The discussion is everywhere.  So what is the Bulli Bai App? Does it effect you and me as citizens and netizens? What is prompting our youth to indulge in such extreme form of expression of hate and intolerance. Is the basic foundation of democracy being threatened due to such hate speech apps and online collaboration that disseminate hate speech? These are tough questions but we need to find an answer and a solution in law as well as society before it is too late!

‘Bulli Bai was a digital app that allegedly displayed publicly available images of largely Muslim women and made them available for ‘auction’. A similar app named ‘Sulli Deals’ had surfaced earlier in Mid- 2021. Investigations carried out till date by the Mumbai and Delhi Police reveal that a number of 18-21-year old allegedly came together from different states and collaborated with coding, creation and circulation of the Bulli Bai Application. The common factor between these young adults is that all were tech savvy and driven by extreme hate.

Several Media platforms are used extensively for expressing views and opinions on topics ranging from religion and politics to travel and cooking. However, recently there is a rising trend of social media platforms being used for hate speech, misogyny and polarized content. The nature of the platforms is such that in no time such contents gets circulated widely – ‘gets viral’ and has the capability of causing nationwide unrest or pose a threat to the security, sovereignty and integrity of the state.

Legal Issues :

Bulli Bai and its many variants have raised several legal issues such as :

  1. Are women protected against online sexual abuse and online violence by specific laws in the country?
  2. Is there a constitutional protection available to citizens and women in particular against their personal information being used / misuse without their consent ?
  3. Is there a specific law against gendered hate crimes ?
  4. What is the liability of Social Media Platform to regulate circulation of such content ?

Gender based Hate Crimes

Online sexual abuse, trolling, cyber bullying, cyber stalking or uploading of rape and gang rape imagery, hate conduct that de-values victims based on gender are typical examples of gender based hate crimes. In most cases of online trolling and violent speech or cyber bullying,  the perpetrators may be total strangers. There is no direct provocation by the victims and the only reason for such attacks are the perceived sense of dominance and thrill.

Online sexual hate crimes are not mere expressions of thought but is an actual violent conduct causing harm and injury to the individual as well as the  community. The victims may not be individuals in isolation but are targeted as a group or a community.

There are specific provisions under the Information Technology Act as well as the Indian Penal code that protect women from online sexual abuse, trolling, gendered hate speech, uploading of violent and/or sexual content against women and the use of the online space for purposes of causing intimidation.

The IT Act covers the violation of privacy (Section 66E);publishing and transmission of obscene, sexually explicit acts and child pornography or Child SexualAbuse Material (Sections 67, 67A, and 67B); identity theft (Section 66C); and cheating by personation (Section 66D). Each of these sections, in some form, is applicable to offences such as ‘revenge porn’or cyber extortion. Provisions for  voyeurism (354C), stalking (354D), and violence with the intent to disrobe a woman (354B) were introduced in the IPC recently.

Right to Privacy

In August 2017, a none-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court unanimously recognized privacy as a fundamental right which included information privacy. Using of images of women without their consent is a gross violation of this constitutional right.

Hate Speech

Hate Speech is also covered by several sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, and by other laws which put limitations on the freedom of expression.

Sections 153A and 153B of the IPC: Punishes acts that cause enmity and hatred between two groups. Section 295A of the IPC: Deals with punishing acts which deliberately or with malicious intention outrage the religious feelings of a class of persons. Sections 505(1) and 505(2): Make the publication and circulation of content which may cause ill-will or hatred between different groups an offence.

Responsibility and Liability of Social Media Platforms in Hate Speech Crimes :

Section 79 of the Information Technology Act deals with intermediary liability for online content. Under the present Section 79 of the IT Act, intermediaries  i.e Internet Service Providers and social media platforms  are exempted from liability if their functionality is limited to providing access to a communication system over which information made available by third parties is transmitted or temporarily stored or hosted. They are also required to observe due diligence and comply with the guidelines of the central government. Section 79(3)(b) also mandates intermediaries to remove unlawful content upon having knowledge of it, or being notified about it by a government agency. Failure to comply, through expeditious takedowns, could result in removal of the ‘safe harbour’ protection enjoyed by intermediaries.

The latest Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2020 provide for the following :

  1. Traceability of Encrypted Content: Under the new rules, law enforcement agencies can demand that companies trace the ‘first originator’ of any message.
  2. Content Take Down and Data Sharing Timelines: Intermediaries are now under an obligation  to takedown content within 36 hours and  the timeline for the sharing of user data for all intermediaries is 72 hours.
  3. User Directed Take Downs of Non-Consensual Sexually Explicit Content and Morphed/Impersonated Content: All intermediaries have to remove or disable access to information within 24 hours of being notified by users or their representatives (not necessarily government agencies or courts) when it comes to non-consensual sexually explicit content (revenge pornography, etc.) and impersonation in an electronic form (deep fakes, etc.).
  4. Social Media User Verification:  the law contains a provision requiring significant intermediaries to provide the option for users to voluntarily verify their identities.
  5. Automated Filtering: Intermediaries are directed to carry out automated filtering for child sexual abuse materials (CSAM), non-consensual sexual acts and previously removed content apply to all significant social media intermediaries (including end to end encrypted messaging applications).

Enforcement and Implementation

If online misogyny is to be dealt with, it is imperative that the laws must be effectively enforced without any undue delay, failing which it will merely embolden criminals to intensify their attacks which we witnessed as “Bulli Bai” surfaced within months of the “SulliDeals” where investigation was not adequate.

Deep-rooted prejudices, assumptions of immunity from action and absence of the fear of retribution are just some causes that hamper any attempt at combating online violence against women. Justice delivery systems ought to be revamped to visibly demonstrate their effectiveness so they can act as deterrents.

Vaishali Bhagwat

The Author is a practicing lawyer with a special focus of cyber law and cyber violence against women and children.