In its beginnings, it was hoped that the internet would transcend the biases and discrimination that characterize offline spaces- to emerge as a frontier for gender equality. In line with the “cyborg manifesto” put forth by the feminist scholar Donna Haraway- identities on the internet were to become sexless or genderless, paving the way for equal and equitable spaces. Unfortunately, the development and use of the internet- like any other technology- has remained deeply embedded in the social and cultural contexts of a patriarchal world. The internet has now emerged as the newest breeding ground for the harassment and abuse of women and girls. An equal and inclusive internet culture remains elusive, which continues to mirror patterns of violence in the offline world.
While men are also victims of various forms of harassment, cyber harassment can be said to be gendered for two reasons: firstly, women are often disproportionately targeted and secondly, the harassment itself is gendered, i.e. it invokes gender in sexually threatening and degrading ways. Such gendered harassment assumes several forms, and is constantly evolving in form and execution, along with the expansion of digital platforms. Online verbal abuse has been extensively documented- where women are subject to vile, abusive and threatening content through e-mail or messaging services. The internet is used to continuously contact, annoy, threaten and scare victims by such persistent attacks. This form of abuse tends to reduce female victims to sexual objects and often include insults that reinforce gender constructed stereotypes. Image based harassment includes the relentless bombardment with obscene or vulgar images, circulation of morphed or appropriated photographs, and more recently, the phenomenon of revenge porn or “non-consensual pornography”.
A report by the UN Broadband Commission indicates that a staggering seventy three percent of women on the internet have experienced some kind of online violence. Nine million women are reported to have experienced serious forms of cyber violence since the age of fifteen. In India, quantitative reports and qualitative studies have captured the depth and impact of this kind of gendered harassment. These studies, along with extensive media reports and anecdotal evidence of online abuse suffered by women, serve to highlight the critical proportions such gendered online violence has come to assume.
There is no doubt that online abuse and harassment has a profound and distinct impact on its victims. The internet has come to occupy a very large aspect of our lives today- from work to education to social relationships. In these circumstances, being subject to online abuse or harassment has been found to cause immense psychological and emotional distress to women. Several reports have, in fact, indicated that victims take recourse to suicide to escape such abuse. It is in this context that there have been calls for the characterization of online abuse and harassment of women as “cyber violence against women”. This is in line with the definition of “violence against women” under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which includes “any act of gender-based violence which leads to physical, sexual, or psychological harm of suffering to women”. Further, online abuse also tends to undermine women’s agency in their lives. Victims respond to such cyber violence by withdrawing from online spaces– either by shutting down their social media accounts, websites or blogs or indulging in self censorship. The creation and perpetuation of unsafe online spaces for women, therefore, effectively functions as a fetter on their fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Cyber abuse and harassment also represents an invasion of victim’s privacy- as such abuse often involves the infringement of and publication of personal information of victims.
Consequently, online abuse leads to the creation of an internet where women tend to be systemically excluded. This affects not only the victims, but also the vibrancy and inclusiveness of the internet itself. This is problematic not only because it deprives women of the benefits of the internet in terms of access to opportunities and content, it also limits the use of the medium as a tool for emancipation of women at large.
If India hopes to narrow the digital divide between the genders, it is essential that the increasing incidence of online violence against women is treated as a systemic problem in need of urgent and creative solutions. The primary barrier in this mission is the trivialization of online sexual harassment. Not only is the gendered nature of cyber abuse not acknowledged, reports indicate that police officials are, in many instances, simply not equipped to deal with the dynamic nature of these cyber crimes. Further, reports have also indicated victims’ reluctance to approach the police when faced with such online assault. This is attributable to several reasons- such as police insensitivity to the impact of such crimes, fears that their identity will be revealed or because they are discouraged by their families and friends. The problem is further compounded by the abysmal rate of conviction in cyber crime cases in general. A survey of cyber crime incidents in Delhi, for instance, indicates that for every five hundred cyber crimes incidents that take place, only fifty are reported to the police and only one goes on to be registered. The relevant legal provisions in the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) and the Indian Penal Code (IPC) are also problematic. These provisions have been criticized as being based on archaic notions of obscenity and morality, and are not geared towards the preservation of women’s rights to freedom of expression and privacy on the internet.
The government has been alert to the increasing incidence of cyber crimes against women. In 2014, a national consultation was held by the National Commission for Women on the ways and means to safeguard women from cyber crimes in India. Some of the recommendations of the consultation were untenable- such as the creation of unique identification numbers to create accounts in social media. Nevertheless, the recommendations also recognized the need for constructive reframing of the provisions of the IT Act and the IPC. However, nearly two years into the consultation, the law as well as the approach of law enforcement agencies remain unchanged. More recently, the Ministry for Women and Child Development has set up a cyber cell to check online abuse. Reports also indicate that the matter has been taken up with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Information Technology, while also liaising with platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, in line with the recommendations of an expert committee on cyber crimes, the MHA has also proposed the setting up of a Cyber Crime Prevention against Women and Children (CCPWC) scheme to focus on crimes like online sexual abuse, harassment etc.
While it is heartening that the government is working proactively to counter online harassment of women, it is necessary to tread cautiously when considering remedies to tackle the issue. Reactive policies that seek to prohibit abusive content can easily transform into over-broad policies which will effectively censor online speech. Online harassment of women is deeply entrenched in the patriarchal bias of our society- and solutions which seek to merely prohibit or limit speech cannot stem the tide of misogynistic or sexist content. In this context, social media and technology companies will need to play an important role in dealing with cyber violence against women. Any solution must, therefore, be necessarily representative of all stakeholders- including users, platforms or intermediaries as well as the criminal justice system. In the face of a regressive legal framework, reliance must also be placed on non-legal strategies such as moderation of comments, reporting of abusers etc. User led movements such as the creation of the hashtag #MisogynyAlert– spearheaded by feminists on Twitter- is an illustration of the creative ways in which women are choosing to handle online harassment.
The internet has been hailed “as the most participatory form of mass speech developed”- and “the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech”. Online violence against women deprives them of the social, economic and political opportunities that the internet provides. It is urgently necessary that online violence against women is recognized as a systemic problem as significant as offline violence against women- while also identifying and evolving solutions that are effective and consistent with civil liberties on the internet.