The Delhi High Court on Thursday 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 on May 13 for further hearing.
The court has been seized of the petition since June 2012.
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 crore of its registered users had given false identities. This might have further increased, he noted.
The government had framed detailed guidelines for ‘Know Your Customer’ norms for all sectors and more specifically for verification of mobile subscribers by telecom companies. However, these norms were not being followed by the sites, thus posing a grave security risk to the nation, he added.
He also raised the issue of invasion of privacy of users of the sites as their data was being transferred to the U.S. for commercial use.
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,” said top cyber law expert Pavan Duggal.
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,” he said.
The cyber law expert added that the online contract between users and social networking sites is enforceable in India. Therefore, under Indian law, both sides must be competent to contract, which means that they must be adults and of sound mind and the contract must be for lawful purposes. “Therefore, any [online] contract with a minor is null and void under the Indian Contract Act. While the age of majority in India is 18 years, it varies from country to country,” Mr. Duggal said.