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By Wilfred Synrem ( Gujarat National Law University)
“The Internet has been a boon and a curse for teenagers” – J.K. Rowling
No doubt the internet has been a massive aid in today’s world, but as J.K. Rowling rightly contradicts, the internet also has a negative side. One negative aspect is its wrong impact on the young future brains of the country. Gone are those days when children were only found on the field or the playgrounds during leisure time. High-tech gadgets are the new fad and its addictive nature justifies the title “boon and a curse”. The internet adds a new dimension to this simple world, a realm yet to be discovered by the innocent minds. Depending on the very upbringing and environment of the child, he or she can be easily lured into the evils of the internet, like the dark web. This dark web not only pollutes the pure thinking but also entraps the soul and spirit of the child. Violent videos and audios, dangerous online games, child pornography, fraud services, phishing scams, hackers, anonymous cyber bullies and recruiters of terrorist groups are all part and parcel of the unfathomable ‘dark web’. One such component of the dark web is a newly surfaced online game called the ‘Blue Whale Challenge.
“There are people – and there is biological waste. Those who do not represent any value for society. Who cause or will only harm to the society. I was cleaning our society of such people”. These are the harsh words known as the Phillip Budeikin, the creator of the deadly online game/challenge of the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ when he was apprehended by the Russian Police recenty.
Like most of you innocent readers, until a few months back I was also unaware of this deadly trap of a game. The game had originated way back in 2015 on Russia’s most popular social platform ‘Vkontakte’ in the form of death groups called “f57” or “f58”. Players who were inducted into such groups were given fifty tasks daily ranging from inflicting bodily harm to waking up at odd hours and made to listen to dark music; the last task being to commit suicide. These tasks assigned by the ‘curators’ (or administrators of the game) were different for different people but it had only one objective; death by suicide.
Judging from the nature of the game, it can be speculated that the victims of this game are mostly teenagers. An alleged number of 130 people have been victims in Russia ever since, out of which sixteen girls were instigated to commit suicide by Phillip Budeiken himself. Inevitably, this online game has spread to Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy, Argentina and yes, India too. Recently on July 30, the first alleged case of the Blue Whale Challenge was reported when a fourteen-year-old boy jumped from the seventh floor of a building in Mumbai. Another high profile case occurred on August 12 when a boy from Bengal was found dead in his bathroom after playing the game. There have been cases where teens have been saved at the last moment, like when a boy from Indore was pulled away before the final act. This class X student also recorded the fifty tasks completed in his school diary. For the past two months or so, incidents have been reported regarding the lethal game amounting to at least five or six confirmed victims.
We can’t help everyone but everyone can help someone – Ronald Regan
As a knee-jerk response to this Challenge, the Union Minister, Manenka Gandhi had brought this matter before the Minister of Home Affairs, Rajnath Singh and the Information Technology minister, RS Prasad. Therefore on August 11, 2017, the Ministry of Electronics and IT sent letters to Internet content providers like Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo to immediately remove the links of the deadly online game. In addition, a PIL was also filed by advocate Gurmeet Singh before the Delhi High Court with the same intention. The Court has currently sought for a response from the Internet giants vis-a-vis the steps undertaken by them in order to curb the menace.
If one would peruse the Information Technology Act, 2000, we can see that under section 69A the Government has the power to issue directions for blocking public access to any information through computers, when that information could potentially incite the commission of any cognizable offence. In this case, the cognizable offence is stated under section 306 of the Indian Penal code, which is ‘abetment of suicide’.
This whole fiasco spells out two types of liabilities; the internet service providers’ (ISP’s) liability and the liability of the game’s administrators. When it comes to the curators of the online game they can be charged under the Indian Penal Code for a maximum span of ten years and be liable for cyber bullying as well as cyber stalking. They can also be charged to the extent of Identity Theft (section 66C, IT Act) when they might administer these games through someone else’s account. Under the section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, these curators are abetting or aiding or inciting the suicide of the person on the other side of the connection. The tasks given by the curators are such that the players would need to reveal some personal information or secret of theirs. With the help of these dark secrets, these administrators blackmail the players and attain their prime object. Not only are these curators bullying but also keeping track of their player’s online status, chats and bulletins.
As for the service providers, they can be liable under section 79 (3)(b) of the IT Act to the extent that they have not yet removed links of the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’. In general, section 79 of the IT Act provides an exemption from liability of intermediaries in certain cases, like the ISP’s. However, subsection 3(b) of section 79 states that if these intermediaries have not removed a particular link or computer source through which an unlawful act is being operated, even upon the notification of the appropriate government agencies, then the ISP’s cannot claim exemption under the same section. Hence, these ISP’s can be held liable for not taking down the links alike to the “Blue Whale Challenge”.
However, there are four massive drawbacks regarding the current measures taken up the Government and local police authorities. First, the online game isn’t actually a game which is available on an app store or a service to which one can subscribe for. The game is actually initiated when an administrator approaches you on any social platform when you might have used hashtags like #f57 or #f58 or #BlueWhaleChallenge. Therefore, the measure to remove links to the online game is irrelevant because there is no real link available to the game and key words/hashtags are continuously resurfacing and changing. Secondly, the curators cannot be traced due to the fact that they are not administrators of any death group or previous synonymous groups in “Sea of Whales” or “Silent House”, like before. They communicate through the dark web which guarantees encryption technology, hence anonymity is secured. Thirdly, it is not possible for the internet service providers to block everything with respect to the challenge because these links resurface often through some new source. Lastly, banning any links to the challenge is in itself endorsing censorship of the ‘free and open medium of Internet’.
Elaborating on the last drawback, censorship is designed to prevent all access to any resources relating to a particular word or a set of words; here, words relating to the challenge. We must highlight the phrase “any resources” because these resources could be of two types: resources that incite and provoke people to play the challenge, and resources that helps in condemning the challenge, creates awareness amongst the general public and especially parents about the game, and provides good probable solutions to the problem at hand. Therefore, banning “any” and all links would be in contravention of the ‘right to freedom of speech and expression’ of article 19 in the Constitution. To look at the problem from another point of view, the author cites the example of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), 1996 in the United States. This act combated against pornographic content which was accessible to children. However, the US Supreme Court held the CDA as unconstitutional contending that parents have access to effective website blocking software and it could be implemented for the same. Similarly, the government just cannot ban links relating to the game because it would be violative of fundamental rights conferred by the Constitution. In fact, there is an inherent onus on the parents and schools to implement similar available technologies in order to keep a track of the child’s activities. A second argument vis a vis the drawback is that banning links like “blue whale challenge” or “silent house” or “sea of whales” would also mean the removal of the links which are not related to the game itself. One would find many blue whale challenges or “sea of whales” social media groups, which do not correlate to the same controversial game. Hence, censorship does not seem the right direction.
We never know which one of us will start the chain reaction, but one of us will- Colin Beavan
Several remedial measures have been taken up to curb this menace. For example, social networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr have started helplines for people searching for the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’. Whilst, on the other hand, there are parents who have synced their devices with their children’s with the help of hi-tech software systems. However, these measures are temporary in nature with no real scope to solve the problem. We must look towards more probable solutions, not only from a technological and legal point of view but also from a sociological point of view.
Not only has the Russia Parliament passed a bill for introducing criminal liability for pro suicide groups on social media, but also on the recommendation of Vladimir Putin they have a new law especially to impose penalties of six years imprisonments for the curators. With the same intention, Russian Senator Anton Belyakov has submitted a draft law proposing a five to eight-year prison sentence and fine for persons who share information that deliberate on pro suicide perceptions. Apart from the ten-year punishment India has for ‘abetment of suicide’, from a legal point of view, the Indian Parliament must pay great attention to the Russian model and enact similar laws. In fact, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (IB) are in talks to penalize websites that are causing the spread of the challenge. Indeed, section 306 of the Indian Penal Code serves as a good deterrence for abettors, but there is no deterring Indian law which penalizes persons who share online links of pro suicidal information. Hence, there must be a separate section in the Information Technology Act that confers criminal liability on persons or websites that share information which encourages participation in any such game.
Another initiative which could be taken up by the Indian Government is the introduction of a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Strategy. Indian psychiatrist Harish Shetty (more credentials) correlates with the same idea and has called upon the government to introduce a National Suicide Prevention Policy. This strategy would need to have a comprehensive approach to prevent suicide by promoting, supporting and coordinating activities at all levels across the country. Countries such as Finland, Italy and Australia have implemented effective suicide prevention strategies. In Finland, a crisis management program was implemented in the schools where the teachers, principals and school psychologists were trained to respond to suicides or attempted suicides in accordance to a ‘crisis working model’. In Australia, a ‘Youth Aware of Mental Health (YAM)’ program of workshops was developed for teenagers, which covered six themes. They were self-help advice, how to tackle depression and suicidal thoughts, how to deal with stress in crisis situations, increasing the awareness of mental health, the notion of helping friends in trouble and the people to approach for advice. In Italy, two services called Tele-Help and Tele-Check were introduced. The former is a service a person could activate to call for help anytime, whilst the latter was one involving twice-weekly phone calls to provide emotional support to the disturbed person. Following such templates, India can activate a Nation Suicide Prevention Policy or Strategy in order to cut down suicide rates.
From a technological point of view, there are two probable solutions that can aid the same goal. One would be the need for a gaming regulator that could scrutinize different types of online games prior to its availability on the internet. Cyber Expert Prashant Mali has voiced the same concern claiming that gaming regulators would stop online games from “instigating the gamer to do things like raping a person or killing one’s self”. These gaming regulators if appointed would have to the duty to filter out immoral games or games which are against public order. However, this solution would be functional in a narrow sense due to the reason that the blue Whale challenge also exists outside the online game.
Another mandatory solution is the appointment of the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team under section 70B of the Information Technology Act. This team would serve as a national agency for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information on cyber incidents. Other functions of the CERT-In team is that it forecasts and alerts of cyber security incidents, it undertakes emergency measures for handling these incidents, it coordinates cyber incident response activities, and, issues guidelines, advisories, vulnerability notes and white papers relating to information security practices and procedures. With the help of its bulletins, the team analyzes the attack and suggests measures to overcome and prevent such incidents in the future. Recently, the CERT-In team had given advice as to how to overcome the attacks of the ransomware, “WannaCry”. However, the CERT-In team does not solve the problem from its very roots, but it is merely an ancillary-analytical aid to the cause.
It isn’t difficult to infer that the suicides committed by these fifty tasks reflect the detrimental state of our society. The Blue Whale Challenge is less of a challenge and more of a trap for the vulnerable sections of the society. Students forming the majority of this section often get lured by the simplest suicidal notion offered in this game and then get “brainwashed”. These students are mostly either depressed, emotionally marginalized or social castaways. In one of Phillip Budeikin’s personal interviews, he had explained as to how he gave comfort to these emotionally weak children and manoeuvredd their thinking to the extent that “it is good to die young”.
It is extremely important to protect the weak from the evils of such social platforms. This is mostly done through self-help groups and awareness programs. One such initiative undertaken is the CBSE’s Guidelines on Safe Internet usage and Digital Technologies’ in schools and buses. These guidelines stress the importance of installing firewalls and filtering-monitoring software systems across all schools and buses.
On a lighter note, there is a beautiful example of how to rejuvenate any disturbed mind, which is the ‘Pink Whale Challenge’. The challenge is the exact polar opposite of its counterpart, where daily fifty positive tasks are assigned to its players. The Facebook and Instagram pages of the challenge already have more than 3,40,000 followers. The Brazilian group named ‘Baliea Rosa’ had brought up this project and the aim on its Facebook page reads as: In order to prove that the internet can be used to viralize the good, the Pink Whale was born. We are not a self-help group! We just believe that we are all capable of promoting love and good!” This challenge is certainly bringing a ray of hope about the inherent goodness human beings and the innate beauty and miracle of life. The following message succinctly expresses the goal that we have to fight for in the long run.
“Come, Let’s seek the real
Blue Whale that swims Unafraid of the ebb and tide
Of the ocean Blue!”
The ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ is on a surge and the publicity attracted by it only feeds it even more. The main concern from this raging epidemic is the vulnerability of young minds to the fragility of the virtual world. It is absolutely shocking to find young people using hashtags like #CuratorFindMe on twitter, even at this very moment. Clearly, banning all links to the challenge is as herculean as removing depression from the society. We need to understand that, there are deeper psychological issues to be tackled at the very basic level. If not done so they could get lost into the challenge ‘brainwashed’ and helpless to the extent that they could be blackmailed by the curators. Eventually, not only do parents have an inherent responsibility but also the society at large along with the government has to share the burden to eradicate social media evils.
 70B (4), IT act
Tags: Argentina, Blue Whale Challenge, Bulgaria, CBSE Guidelines, CERT-In Team, child, Communication Decency Act, Finland, Government, Identity Theft, India, Indian Penal Code, Information Technology 2000, italy Brazil, National Suicide Prevention Policy, Philip Budekin, Pink Whale Challenge, Ronald Regan, Rowling, russia, Russia Parliament