Minimum Age to Use Social Networks in India
We strive to be more united and connected virtually to the people in our lives. Social media websites are one of the ‘coolest’ places for kids and means of socializing for their busy parents. But where are we actually taking this virtual life of ours? Are Indian children headed in the right direction? What about their safety? Are they surfing the way they should? Primitive social networking would be Orkut and Facebook and those browsers based scenarios. Now, the world prefers Whatsapp, Instagram, Tiktok, and Snapchat and what not and so is the new India. Social networking has encouraged new ways to communicate and share information.
Relationships going online reduce the capacity of the children to understand the pros and cons of the real world. Individualism by the social networking is creating a new style of life, a style where individuals come first. Individualism restrains the habit of understanding and accepting the relationship. With the increase in the uncensored use of social networking, kids are vulnerable to online fraud and aggressive marketing techniques. So there must be an age, like for marrying is, like for being a laborer, the age that is right?
— The Cyber Blog India (@incyberblog) February 11, 2016
What age is right for a child to expose himself to so much of the web? For other nations, it is an easy policy of 13 years or so. In India, we have different situations.
The legal framework of India does not allow anyone under the age of 18 years to join any social network, and for some reasons, it is a matter of great pride for kids to join these networks creating profiles with fake ages. You can look around and find many such examples where a 14-year old kid is already 25-year old on Facebook.
What does the law say?
In India however, why the age as suggested by Facebook is also not applicable is a rather strange issue. The number of definitions to who a child is are varied, IPC says something, Child Marriage and Restraint Act says something and so on. But going by the pure nature of this existence as legal, we have to look into the Indian Contract Act, 1872 and the Indian Majority Act,1875 which clearly specify the age bar of 18 years. So does that mean, all the I agree and Yes please buttons that we have clicked our childhood mean nothing?
From the legal front here, this is a very clumsy issue. No cases have surfaced that talk about this issue so the stand of Indian Legal System is a little shaky on this one. This is a question out in the open and a matter of concern which many people in India, many visionaries have taken up for discussion.
Case in point
The Delhi High Court in 2013 asked the Union government to explain how it was allowing children below 18 years to open accounts in social networking sites such as Facebook and Google.
A Division Bench of Justices B.D. Ahmed and Vibhu Bakhru asked the Centre to respond within 10 days when counsel for the former BJP leader, K.N. Govindacharya, the petitioner in the matter, accused the two sites of not verifying the details of its subscribers. It posted the matter for further hearing.
The Bench also impleaded Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. as parties to the petition and issued notices to them. Their Indian subsidiaries had responded to the petition.
Earlier, lawyer Virag Gupta, arguing for the petitioner, said the agreements entered into by minors here with the sites were against the Indian Majority Act, the Indian Contract Act and the Information Technology Act. In June 2012, Facebook, in a statement filed before the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said that more than eight crores of its registered users had given false identities.
Cyber law experts say that there may be merit in the petition, as misrepresentation can invite penal action. “Creating a false electronic record is an offence under the Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code. Under Section 465, the offence would attract punishment up to two years’ imprisonment and if the account so opened is used for the purpose of cheating, it would be punishable with a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment”.
Children “openly lying about their age to create accounts on these websites” were likely to face potential legal exposure” and even parents “who knowingly misrepresent information about their children while opening accounts in their names,” could be prosecuted under the IPC and the IT Act. “Ignorance of law is no excuse”.
(The case update is given below.)
What needs to be done?
It is inevitable to not make note of the infamous European Council agreement that happened a couple of years ago. At London, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, a total of 17 web firms signed up for the first European agreement to help protect children from harm when using social networking sites. The first Social Networking task force was set up to fight the significant threats they observed in Europe and came out with this agreement. The social networks agreed they would provide an easy-to-use and accessible ‘report abuse’ button. They would ensure that the entire online profiles and contact lists of website users registered as under 18’s are set to ‘private’ by default and prevent underage users from using their services and many other such clauses.
If Europe can take such innovative measures in their system, when they do not even have as many users as India does, can’t the Indian legislation begin with strengthening itself to support kids in a legal framework on these social platforms? Here are a few considerations while dealing with this issue:
- Lay down a provision for the usage of social media by kids above 13 years of age.
- Problem is, kids lie to their parents or hide about stuff because they feel their parents will bar them from using social networks or shut off their internet.
- Explore possible ways to build a bridge between parents and children.
- Indian Government should get into agreements with social networks for reforms
- A panic button, under 18 users be non-searchable and content limitation should be put in place.
- Show applicability of the law to children also so that they can fear an action they do.
Update on April 30, 2020 (Raj Pagariya):
All the hearings of W.P.(C) 3672/2012 from June 2012 to April 2016 have been checked. The hon’ble court has only discussed permitting children with 13 years of age in its order dated 23.08.2013.
And insofar as this order is concerned, the court only recognised that there is no dispute as to children less than 13 years of age are not permitted to create accounts on social media platforms. It seems that the court did not entertain the petitioner’s contention that minors signing up for social media platforms is a violation of the Indian Contract Act, 1872, and other such laws.
Moreover, it appears that the issue was whether the intermediaries are compliant with the 2011 guidelines or not. Also, this discussion will be considered as obiter dicta, i.e., it does not carry any weight for enforcement.