Centre for Internet & Society

Vinupriya took her life last week, humiliated by the morphed images of her naked body posted on a social media site. Experts warn that the spike in Internet traffic brings with it an increase in online sexual crimes. Measures must be taken urgently to save lives, they tell T.V. Jayan.

The article was published in the Telegraph on July 10, 2016.

Sangeeta (not her name) was 25 and working for a private company in Mumbai when she suddenly told her family that she was going to quit her job and stay at home. Her parents were flummoxed, but questioning and coaxing yielded no answers. As the days rolled on, the management graduate slipped into depression. Her worried family took her to a counsellor. And it was only then that she came out with her story.

Soon after she joined the company, Sangeeta got romantically involved with her boss. By the time she learnt he was married, the involvement had taken a physical turn. And when she tried to put an end to it, the man, who had recorded their intimate moments, used the video clips to blackmail her for sexual favours. After Sangeeta's confession and a police complaint, the blackmailing boss was nabbed and put behind bars.

Vinupriya, an undergraduate student from Salem, Tamil Nadu, was not so lucky. She found that her morphed images had been uploaded on Facebook. She committed suicide last week after her parents refused to believe her story, and the police failed to act swiftly.

Cyber experts are alarmed by the increase in online crimes against women in India. According to them, what is more worrying is that though the risks are catastrophic, the issues are not being addressed at a larger level.

"Vinupriya's case is particularly frightening. I suspect this would be the first of many such tragedies. They might even result in honour killings, as such crimes can destroy the reputation of families," says American cyber lawyer Parry Aftab, executive director of the voluntary organisation, Wired Safety, which she founded 20 years ago, and which deals extensively with cyber stalking and other crimes.

Earlier this week, a man was arrested in Delhi for sending obscene messages to more than 1,500 women in the National Capital Region. According to the police, the miscreant would randomly dial any number and if the caller turned out to be a woman, he would save the number and later check out her WhatsApp profile picture. He would then send obscene clips to the woman. One news report said some of the marriages were in trouble because husbands had seen the messages and suspected that their wives were in a relationship with the man sending those explicit messages.

Aftab has been studying the dangers of online stalking for a while. There are no figures on this in India, but a top United Nations official, stationed in New Delhi and dealing with trafficking, told her that about 500 rape and sexual assault cases were recorded and shared over WhatsApp in India this year.

She referred to a study conducted in the US that said one in three girls and boys engaged in sexting. Children involved in sexting contemplated suicide three times more than others of the same age, she said.

According to her, Wired Safety volunteers come across five cases of sextortion and sexting every day from Asian countries, including India, and act upon them by red-flagging social media organisations where such images are posted.

Pavan Duggal, a cyber lawyer based in Delhi, feels that social media service providers are not doing enough to stop online sexual abuse. "They are hiding behind a 2015 Supreme Court judgment, which said content can be removed only on judicial orders or in response to government notifications," he says.

The verdict he refers to was delivered in a case filed by a student called Shreya Singhal. In 2012, two girls were arrested over their Facebook post questioning the Mumbai shutdown for Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray's funeral. The incident made an impression on Singhal, a student of astrophysics at the University of Bristol, who was in India at the time.

Upon research she discovered that Section 66(A) of India's IT Act was subjective and any seemingly offensive social media post could land anyone in jail. Singhal filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court protesting that the section violated the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression, and in 2015, the apex court ruled in her favour.

This judgment, however, emboldened cyber miscreants. "All the cyber bullies and cyber stalkers now have a misplaced feeling that nothing can happen to them," says Duggal. He points out that while the delivery of justice takes time, the harassment happens 24x7.

"Who do the victims turn to for help? There are provisions in the 2011 IT rules that clearly say that social medial service providers should have rules and regulations in place to deal with objectionable content, but they do not act," he holds.

Aftab, however, believes that some efforts are in place. She cites the example of Microsoft's PhotoDNA technology, which is used by many social media and online search firms, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, to prevent child pornography on the Internet. PhotoDNA works by creating a number of mini hashes on a single image and combining them to have a full hash. If anything is changed, even a pixel, then the hash signature will not match.

But she holds that on a larger scale, it is difficult to technologically deal with revenge porn, sextortion (using a sexual or provocative image to blackmail people for sexual favours) and sexting (sharing sexually provocative images of people, especially women) with the intention of damaging reputation.

Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, hints at a lack of initiative on the part of the social media organisations. "When it comes to enforcing intellectual property, organisations like Facebook do an excellent job of keeping their platform free of copyright infringement," he says. "So, clearly these companies can police activities on their platform when it affects their bottom-line."

And while this debate continues, more and more Indians join the online experience, thereby increasing the chances of more such cases. Aftab, who plans to set up a voluntary organisation relating to cyber safety in India, says it is best to focus on proactive measures in the interim.

Last month, she addressed 1,200 teenage girls from a Bangalore college. "One of the first questions posed to me was from a young girl who said she was currently being blackmailed by someone who threatened to morph her pictures into sexually explicit images and send them to her family and others. Morphed image issue seems to be a lot more serious in India than in the West."

The problem, she stresses, is that such incidents can lead to self-harm. To counter this, the affected person needs to inform his or her family and enlist their support. Together, they should approach social media organisations to ensure that the objectionable content is removed in time. To prevent the offenders from doing further harm, they then need to take the help of law enforcement agencies.

"The government for its part must amplify the voices of women and hold these Internet corporations accountable for an information escrow. There should be an independent mechanism to monitor whether Internet platforms are taking complaints from women seriously," Abraham says. Only then can a young girl like Vinupriya pluck up the courage to fight online abuse.

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