By Asheeta Regidi
Internet trolling can get violent, with abusive remarks, cyberstalking and threats of rape and violence. Verbal assault on the internet is common enough. In an unprecedented case, the internet was used as a weapon to directly, physically harm a person. Taking trolling to a new and dangerous low, a troll successfully induced a seizure in a reporter with a publicly known condition of epilepsy, by deliberately sending a flashing GIF to him. The troll was arrested and now faces criminal charges for assault.
Eichenwald attacked for anti-Trump opinions
The reporter, Kurt Eichenwald, had given strong anti-Trump opinions online, because of which the accused, John Rayne Rivello was trolling him. Eichenwald had publicly spoken about his epilepsy, and described online how he recently escaped a seizure when he accidentally viewed a video with flashing lights. Rivello reportedly took advantage of this photosensitive nature of Eichenwald’s epilepsy. The GIF sent was an animated strobe image, of the nature that can trigger a seizure, and was accompanied with the words “You deserve a seizure for your post’.
Immediately after viewing the GIF, Eichenwald had an epileptic seizure which lasted for 8 minutes, experiencing a complete loss of ‘bodily functions and mental faculty’, and some impairments lasted several months.
Potential of internet to harm
The potential of the internet to physically harm people is not unknown. Using the internet indirectly to harm people is known through inducing suicide, and inciting violence in others. Direct uses of the internet include the possibility of hacking an airplane or even air traffic control to kill people.
The present case, however, is a personal, targeted attack, similar to hacking a pacemaker to cause a heart attack, hacking an insulin pump to alter dosage, or hacking a car to cause an accident. Moreover, the tool used, a GIF, needs no specialised knowledge like hacking would. This is among the first, known incidents of this nature.
The Information Technology Act, 2000 covers some of these offences. For example, hacking of an airplane or an electrical grid will be an act of cyberterrorism under Section 66F. The personal attacks, however, like the hacking of a car or insulin pump to kill a person, are missing under the IT Act. These are, however, covered under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Legally, can murder be caused by a GIF?
The case raised certain questions – whether legally, murder or assault can be committed using a GIF. The answer is yes. The IPC, punishes causing hurt, grievous hurt or murder (Sections 321, 322 and 300 respectively) through ‘any act’. This term is broad enough to encompass even online means, including hacking a pacemaker or sending a GIF to induce a seizure.
The crucial factor is the intention or knowledge of the accused. The accused must have the deliberate intention of harming the victim, or alternatively the knowledge that his act could harm the victim. Consider if a person, knowing that another is severely allergic to a particular medicine, deliberately administers it to him. Here his knowledge is the key ingredient, even though the medicine is otherwise unharmful. The actual offence committed will vary based on how much harm the person intended to cause, and the harm actually caused.
In the absence of such knowledge, messages sent innocently with no intention of harming, or with a mere intention to annoy, will not be covered under these sections.
Investigations report intention to cause seizure
In the present case, investigations against the accused allege that Rivello had conducted research on Eichenwald’s Wikipedia page, articles on photosensitive epilepsy and ‘commonly recorded epilepsy triggers’. Rivello was also alleged to have sent messages to others saying ‘I hope this sends him into a seizure’ and ‘Spammed this at [Eichenwald] let’s see if he dies’.
If the allegations are true, there can be no question that Rivello was fully aware of the consequences of his actions, and deliberately intended to cause a seizure in Eichenwald. Had Rivello sent the GIF without knowledge of Eichenwald’s epilepsy, or without the knowledge that the flashing GIF was likely to trigger a seizure, then he wouldn’t have faced criminal charges.
GIF as a ‘deadly weapon’
Interestingly, the GIF was ruled to be a ‘deadly weapon’ by a Grand Jury in Texas. The significance of this is that using a ‘dangerous weapon’ attracts a more stringent punishment. Under the IPC it can attract even a life sentence, whereas without a ‘dangerous weapon’, the punishment is up to 7 years.
This ruling is a matter of some controversy, since deadly weapons are usually the likes of knives and guns. A ‘dangerous weapon’ under the IPC is any instrument which when used as a weapon can cause death. This is broad enough to include the GIF in this case, even if it was sent online, much like if a person suddenly holds up a tablet with the GIF in front of a person with epilepsy on it in a bid to cause an attack. While an epileptic seizure is capable of causing death, it will have to be seen whether Indian Courts take the same stance as the Texas court.
Dangers of trolling need to be addressed
This case highlights the very real dangers of the internet and the increasingly violent turn that trolling has taken. A similar thing was seen recently when Gurmehar Kaur was driven out of Delhi by the threats of internet trolls, who didn’t agree with her online opinions.
Strict action needs to be taken against trolls. In view of this, the quick cooperation of Apple and Twitter with investigations in Eichenwald’s case (in pursuance of legal warrants) is heartening. As said by Eichenwald, trolls need to be reminded that even under their cloaks of anonymity, they aren’t out of the reach of the law.