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Tamil Nadu likely to hold Facebook accountable for suicide case

by Prasad Krishna last modified Jul 13, 2016 01:44 PM
The recent suicide of a 21-year-old woman from Salem district in Tamil Nadu over her morphed pictures being uploaded on Facebook could turn into a flash-point between the state police and the world's most-popular social networking site.

The article by V. Prem Shanker was published in the Economic Times on July 13, 2016.

"We are exploring the possibility of holding Facebook accountable for the delay in responding to our requests since that was one of the factors which led to the young lady committing suicide," Salem superintendent of police Amit Kumar Singh told ET in an exclusive interaction. On June 23, the Salem police had received a complaint from the father of the 21-year-old stating that someone had uploaded her morphed nude pictures on Facebook. The father had requested the police to get the photographs removed from the site and also find and warn the perpetrator.

The police recorded the complaint the same evening and later sent what is called a 'Law Enforcement Online Request' to Facebook asking for details of the IP address from which the morphed photographs were uploaded on the website. Officials also requested Facebook to take down the objectionable photographs of the young woman.

Five days after the request was sent, Facebook responded with the IP address on June 28 and within 12 hours after that the police cracked the case and nabbed the suspect.

However, all this was a bit too late because the previous day, on June 27, the young woman had ended her life. Her morphed nude photographs were taken down only on the day of her death, according to the police.

"Apart from addressing Facebook, we also investigated the case from other angles but couldn't make headway. Thus, there was nothing we could do about the pictures still being online apart from waiting for Facebook to act," Singh said, adding "enforcement of compliance is a matter of grave concern."

Officials are considering charging Facebook with abetment to suicide and including Facebook in the chargesheet if the site is found culpable after investigations. However, the state police is said to be discussing with legal experts on how this can be done as there is no precedent for a website having been charged in a crime.

Facebook did not reply to an email seeking comment. Earlier in a communique, responding to criticisms of police inaction in this case, Singh had pointed out that "Only Facebook can block a page and it exercises this discretion as per its Facebook Community Standards and not the law of the land it is being viewed in. Facebook does not provide the police with any special powers to take down a page even if the police receive a cognizable complaint of identity theft and uploading of obscene content. There is no tool available, at least as of now, with the police to coerce or goad Facebook to act expeditiously even if the matter is very urgent and there is a flagrant violation of Indian law."

Experts point out that the disparity with which Facebook treats child abuse laws and copyright infringements as opposed to violation of women's rights is stark.

"Look at the war against child pornography. In the United Kingdom there is an independent foundation that has immunity under UK child pornography law. They generate a database and circulate it across all platforms and ensure that it is kept absolutely squeaky clean," points out Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bengaluru based research organisation, Centre for Internet and Society.

"There definitely needs to be a law to ensure that such platforms do not violate the law of the land, especially when it comes to women's rights. But in interim, the government can create an information escrow or a platform where the victims can place on record their problems and it is there for these sites to see and take action," Abraham added.