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CAROLINE KEPNES’S ‘YOU’: DECONSTRUCTING THE LAWS OF CYBERSTALKING

Author: Vedant Saxena, II Year of B.A.,LL.B(Hons) from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab.


Abstract

“Boy meets girl. A boy falls for a girl. A boy obsesses over a girl. Just how far will the boy go to get the girl?”

While most people may not give it a second thought, sometimes it’s better to be careful with whom you share your information. ‘'You’, Caroline Kepnes’s debut novel, is a tale of unrelenting passion and sociopathy. Right from chapter one, when a grad student (Guinevere Beck) walks into a bookstore, the store clerk’s (Joe Goldberg) obsession over her, which he mistakes for love, continues to reach unimaginable heights. It compels him to commit horrifying acts, such as cyberstalking, breaking and entering, stealing, and even murder. Through this article, the author, drawing parallels from the novel, delves into explaining the threats of online stalking and deconstructing the Indian laws governing it.


Introduction

It may be custom to introduce yourself after a casual chat with someone, but would anyone imagine that that person would instantly look you up on the socials, decipher your address from your online activity, and routinely eye you through your windows? It may certainly not be a common affair, but it is still very much possible, owing to the vast number of people using social media. In one scene, Joe Goldberg, in rescuing a drunk Beck from being run over by a train, stealthily pockets her phone. With no password or app lock, he is then able to routinely monitor her online activity. From garnering information on her contacts to breaking in and stealing underwear, to following her to every corner, there is nothing eerie which Joe misses out in satisfying the hunger pangs of his obsession.


Cyberstalking versus physical stalking: Deciphering the threats

‘You’ depicts how alarmingly easy it is for someone to stalk you on social media.


Cyberstalking may be considered an advanced branch of conventional stalking, but there exists a world of difference between the two. The primary line of demarcation between the two is the degree of proximity. While physical stalking would involve keeping up with the victim’s pace, cyberstalkers could keep track of the victim’s activities sitting back at their homes, something which Joe routinely does. A second feature setting cyberstalking apart from conventional stalking is the degree of vulnerability.


In the event of physical stalking, chances of getting stalked by somebody who does not reside or work in close quarters of the victim are scarce. On the other hand, a cyberstalker could turn out to be any entity across the globe. In the novel, Joe might be known to Beck, but a cyberstalker actually has his identity hidden behind the fine walls of cyberspace.


The Indian laws of cyberstalking

What if Joe Goldberg’s story were to take a detour and he ended up getting caught and tried in India? This section of the article is dedicated to explaining the offences for which Joe would have found himself guilty, with regards to Indian law.

Stalking


Getting obsessed with Guinevere Beck, Joe uses every form of technology to stalk her and feed his toxic obsession. Right from the instant when he gets to know her name, he routinely checks her social media accounts to garner information on her. He goes on to the extent of stealing her phone in order to keep track of her online activity. Moreover, Beck is not the only person ending up a scapegoat for his creep. In the next novel of the series ‘Hidden Bodies’, Joe conjures up a technique to get hold of a teenage girl’s phone. Although he might have flung this incident off under the garb of ‘necessity’, it nevertheless does register him as a stalker.


Section 354D of the IPC

Section 354D of the IPC, inserted by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, deals with instances of stalking. Stalking has been defined as an offence wherein a man follows a woman, and contacts or attempts to contact her despite her wishes to the contrary. Joe does physically follow Beck to quite a few places, but it is not made clear whether she ever notices him and objects to his modus operandi.


However, he would certainly not be able to outsmart subclause (ii) of 354(1), which penalizes cyberstalking. A woman could thus take recourse to this section if she feels that a man is monitoring her activity over the Internet, e-mail or any other form of electronic communication. If Joe were to be caught and tried in India, he would have to undergo 5 years of imprisonment and pay a fine, for his repeated offences of stalking.


A noticeable feature of Section 354(D), which makes it more likely for a man to be convicted under it, is its inclination towards women. The instances when men end up as victims of stalking are thus turned a blind eye to. In May 2017, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur had claimed to be stalked and harassed by his female acquaintance. In a 2012 study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics that men and women are equally vulnerable to harassment, both physically and virtually.


According to Supreme Court lawyer Karnika Seth, the number of male victims she receives is now at par with the number of female victims. Thus, in light of the status quo, this section needs to be made more gender-neutral.


Voyeurism

What intrigues the readers about Joe is the extent to which he obsesses over the women he takes an interest in. In the first novel, he uses the zoom on a camera to look through Beck’s windows. In ‘Hidden Bodies’, he installs a telescope at his place to routinely eye his then love interest, Love Quinn.


Section 354C of the IPC

Section 354C of the IPC deals with the offence of Voyeurism. Under this section, if a man watches, captures an image or disseminates such image of a woman engaging in a private act, who expects or has reason to believe that she would not be seen at that particular instant, he shall be guilty of the offence of voyeurism.


Explanation (2) of this section suggests that even if a woman consents to such images being captured, it would an offence to disseminate such images if she had not consented to such dissemination.

Within the quarters of her house, a woman would certainly not expect to be seen, particularly in places not accessible through the naked eye. Therefore, on account of his repeated offences, Joe would be punished with imprisonment for a term not less than 3 years, and which could extend up to 7 years. Further, he would also be held liable to pay a fine.


Section 66E of the IT Act

A woman may also take recourse to Section 66E of the IT Act, in instances when a man intentionally or knowingly captures, publishes or transmits her picture under circumstances violating her privacy. ‘Violation of privacy’ could take place under 2 circumstances. Firstly, when the person expects that he or she could disrobe in privacy, without his or her picture being captured. Secondly, the person expects that any part of his or her private area is not visible, regardless of whether he or she is in a private or public place. Violation of Section 66E would result in imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or being held liable to pay a fine not exceeding two lakh rupees, or both.


Conclusion

All in all, ‘You’ is a quality piece of literature that can keep the readers glued to their seats for hours. However, the novel reminds the readers that social media is not always safe. Greater technological and digital advancements have turned cyberspace a fertile ground for stalkers and predators. Thus, it is extremely important that people are careful while operating their social media accounts.


Reference

[1] C. Kepnes, You (2014).

[2] C. Kepnes, Hidden Bodies (2016).

[3] OML Founder & CEO, Vijay Nair Was Cyberstalked By A Woman He Considered A Friend, MensXP, available at https://www.mensxp.com/technology/web-and-social/36879-oml-founder-ceo-vijay-nair-was-cyber-stalked-by-a-woman-he-considered-a-friend.html, last seen on 25/3/2021.

[4] Danielle Citron, Are men really harassed online more than women?, Forbes (5/9/14), available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/daniellecitron/2014/09/05/are-women-facing-more-cyber-stalking-and-cyber-harassment-online-than-men/?sh=6acef50d32c8, last seen on 25/3/2021.

[5] Abhimanyu Mathur, Cyberstalking Law: Ill-equipped to protect women, non-existent for men, The Times Of India, available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/cyberstalking-law-ill-equipped-to-protect-women-non-existent-for-men/articleshow/59179132.cms, last seen on 25/3/2021.