Practo, an online healthcare venture based in Bengaluru, has found itself in a spot of bother after a user posted a very disturbing message on its platform last week indicating that he had committed sexual assault on a child.

While the sender has been traced to Pune by police, the incident has also led to a complaint being filed in Bengaluru against Practo by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) for delaying an investigation. BusinessLine has viewed the complaint letter.

The message, sent by a 34-year-old man, reached a Practo-registered gynaecologist based in Delhi NCR. She was stunned when she opened it to read his words: “I ejaculated on vagina of a virgin (a ten-year-old) who has not yet hit puberty. Is there possibility of a pregnancy? If yes, what is the way to avoid?”

“I immediately cancelled the appointment (online consultation) and reported the case to Practo, which is based in Bengaluru,” Dr Sweta Singh (33) told BusinessLine . “In the app, we receive a common pool of messages. Doctors who take on cases are not aware of the whereabouts of the patients who seek advice and counselling.”

Viral on social media

Deeply upset, the doctor shared her angst about the message through Facebook and Twitter posts and called for an investigation. Her messages went viral; in less than a day, they received thousands of views and shares on Facebook and over a hundred responses on Twitter. She also posted appeals to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) to take action and apprehend the perpetrator.

The sender of the self-incriminating message was subsequently found to be in Pune, Maharashtra, by the police. WCD Ministry officials told BusinessLine that an FIR has been registered against the perpetrator in Pune under Section 10 of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) for aggravated sexual assault.

It is, however, unclear if he has been arrested. “Though we have been verbally informed on the phone of the developments, no formal communication has come from the police,” said Priyank Kanoongo, Chairperson, NCPCR.

A spokesperson for Practo said that the organisation was co-operating with the investigation. But the company has itself come under the scanner.

An official from the WCD Ministry explained: “A complaint has been registered by us with the Bengaluru police against Practo for withholding information on the perpetrator and causing delay in investigation under Section 19 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012, which makes it obligatory for any person to report a child sexual offence to the police voluntarily. Practo shared the information with the investigative agencies only after being subjected to pressure from the Ministry.”

Practo response

Responding to queries posed by BusinessLine , the Practo spokesperson said: “We are appalled by this incident and are deeply concerned about the safety and health of the victim. We have filed an FIR with the Bangalore police, a complaint with the NCPCR and worked alongside the doctor (as a co-complainant) to file a police complaint in Greater Noida. We have provided all the information we have about the accused to both the police authorities and the NCPCR.”

Who bears the responsibility?

The complaint filed in Bengaluru against Practo, which is based in the city, by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) for failing to disclose information and delaying an investigation into what appears to be a crime has raised questions about accountability and the actions that an organisation needs to take in such matters.

The self-incriminating message sent by the alleged perpetrator of a sexual assault on a child clearly bypassed the human filters at Practo. It exposed the challenges faced by online entities in carrying out due diligence at a time when internet penetration is expanding rapidly. The company failed to take down the post, indicative of a sexual assault, before it was relayed into the common pool of messages to be viewed by doctors. And it now faces a complaint of having delayed a probe.

Pavan Duggal, a senior advocate specialised in the field of Cyberlaw and e-commerce law, said that companies could be held liable if they did not follow due diligence under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000. Section 79 states that while intermediaries such as Twitter, Facebook, and in this case Practo, cannot be held liable for information flowing through the network, they are required to carry out due diligence.

For instance, the law indicates that an intermediary, such as a social network, can be held liable if “upon receiving actual knowledge, or on being notified by the appropriate Government or its agency that any information, data or communication link residing in or connected to a computer resource controlled by the intermediary is being used to commit the unlawful act, the intermediary fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to that material on that resource without vitiating the evidence in any manner”.

Punit Dutt Tyagi, Executive Partner, Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan Attorneys, has a similar view. He explains that although the intermediaries (such as social media platforms) are not liable for the content transmitted through them, the IT Act obligates them “to comply with the orders of the Government in case of any non-compliance is brought to their notice”.

Tyagi further explains that prior to 2015, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (the IT Act) held any person communicating information through a digital medium (e.g., social media platforms) which may be considered as hate speech, or spreading fake news, punishable with imprisonment with fine. However, the Supreme Court in its landmark judgment in the case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India struck down Section 66A as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court had held that Section 66A violated freedom of speech and expression granted under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court while deciding on the validity of the aforesaid provision had also noted that the wordings of the provision were ‘nebulous’ and ‘imprecise’. Such indefinite terms provided an over-reaching scope to the provision which, in the opinion of the Supreme Court, covered large amount of protected speech and would tend to have a ‘chilling effect on free speech’. For this reason, Section 66A was struck down.

He however notes, “The striking down of section 66A does not however legitimize instances of hate speech, objectionable content or fake news, which are offences under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). For example, section 153A of the IPC specifically holds individuals guilty of an offence if they by written or spoken words attempt to promote disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will. Similarly, distribution of objectionable content (e.g., defamatory remarks, statements conducing to public mischief) all hold the source/distributing entity guilty under the relevant provisions of the IPC.”

Outlining Google India’s policy, Sunita Mohanty, Director, Trust & Safety, at the company, said: “We have very clear policies around protection of children and very clear policies around misinformation. Wherever, we find something that does not adhere to policies and principles, we have processes based on classifiers and machine learning that take down the content even before it shows up on a single impression. Or we run manual checks and balances.”

Mohanty said that Google India has a trust and safety team that works on building classifiers to protect and prevent this kind of incident. Google also has a programme as a part of community guidelines to educate people on how to flag such content.

“As a digital citizen, you see bad content online and as a user you just say it is bad content. But how many of us actually flag that kind of content? We have strong community guidelines on flagging it,” Mohanty added.