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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Digital space is serving as the scene of sex crime. We need to frame a response

The dissemination of nude photos and videos of a victim engaging in a sexual act deserves to be defined as a continued sexual violation for what is once put in the digital space can rarely be wholly retracted.

Written by Vrinda Shukla | Updated: October 8, 2020 8:43:50 am
Given that the digital space is increasingly serving as the scene of unprecedented sex crimes, there is a dire need for an impactful solution.

With only three days to go for the wedding, the bride-to-be received a call from her fiancé. Nothing could have prepared her for what he had to say. Hundreds of links had suddenly appeared on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook flashing extremely obscene pictures of the woman. Thus began a terrible nightmare for the hapless woman, her sole solace, the extraordinary strength of character and commitment of the groom-to-be.

A losing battle against this flood of obscenity began immediately. The photos and videos had been mass downloaded and were being shared by hundreds of accounts solely in the business of supplying pornographic content on social media websites. Paid folders promised “a good time” — from Rs 30 for five photos to Rs 200 for seven photos and two videos. Associates of the accused began contacting the victim for sexual favours and to extort money to “delete” the pictures in their possession. The victim plunged into a dark depression. Emotionally drained from a lonely fight of four months, the couple finally approached the police.

It was a classic case of revenge porn — an invasion of sexual privacy and a form of online harassment where the perpetrator, usually a disgruntled ex-partner, posts intimate photos, often to shame the subject. The consequences for victims can be extreme, encompassing honour killings, breakdown of relationships, destruction of reputation and career, and immense emotional trauma. Two high profile suicides last year involving Korean pop star, Goo Hara, and a student at the University of London, Damilya Jossipalenya, both victims of revenge porn, are cases in point.

While the police may succeed in collecting evidence and prosecuting the perpetrators of such crimes, it can do little to clean up the mess left behind on the internet, the root cause of the victim’s suffering. Reporting of such non-consensual content by victims to the concerned social media platforms is often of no avail. The scale of the problem can be gauged from the half-a-million reports of revenge porn received per month by Facebook alone. All social media companies operate Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) portals where police authorities make requests for IP addresses of errant accounts and the removal of obscene content. However, often the portals are a mere formality, with the requests from investigative agencies remaining unacknowledged and unaddressed. While Facebook has in place a reasonably responsive legal support system, Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp are virtually bereft of one. This is a frustrating stonewalling of the police and thousands of desperate victims. A country which offers one of the largest subscriber bases in the world deserves better legal support.

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Given that the digital space is increasingly serving as the scene of unprecedented sex crimes, there is a dire need for an impactful solution. At present, cases of revenge porn are typically booked under the Information Technology Act or relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) like 509, 499, 292 and 354C. There is merit in clearly classifying revenge porn as a sex offence in the IPC. The dissemination of nude photos and videos of a victim engaging in a sexual act deserves to be defined as a continued sexual violation for what is once put in the digital space can rarely be wholly retracted. With such classification, the offence will move to the category of serious offences and encourage the reporting of such crimes by victims who may otherwise choose to suffer alone under the presumption that cyber abuse is endemic to contemporary digital life.

The more important intervention is demanding accountability and responsiveness from social media giants for law enforcement and investigation purposes. Several countries have begun negotiating tough laws on the issue, including a time-bound removal of social media content declared illegal, fines as high as 50 million euros on tech companies, and even imprisonment of their executives in extreme cases of non-compliance of requests made by law enforcement authorities.

With the world’s largest population of young people, vulnerable to new mutations of deeply scarring sex crimes, the criticality of the PIL filed in India’s Supreme Court to establish an efficient mechanism to remove sexually-graphic abusive content and to seek accountability from social media platforms cannot be overemphasised.

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This article first appeared in the print edition on October 8, 2020 under the title ‘Call social media to account’. The writer is an IPS officer serving as DCP, Crimes against Women & Children in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

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