Bom HC | Can administrator of WhatsApp group be held criminally liable for objectionable posts of a group member? HC answers

Bombay High Court: The Division Bench of Z.A. Haq and Amit B. Borkar, JJ., while addressing the matter, observed that:

In the absence of a specific penal provision creating vicarious liability, an administrator of a WhatsApp group cannot be held liable for objectionable content posted by a member of a group.

Common intention cannot be established in the case of WhatsApp service user merely acting as a group administrator.

By the present application under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the applicant laid challenge to charge-sheet filed in the Court of Judicial Magistrate in pursuance of FIR registered with non-applicant 1 for offences punishable under Sections 354-A(1)(iv), 509 and 107 of the Penal Code, 1860 and Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

As per the FIR, applicant was an administrator of a WhatsApp group, that accused 1 used filthy language against non-applicant 2 on a WhatsApp group of which applicant was an administrator, that despite accused 1 using filthy language against the non-applicant 2, applicant had not taken any action against accused 1.

Further, it was alleged that the applicant being the administrator had not removed nor deleted accused 1 from the WhatsApp Group.

In view of the above, non-applicant 2 lodged the FIR against the applicant and accused 1.

Hence, the applicant has, therefore, filed a present application challenging filing of charge-sheet and continuation of proceedings against the applicant.

Crux of the Issue

Whether an administrator of a WhatsApp group can be held criminally liable for the objectionable post of its member for committing offences punishable under Sections 354-A(i)(iv), 509 and 107 of the Penal Code, 1860 and Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000?

Powers of the WhatsApp Group Administrator:

A group administrator has limited power of removing a member of the group or adding other members of the group. Once the group is created, the functioning of the administrator and that of the members is at par with each other, except for the power of adding or deleting members to the group.

The administrator does not have the power to regulate, moderate or censor the content before it is posted on the group. But, if a member of the WhatsApp group posts any content, which is actionable under law, such person can be held liable under relevant provisions of law.

Further, it was expressed that, a group administrator cannot be held vicariously liable for an act of a member of the group, who posts objectionable content, unless it is shown that there was a common intention or pre-arranged plan acting in concert pursuant to such plan by such member of a Whatsapp group and the administrator.

In the FIR it was stated that sexually coloured remarks were made by accused 1 and applicant being administrator of the WhatsApp group had not taken action of deleting the accused 1 from the group, nor had sought an apology from accused 1.

Decision

In Court’s opinion, non-removal of a member by the administrator of a WhatsApp group or failure to seek apology from a member, who had posted the objectionable remark, would not amount to making sexually coloured remarks by the administrator.

Court found that essential ingredients of Section 107 of IPC that the applicant had instigated or intentionally aided by his act or illegal omission to accused 1 to make sexually coloured remarks against non-applicant 2 were conspicuously absent. Hence the said Section will not be attracted in the present case.

Section 509 of the IPC criminalizes word, gesture, or act ‘intended’ to insult the modesty of a woman. In order to establish this offence, it is necessary to show that modesty of a particular woman has been insulted by a spoken word, gesture or physical act.

In the present matter, the above-stated offence cannot be made out against applicant, when the grievance of non-applicant 2 was that accused 1 had used filthy language against the non-applicant 2.

To constitute an offence under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, a person must publish or transmit an obscene material in electronic form.

High Court in view of the above discussion, found no allegation or material that the applicant had either published, transmitted or caused to be published or transmitted in electronic form any material, which was lascivious or appealed to prurient interest or its effect was such to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely to read, see or hear the matter contained.

Bench added that the applicant had neither published nor transmitted or caused to be published or transmitted any electronic form, any material which was obscene in nature.

Lastly while concluding, the High Court held that parameters of exercise of the powers conferred on this Court under Section 482 CrPC being settled, that in order to prevent the abuse of process of any Court and to secure the ends of justice, this power can be exercised.

Bench stated that the present case is the one where power needs to be exercised.

Taking the overall view of the matter, Court was satisfied that even if allegations in the FIR were accepted as correct and considering the material in charge sheet on its face value it does not disclose essential ingredients of offences alleged against the applicant under Sections 354-A(1)(iv), 509 and 107 of the Indian Penal Code and section 67 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Hence the continuation of present proceedings against the applicant would amount to an abuse of process of Court. [Kishor v. State of Maharashtra, 2021 SCC OnLine Bom 654, decided on 01-03-2021]


Advocates before the Court:

Mr R.M.Daga, Advocate for the applicant. Mr T.A.Mirza, A.P. P. for the non-applicant No.1.

Mr Sanjay A. Bramhe, Advocate for the non-applicant No.2.

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