103 Indians who got trapped in an online sting operation on child sex, may face up to 5 years in jail and a fine of Rs 10 lakh
Recently, a news item referred to a 10-week sting operation conducted in Amsterdam, Terre Des Hommes, who was posing on video chat rooms as “Sweetie”, a virtual avatar of a 10-year-old Filipino girl.
As per the sting operation, more than 20,000 people contacted her, of which 1,000 men tried to pay her money for sex acts online. Out of these 1,000, 103 have been identified from India. These 103 were willing to pay money to Sweetie to take off her clothes in front of a web-camera.
This entire sting operation has brought to the forefront, the need for protecting children online. Seen from a global perspective, there is an urgent need to have strong laws in place so as to protect the rights of children.
However to the misfortune of the 103 people from India, as per the said report, there is a different existing Indian legal scenario altogether. India already has in place a dedicated specific legislation to deal with Internet and related activities. Activities aimed at misuse of children are specifically covered under the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000.
So stringent is the law made after the 2008 amendments that if you, as a legal entity, even browse material that depicts children in an obscene or indecent or sexually explicit manner in the electronic form, that becomes a specific offence under Section 67B of the amended Indian Information Technology Act, 2000. The Section also penalises the publishing or transmitting or causing to be published or transmitted in the electronic form, any content which depicts children engaged in sexually explicit act or conduct. An offence conducted under this section is punishable with five years imprisonment and fine which may extend to Rs 10 lakh.
Of particular relevance in the context of this present controversy is Section 67B(c) of the amended Information Technology Act, 2000. This provision penalizes anyone who cultivates, entices or induces children to online relationships with one or more children, for and on sexually explicit act(s). Further, if anybody cultivates entices or induces children in a manner that may offend a reasonable adult on a computer resource, that is also a specific crime. The said crimes are also punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 5 years and with fine which may extend to Rs 10 lakh.
Consequently, the aforesaid acts of 103 persons wanting to target the virtual Sweetie, would also constitute the offence of facilitating abusing children online and would be separately punishable under Section 67B(d) of the amended Indian Information Technology Act, 2000.
The law treats these offences as serious offences with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 5 years. These are non-bailable offences and thus clearly demonstrate the commitment of Indian legislation to protect children and children rights in the context of use of computers systems, computer resources and the Internet.
In case the identities of 103 Indians are known and are shared with the Indian law-enforcement agencies, they can be made the basis for registering the aforesaid offences under Section 67B of the amended Indian Information Technology Act, 2000.
The lesson that has to be learned from the present Sweetie incident is that people need to be very careful when they go about scouting for children to perform sex acts online. Child pornography is now being specifically addressed under the Indian law. The scope of the Indian Cyberlaw is so vast that not just publishing and transmission of child pornographic content is an offence but, creating digital images, collecting, browsing, downloading, advertising, promoting, exchanging or distributing material in the electronic form which depicts children in obscene or indecent or sexually manner is also a specific offence under the law.
Section 67B represents one of the significant sections in the Indian cyberlaw which take a strong stand against online predators, who are targeting children. Unfortunately at the time of writing, no conviction under Section 67B of the amended Indian Information Technology Act, 2000 has been reported as yet, thus implying that having in place a law is not sufficient. A bigger issue is implementing the provisions of the Indian cyberlaw to create deterrence.
It is time that the said online Sweetie incident becomes a wake-up call for India. India needs to get to know the identity of these 103 online Indian predators and needs to take a strong action in order to demonstrate to the world that India takes a strong stand against online pedophiles targeting children and is committed to protection and preservation of children rights in cyberspace.
This case represents yet another step forward in the fight against pedophiles and cyber criminals who target children online. This is a massive challenge and it will require all the resources of all the stakeholders to ensure that these pedophiles are targeted in a manner so that children and childhood can both be safe and secure in the electronic, digital and mobile ecosystem.
The author is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India
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