Interview: Advocate Puneet Bhasin, Cyber Law Expert
Puneet Bhasin is the founder of the leading Cyber Law firm Cyberjure Legal Consulting, Mumbai and is a renowned name in the field of Cyber and Technology laws in India.
Puneet Bhasin is the founder of the leading Cyber Law firm Cyberjure Legal Consulting, Mumbai and is a renowned name in the field of Cyber and Technology laws in India. She assisted the Rajya Sabha Committee on reforms in Cyber Pornography Laws in India and is a part of the advisory committee to Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) on the new Data Protection Framework, to be adopted by the Government of India.
Advocate Puneet Bhasin's expertise in various areas such as FinTech laws, E-commerce laws, cybersecurity and Information Technology laws as well as Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain laws, has been sought by an esteemed clientele that includes several well-known websites, movie production houses, major nationalised banks like Punjab National Bank and MNCs like TATA and KPMG.
A postgraduate in Cyber Laws (B.L.S. LL.B. L.L.M.) and a certified Cyber Crime Investigator, Advocate Puneet Bhasin has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the Best Cyber Lawyer 2018 award (awarded by the Indian National Bar Association).
In this interview with Legal Bites, Puneet Bhasin shares her views on our queries.
Legal Bites: Ma'am, you are an expert on a plethora of subjects such as International Cyber Law, privacy and data protection, cybercrime, technology laws and you have also ventured into niche areas like Blockchain technology, E-commerce and Artificial Intelligence. You are indeed the best at what you do. What was the driving force that made you enter the field of cyberspace and diversify your practise to include such a vast array of technologies that have recently emerged in the past few years?
Puneet Bhasin– At the time that I was in law school, Cyber Crime was an absolutely new field of law. At that stage, this area of law was nascent and was not commonly heard of. The number of cybercrimes in the country was also much lower. However, when I was in the 11th standard, I became keenly interested in the subject of computer coding which I took to immediately. I came to understand that I wanted to study law much later.
When I entered law school, I ventured into this field of law out of sheer curiosity and took up special courses in Cybercrime investigation and learnt about Forensics hands on. Slowly, I came to understand my interest level in the subject and decided to take it as a career option without a full understanding at that time of how things will pan out in future. I was motivated by my personal inclination which I pursued and I think certain things are meant to happen in a particular way. Probably God was guiding me since Class 11 towards this field, so yes, I would say that my interests along with the divine grace of God led me to establish my career in this field.
Legal Bites: In a democracy, people have the freedom of speech and it is their fundamental right to express their views and opinions but there often are instances where people expressing their own political opinions and sentiments get arrested on very serious charges (such as sedition) for merely speaking against the government, which is not in the true spirit of democracy. Do you think there should be laws pertaining to the power of the government on curtailing voices of dissent?
Puneet Bhasin– I feel it has a lot to do with the dynamics of power play in our country. No matter what the law says or whether you have a law or not, ultimately it boils down to which person has more power. Dissent is crushed because one person is more powerful than the other. For e.g., under Section 66 A of the IT Act, 2000 people were arrested even when the alleged crime did not qualify the ingredients of the offence as underlined in the Section. Police had no right to file an FIR as no prima facie case was made out and neither were the ingredients of offence satisfied.
So it is not the letter of the law that matters. It boils down to who has an unequal power advantage over the other. This is something that is not intrinsic to government institutions or to the space of law & order but equally applies to office spaces, corporate environments and in our homes. The moment the person who is deemed to be less powerful crosses the line, there are repercussions.
Legal Bites: Ma'am, you are truly a pioneer of cyber law in India. You have a practice in this field that is unsurpassed; being one of the only Advocates who is engaged in the field of Blockchain technology. You perform IT Law Compliance Audits which are unique and essential in this world of modernization and have represented major nationalised banks in cases of cyber crimes against them. Was there any case that was particularly interesting to you?
Puneet Bhasin – Well, I actually remember all of my cases very fondly. However, in certain cases where I have been able to get client relief in a good amount of time are especially those which I look at as an achievement. In general, today if you have a good case, it may take a while but you can be assured of relief from the courts. However, there was a particular case which I worked on where I never really expected police action to happen as quickly as it did in respect of a cybercrime. In the particular case, police action happened in 3 days, the charge sheet was filed in a record time of 2 months and the investigation got completed in 15 days. Although the case is of no special interest to me, it is important because it is a great development when it comes to the enforcement of law and order in the country.
With an enormous load of cases in the country, the proportion of police force to citizens is so skewed that when in a given case if the police are proactive, then it is laudable. When you look back 5-10 years ago, police were not very driven when it came to cases of cybercrime. There was a lot of inexperience on part of the police and here I am referring to Maharashtra police. In the last decade, the kind of training and development they've undergone is remarkable and that makes it even more exciting to work in this field. When you see results happening, of course, you are motivated to work.
Although India still has a long way to go before we can say that the jurisprudence of cyberlaw has completely evolved in the country, there have been personal initiatives taken by the state governments which are indeed welcoming and progressive.
Legal Bites: India is the largest democracy in the world and is often looked up to as an inspiration to many countries of the world as a successful democracy. However, towards the middle of the decade, it imposed restrictions on Pornography which violates the freedom of the common citizens. Ma'am, what are your views on this subject as an expert who has assisted the Rajya Sabha Committee on Reforms in Cyber Pornography Laws in India?
Puneet Bhasin– We cannot say that imposing restrictions on Pornography violates any fundamental freedom guaranteed to citizens. There is no freedom guaranteed to individuals with respect to this, so there is no breach of rights per se when certain sites are not allowed to be accessed in India.
The primary reason why there is a regulation of online pornography is that adult sites contain child pornographic content, child abuse content and videos of people which were unknowingly taken when they were in a compromising position. These videos are taken without the consent of individuals in hotel spaces or they are revenge porn videos uploaded by an embittered spouse or by a former lover. So it is actually the rights of such people which are infringed and which we have to zealously protect. That is why it is imperative that we regulate the viewing of online pornography.
Although a blanket ban is not feasible as people will find loopholes to get around it as we saw when CD's were banned and people resorted to excessive online consumption. However, in India, we are already making sure to put in place regulations to prevent such sites from operating. A lot of sites cannot be accessed and there are controls on platforms such as YouTube to restrict people from uploading or posting content. I think it is a progressive step.
Legal Bites: Ma'am, you conduct training and educate people in NGOs, schools, colleges on Cyber Law. You have done a lot to spread awareness and educate people about the significance and implications of the same but trolling, abusing and even threatening has increasingly become the new weapon of dissent towards someone's opinion. Do you think that a proper framework should be formulated to deal with such cases? Also, what would be your advice to the people who are at the receiving end of this hatred?
Puneet Bhasin– For regulation of social media, you definitely require a separate law. Although the current plethora of laws to some extent can provide the regulation of different platforms, yet there is no specific law that sets out the ingredients of offences pertaining to social media.
Social media crimes are developing at an incredibly fast rate. Even when you speak of cyberbullying and trolling, no law defines the ingredients of such crimes. No doubt, they can come under the definition of harassment under the IPC or fall under one or two offences but the menace can only be curtailed if there is a proper framework under a particular law.
The advantages that perpetrators of these crimes have is that cyberspace increases anonymity. However, it is not that people who have been subjected to these crimes have no relief in sight. My advice to them would be that they become more aware of the law and take the initiative into their own hands to set the due process of law in motion.
It is practically impossible to completely curb this menace and prevent people from indulging in such acts but it is essential that those who have been harmed set the judicial process in motion and work to obtain restraining/injunctive orders against their abusers. If they have been defamed on Instagram, Twitter or any other social media platform then they have to approach the court, provide evidence and seek injunctive relief to pull down the defamatory content. This is the only way we can deal with this menace.
Legal Bites: The Private Data Protection Bill recently tabled by the IT Minister of India has stirred up a lot of controversy because of its deviation from the recommendations of the expert committee under Justice B.N Srikrishna. There have been concerns about the overreaching powers of the government that intrude upon people's privacy. Could you please express your thoughts on this?
Puneet Bhasin– It is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you say you want the government to protect you from terrorism and on the other, you have an issue with surveillance. Without surveillance of any of the networks in cyberspace, it is practically impossible to put a check on terrorism and crimes that arise from cyberspace.
When you say that the government has been given overreaching powers, you have to keep in mind that the government has to address larger national goals such as the fight against terrorism. To protect the country from terrorism, you need to have a comprehensive Data Protection Law in place. Sometimes, it may appear that there has been an excessive invasion of privacy of individuals. However, the government has no motive to collect the information of individuals except to provide for their welfare. If they fail to address the issue of terrorism they will receive flak from the citizens and even if they collect information they will receive such flak. So it is better that they focus.
If you are accusing the government of collecting sensitive information and breaching the privacy of individuals, then you must know that private organisations on their part are already stealing data and indulging in excessive surveillance and manipulation of data by using it left, right and centre. So how can the government be singled out if they want to put in place regulations intended to serve a larger national purpose?
There is practically no way we can control what surveillance networks do with the information they collect, Today, if I disclose information to you, there is no guarantee that you will use it for official purposes and not for your ulterior motives. Law can only lay down what needs to be done-what the individual ends up doing is a different ball game altogether.
The only way we can regulate this to a certain extent is through access control, i.e., we put in place access restrictions or controls on people who are monitoring the data to prevent manipulation. People cannot expect riddance from the menace of terrorism but also expect there to be no scrutiny of their private data.
Legal Bites: Ma'am, what advice would you like to give to the aspiring and budding law scholars of our country?
Puneet Bhasin– My only advice is that students should know what they are passionate about and pursue it wholeheartedly. If it is Mathematics that you are passionate about, pursue Math, if it is Biology, then pursue Biology. When it comes to law and a decision to pursue a subject specialisation, choose a branch of law that interests you. It may be a field which is still nascent. Perhaps, there are other branches which are more popular, are upcoming and which promise a lucrative career. Still, go for the one that you are more inclined towards instead of focusing on questions like whether you would be good at it or not.
Do what you love so that you are motivated to work hard and rest assured, you will surely achieve success in that arena as you will be driven by your curiosity and passion.