information on social networking sites could be produced in the electronic format or in printed form, as legally admissible evidence in India, says Duggal. "But it is important that the said information must be legally proved in accordance with Section 65B of the amended Indian Evidence Act as amended by the IT Act, 2000."

Affirms leading divorce lawyer Geeta Luthra, "Many of my clients are naïve enough to put out their private lives in the public domain of social networking sites. Electronic evidence including e-mails, SMS or Facebook messages is being furnished in courts, but I am yet to hear of a case in India where evidence from social networking sites has led to a decree of divorce or conviction for adultery."

Sites are aware of the hazards of fake profiles, says an Orkut spokesperson. "If a user finds that another user has created a fake profile that impersonates them and portrays them in a defamatory manner, they should click on the 'report abuse' button. We review and take action, which includes removal of fake profiles and inappropriate content."

Since 2009, in its amended form, offences under Section 67 of the IT Act 2000 have become bailable. The sentence for the first offence has been reduced to three years and a fine of rupees 5 lakh.

"The reduction of the quantum of punishment defies logic. Obscenity has not changed, nor have parameters for obscenity but the legislature has reduced the punishment for offenders," says Duggal.

Catching them young

Last month, the parents of a Delhi schoolgirl approached a cyber lawyer to stop her classmate from stalking her over the Net.

So upset was another 15-year-old Mumbai schoolgirl, the winner of an intra-school competition, about a classmate's name appearing as winner in a newsletter that she created a Facebook page against her on which her friends and she called her names.

According to the police and cyber crime experts, cases of cyber bullying and abuse on social networking sites are on the rise, particularly among teens and pre-teens. The trend isn't limited to metros.

A group of Jaipur schoolboys, miffed over disciplinary action, created a fake profile of their principal on a social networking site. They morphed her photos on a woman wielding a whip.

Dizzy growth

One major reason for the rise in incidents of cyber stalking and fake profiles in India could be the dizzy pace at which social networking sites are growing.

According to Internet audience mapping agency comScore, the reach of social networking sites in India grew 16 % in 2010-11, easily outpacing the global growth of 6%.

An IAMAI survey on Social Media in India says 76% of users access social networking sites at least once a week and 4.7 million, (25% of India's social media users) access the sites about 2-3 times every week. Also, more than two million Indian users access them every day.

A comScore report on the State of Internet in India for 2011 says the heaviest Net users in the country are in the age group 15-24. As many more teenagers discover the worldwide web, they become vulnerable to offences such as cyberstalking and Facebook flaming.

The mind of a cyber stalker

Over the last two years, police say, the nature of cyber crimes has changed dramatically and so have the demographics of victims and perpetrators.

"A majority of cases now relate to fake profiles of young people, meant to defame them, created by young people," said Ranjit Narayan, special commissioner of police (crime branch), Delhi.

Today, cyber crime is being carried out with impunity by teenagers who are oblivious to the legal consequences, says psychologist Rajat Mitra.

Over the last two years, says Mitra, the number of cyberstalking victims who've approached him for counselling has increased from about 3 to 20. Many a time, the victims don't know when their virtual friends turn into stalkers, says Mitra.

A romance kindled in the virtual world is exciting for young people.

Mitra recounts the case of a 23-year-old communications consultant who met a 28-year-old finance professional on Facebook. Initially she enjoyed the attention and shared her excitement with her friends. But soon she realised he was coming on too strong. His language became possessive bordering on abusive. When she tried to avoid him, he first bad-mouthed her and then gave out her number online.

The threshold of stalking is much lower in the virtual world than in reality, says Mitra. "The boundary when the accused gets obsessed about the person, seeks revenge and wants to damage him or her is much lower. The stalker would begin doing it much sooner on the Internet."

Beyond enforcement

Delhi Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat says the police are aware of advances in cyber crime. "We have 300 experts trained in tackle Facebook-related crimes alone." But to ensure that Internet offences are checked at the preventive stage itself, says Dr Subho Ray of IAMAI, Indians need to evolve a culture of Net etiquette.

Intrinsically, the Internet is an irreverent medium. The trick is not to get carried away, by the uninhibited nature of social networking sites, says Ryder. "Think twice before uploading the pictures you clicked on your phone at your neighbour's sons's birthday party."

Still, it may be unfair to tar an entire medium with the same brush, says Nikhil Pahwa, editor of Medianama, a portal that discusses issues related to digital media.

"Why should a crime be treated differently just because it is happening in another medium? The same rules that apply offline should apply online. The anonymity of the Net, which enables a few dirty minds to carry on with aberrations, is also as an important part of freedom of speech of the Web. People make statements online they may not make if they are named."

Typically, a case of cyber stalking begins with the young victim hankering for attention. In the safety of their homes, parents are often oblivious to the emotional needs of the child.

"Urban teenagers get a kick from falling in love through the Internet. Soon, the excitement turns into fear. People break boundaries much faster on the Internet," says Mitra. "One has to sit with teens and anchor their world. Many parents try having a discussion with their children. You can't moralise with teenagers, you have to be a part of their world to understand their insecurities."

(With Karn Pratap Singh in New Delhi and Mohamed Thaver in Mumbai)

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First Published Date: 24 Sep, 23:29 IST