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Making headway

Making headway
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The internet, unsurprisingly, is not a safe place. In the interconnected virtual world of the internet, regulations are weak and the uninitiated are always vulnerable. And by all indications, the net is becoming even more unsafe in many ways. According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, India recorded 50,035 cases of cybercrime in 2020, an 11.8 per cent increase from the year before. Though the overwhelming number of cases were those of online banking and OTP fraud, there were also 578 cases of fake news on social media, 972 cases of cyberstalking or bullying of women and children, 149 cases of fake profiles and 98 cases of data theft. That is not all. The NortonLifeLock's 2021 Norton Cyber Safety Insights Report revealed that cyberstalking and creeping had seen a marked increase in India during the pandemic and lockdown phase. Quite alarmingly, the report revealed that around 52 per cent of the Indian adults surveyed believed that there was nothing wrong with stalking a former or current romantic partner online. But this isn't a discussion of people's alarming online behaviour. Rather the figures simply draw attention to how perilous and murky the online waters are. There is so much more ranging from organised cyber hacks to social media companies and their dangers which makes the online world difficult to navigate safely. This is where governments need to step in. As is the case with most new technologies, regulations frequently fail to keep up with advances which creates a risky situation for consumers when the government is not there looking out for them. It is in this context that we come to the recent Indian Express news report which states that the Indian government is finally looking to come up with overarching and all-encompassing IT laws to take on the tricky task of governing the essentially lawless digital realm. From bitcoin to dark web and cyberstalking, the new act being contemplated is meant to give an overhaul and facelift to the old IT Act of 2000 that came up in years of relative infancy for the online world. The law would aim to provide clear working legal definitions for crimes such as morphing photos, making unwanted comments, etc., and layout defined penal provisions for these crimes. The law also aims to bring in some provisions for age-gating social media websites, essentially making it so that minors require parental consent to access such platforms. While such a wide-ranging law is long overdue and welcome, it is easy to see how this law may have been driven forth by the government's own tensions with social media companies. Not to mention the recent damning Senate testimony given by whistleblower Frances Haugen regarding Facebook and its misconduct would also likely have a part to play in the timing of this law. The internet is undeniably a mess with a vast potential for misuse that ranges from bullying and doxxing to online fraud. The internet has been around for two decades and is only getting more complex. If the authorities don't jump in and sort out what is what, they risk losing the initiative for good as the lines between our world and the digital realm continue to blur. But, of course, nothing is quite so straightforward. There is always the classical problem of who watches the watchman. Just as efforts to regulate the internet pick up, so do efforts to control and censor. Both Facebook and Twitter have recently warned that the era of 'open internet' may be finally coming to an end. The Twitter paper on this made some not so subtle references to the company's grievances with the Indian government such as the requirement for local staff to be liable for decisions rather than corporate entities. Like Facebook, Twitter is coming around to the realisation that it needs to step up and help define how regulation will work out in the future or risk being left out of the whole process. Facebook has now unveiled new protections against online attacks on journalists, activities and celebrities in a wider trend of cracking down on online content that does not follow its rules. But in all this, it is the consumer that must be most wary. Governments and companies both have their own reasons for governing (or not governing) the digital realm, whether these reasons be altruistic or pragmatic. It is equally in the interest of the consumer to be aware of their online rights and protections and to stay wary of instances where online regulation slips over into the realm of censorship and outright control.

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