Centre for Internet & Society

With increasing instances of online avatars being victimised, users who are part of these identities need to be protected against vicious attacks. A fortnightly column on ‘Digital Natives’ authored by Nishant Shah is featured in the Sunday Eye, the national edition of Indian Express, Delhi, from 19 September 2010 onwards. This article was published on April 3, 2011.

On March 21 the digital natives I worked with, across three continents, blogged to celebrate Human Rights Day in South Africa. The topic: What should be a right in the digital age? While the blogathon captured the diverse contexts and voices of digital natives around the globe, it got me thinking about the question of rights, technology and identity.

When it comes to technology-based rights — right to access, right to information, right to dis/connect, right to be online, right to privacy, etc. — there seems to be an understanding that these rights are granted to the person who engages with digital and internet technologies.

For instance, if somebody steals your identity online, you can ask for legal arbitration. The right of the physical user who is interacting with digital technologies is clearly violated. Similarly, other kinds of economic abuse through phishing or spam are also instances in which the right of the individual is clearly breached and hence justice can be dispensed.

However, in the wide world of the Web, things often become blurry. For those who simultaneously live their lives in the fused spaces of the physical and the digital, there are instances when violence takes place but there are no arbitrators for justice. One way of thinking about this, is by looking at the digital avatars that we create online. Avatars are generally visual simulations that people create for themselves to mark their presence on the Web. Within the more traditional digital interactions, avatars are straightforward — pictures of people, icons, brands, photographs of pets, cartoons, or even text based signatures . Within role-playing games and virtual immersive environments, avatars can be more adventurous, often taking up the form of fantasy bodies that the users might aspire to have.

These avatars, for digital natives, are extensions of the self and an integral part of their online presence. A lucrative industry sells digital amenities, luxuries and brands to clothe and accessorise the avatars, so that they resemble the real-life user. The users invest time, money and resources to create unique avatars. However, these avatars, which are a combination of hardware, software and wetware — part machine, part code, part human being, despite their very material presence, do not really have any rights of their own.

Because they are treated only as cultural products, they are looked at only as objects rather than as animated identities. Popular law and culture treat avatars as external and not related to the users who create them. Within a digital universe, when an avatar gets abused, there are no rights that it can claim in order to find safety or justice. Our understanding of digital rights are so tied to the idea of physical loss and injury that unless a material loss to the physical body can be demonstrated, it becomes difficult to actually invoke the rights of the victim.

For example, in social networking sites like Facebook, it is common for younger users to bully people from their schools. Instead of a direct physical attack on the person, a series of “Hate pages” crop up, where conversations which were hitherto restricted to the circle of friends, are now openly hosted, attacking one particular person. Even more subtle are the campaigns to “De-friend” people, making them social pariahs by not allowing them access to social cliques. A common practice has also been to spam the person’s account with so many unnecessary emails that they can no longer access their important mails, which get lost in the deluge. These are serious attacks, which have direct impacts on the victim’s social and mental state.

Because no obvious physical harm is done, because there is no straightforward attack on the person involved or a demonstrable loss to any physical person, these attacks go unnoticed and unresolved. Even when these claims are brought to the notice of authority, the victim is asked to “move on” because it is “merely the internet”.

It is time to realise that there is nothing “mere” about the internet and the world of digital social interaction. What happens to the online persona has direct and often horrifying consequences to bodies in the physical world. And it is time to think of the right of the avatar, so that the users, who are a part of these identities, can also be protected. If I had to choose, in the digital age, the right to be an avatar, would be the right to vote for.

Read the original in the Indian Express here
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