Cyberbullying: Laws and Policies in India

With technology playing a major role in our lives, our children face the risk of being bullied on cyberspace. Here’s an insight into cyberbullying and the laws that deal with this issue.

By Gokul Chandrasekar

Cyberbullying: Laws and Policies in India

Bullying, it seems, is no longer restricted to the ubiquitous schools, colleges, playgrounds or parks. This global menace has spread its tentacles over to the big, wide world of technology making it more dangerous than before. Cyberbullying, as it is known, can occur anytime and anywhere – via email, texts, phones and social media websites. If not checked in time, the effects can be devastating.

When it comes to India, it is sadly emerging as the global capital of cyberbullying. Here are a few studies that raise concerns about this menace.

  • A survey conducted by Microsoft Corporation in 2012, across 25 countries ranked India third in the number of online bullying cases reported.
  • According to the 2014 study conducted by the Internet security company, McAfee, “Half of the youth in India have had some experience with cyberbullying.”
  • The 2016 Norton Cybersecurity Insights Report states that 51% of parents around the world see online bullying as more likely than being bullied at school or work (49%).

With such findings, it is clear that dealing with cyberbullying in India is truly a challenge. One of the key barriers to addressing the issue is the lack of an appropriate and comprehensive legal mechanism. The IT Act, 2000 does not include any provisions relating to cyberbullying. It mentions only two kinds of offences in this regard. One, publishing of information which is obscene (Article 67). And two, breach of confidentiality and privacy (Article 72). Further, there are no universal guidelines or regulations for schools to prevent bullying or cyberbullying.

We at ParentCircle caught up with Dr Debarati Halder, an advocate and legal expert who has done extensive research on cybercrime, to discuss ways to deal with cyberbullying. Dr Debarati Halder is also the director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling. She explains how parents, society and policymakers need to respond to the issue:

Q. Legally, what constitutes cyberbullying?

A. In my opinion, cyberbullying has three major components:

  1. Usage of teasing words which are extremely harsh for the victim
  2. Motive/intention to cause deep embarrassment, harassment and public insult to the victim
  3. Conveying the same via information communication technology and digital communication technology

Q. What are the laws that govern cyberbullying in India?

A. In fact, we still do not have any focussed laws to regulate cyberbullying in India, especially for children. I am the managing director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling (www.cybervictims.org). We get lots of distress calls from parents as well as older students and schools regarding the problem of cyberbullying.

We presently have S.66A of the Information Technology Act which prescribes punishment for sending annoying, offensive, and insulting communication through digital and information communication technology.

Even though it has been criticised by many as a 'draconian law', I strongly support it. This law has many good points and to some extent prohibits and penalises bullying. But, truly speaking, unless bullying causes extreme results such as suicide, abetment for the same, creation and circulation of pornographic content or serious hate crimes, no stakeholder takes serious concern. It is often tackled within the school and the erring student is either warned or is expelled (in rare cases).

But, these days, many schools encourage regular workshops on cybercrimes to spread awareness on bullying. I myself have been invited by many schools to conduct workshops. I have received many responses from students and parents at such workshops.

Q. What are the specific issues that policymakers should look to address formulating a legislation that specifically targets cyberbullying?

A. The foremost thing is to consider the academic or legal definition of bullying. In his book ‘Cyber Bullying: Profile and Policy Guidelines’, eminent criminologist Dr K Jaishankar defines cyberbullying as “abuse/ harassment by teasing or insulting the victims’ body shape, intellect, family background, dress sense, mother tongue, place of origin, attitude, race, caste, or class using modern telecommunication networks such as mobile phones and Internet.”

Next, the policy makers should adopt child-friendly policies which explain why cyberbullying is dangerous to children as well as to the society as a whole. I feel broad discussions on these should be done in consultation with experts on cybercrime, lawyers, academics, child-rights activists and educationists.

Q. What are the mechanisms that schools, parents and other stakeholders need to put in place to deter cyberbullying?

A. I believe that nothing but sensitising the children about negative impacts will work. I would very much want schools to have more workshops on cyberbullying because children are rapidly getting addicted to mobile messengers like Whatsapp which serve as platforms for cyberbullying.

Parents on the other hand, need sensitisation too, regarding how and why to not let children use electronic communication devices as 'toys'.

Q. What are the best practices followed in other countries in dealing with cyberbullying?

A. Well, it would be wrong to think that cyberbullying is rampant only in India. In countries like the US, Canada and UK, despite laws and regulations, cyberbullying is rampant. There are also many instances of suicide.

But, going by my experience [as the Vice President of the US based non-profit, Working to halt online abuse (WHOA)], unlike in India, cyberbullying among students is not seen as a trivial issue in the US.

Schools have regulations dealing with cyberbullying and such incidents are dealt not only by the school principals or respective class teachers, but also by counsellors and in certain aggravated cases, by the lawyers and courts as well.

There are lots of debates going on as to whether parents can be held liable for their children's misuse of communication devices. This is an important argument to consider, even in the Indian context.

Regular sensitisation programmes are held in Western countries and experts are called to conduct such workshops. India should adopt similar mechanisms.

Parents need to be aware that cyberbullying is not restricted to children of a certain age group. It can affect anyone any time. They should work in tandem with their children and ensure that they are well-informed so that this menace can be tackled.