2020 had many surprises for us. It brought in the century’s biggest health hazard, economic slowdown and upsurge of economy for a sector which survived on illegal. data mining, data pooling and data selling. Often people mistake that data mining, data pooling etc are connected with financial crimes. But it is not so always. These are connected with cyber stalking also. There are hundreds of materials on internet which may suggest that cyber stalking is cyber bullying or cyber stalking is the ONLY form of cyber harassment. Unfortunately, this is also not true.
Cyber stalking basically is a criminal activity which is from the family of offences of privacy infringement. In India cyber stalking was not recognized as an offence prior to Criminal Law amendment Act, 2013. In fact stalking as well as cyber stalking was considered as within the meaning of eve teasing, a term which was neither recognized by the Indian Penal Code. However, in case the victim needed to stress on the constant persuading and monitoring by the perpetrator, the police would look for solace mostly in S.509 Indian Penal Code, sometimes coupled with provisions addressing criminal intimidation including anonymous criminal intimidation. S.503 of the Indian Penal Code addresses Criminal intimidation and it says as follows: “Whoever threatens another with any injury to his person, reputation or property, or to the person or reputation of any one in whom that person is interested, with intent to cause alarm to that person, or to cause that person to do any act which he is not legally bound to do, or to omit to do any act which that person is legally entitled to do, as the means of avoiding the execution of such threat, commits criminal intimidation…..Explanations: A threat to injure the reputation of any deceased person in whom the person threatened is interested, is within this section.” S.506 speaks about punishment to criminal intimidation and it says as follows: “Whoever commits the offence of criminal intimidation shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both;…..If threat be to cause death or grievous hurt, etc – and if the threat be to cause death or grievous hurt, or to cause the destruction of any property by fire, or to cause an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life, of with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years, or to impute unchastity to a woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, or with fine, or with both.” S.507 of the IPC discusses about anonymous criminal intimidation and says as follows : “Whoever commits the offence of criminal intimidation by an anonymous communication, or having taken precaution to conceal the name or abode of the person from whom the threat comes, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, in addition to the punishment provided for the offence by the last preceding section.”. S.509 IPC speaks about punishment for word, gesture or act intended to harm the modesty of women and says as follows: Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, and also with fine.”
What do we understand from these provisions keeping the concept of ‘eve teasing’ in the forefront which is reflected in S.509 IPC?
It necessarily includes certain kinds of words and behaviors, gestures which make the woman feel uncomfortable, insulted, annoyed, irritated and above all, threatened about her own safety.
That written or spoken word is uttered or expressed in writing especially with an intention that the victim sees it and feels uncomfortable and threatened.
The privacy of the woman is infringed or threatened to be infringed.
Now, how the privacy infringement can attract the concept of cyber stalking? Even though Justice Puttaswamy vs Union of India & others, have emphasized on right to privacy, the law makers have not yet included this as an inherent right in the constitution. It may be noted that while the final judgement of the Puttaswamy case came in 2018, the petitioner approached the court as early as in 2012 . This was the year that saw the gruesome gang rape of Nirbhaya in Delhi and following the same, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 which introduced a bunch of gender centric laws including S,354D of the Indian Penal Code which addresses stalking including cyber stalking. Let us now see what does S.354D IPC offer to address cyber stalking: it says
“(1) Any man who—follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication, commits the offence of stalking; Provided that such conduct shall not amount to stalking if the man who pursued it proves that—it was pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime and the man accused of stalking had been entrusted with the responsibility of prevention and detection of crime by the State; or it was pursued under any law or to comply with any condition or requirement imposed by any person under any law; or in the particular circumstances such conduct was reasonable and justified.
(2) Whoever commits the offence of stalking shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine; and be punished on a second or subsequent conviction, with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
This makes it clear that stalking happens when the woman feels threatened for her personal safety for the repeated persuading by the stalker who can not be a female (as the provision suggests). Here men are mandatorily seen as perpetrators and women are the victims. This behavior includes monitoring of the cyber usage of the victim as well. A plain reading of the Section would suggest that cyber stalking may also include multiple online offences including unauthored access to device, data, data network, email, social media profile of the victims etc which are addressed under S.43 (Penalty and damage to computer, computer system etc), 65 (punishment for tampering with computer source document) and 66 (punishment for computer related offences)of the Information Technology Act , 2000 (amended in 2008) and S.66C (punishment for identity theft) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (amended in 2008) etc. Cyber stalking may or may not include cyber bullying which is not addressed by any law in India. It may necessarily include data mining. Even this is also not considered as criminal offence because data mining may be used for positive purposes also (consider prospective employers mining data about prospective employees: It is for this reason that several social networking sites like LinkedIn, FaceBook, ResearchGate etc allow users to upload information about their work, work experience etc). As a continuing effort to create threat and sense of uncomfortableness, the stalker may keep on sending text messages, memes, voice messages sexted messages etc. All these are broadly covered under the first paragraph of S.354D, but which message may constitute criminality individually, is not mentioned therein. The behavior which attracts the criminality within the meaning of cyber stalking, may also include creation of fake profile of the perpetrator himself or an impersonating profile of the victim so that he can contact the friends of the victim for monitoring the victim. But S.354D does not explicitly mention about this and this is the reason that many stakeholders feel this very behavior IS cyber stalking. The correct answer is NO. This actually constitutes a separate criminal liability which is partly addressed by the above mentioned provisions of the Information Technology Act including S.66C (identity theft)of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008), partly by S.354C IPC(addressing voyeurism and prescribing punishment for the same) and partly by S.67A of the Information technology Act, 2000 (amended in 2008) which addresses creation, circulation of sexually explicit contents etc. These provisions should be taken only when the victim complaints of cyber stalking, receiving messages from the perpetrator within the meaning of repeated persuading and creation of threat whereby the perpetrator may indicate that he is going to make private information of the victim public if she does not abide by his ‘demands’ of communicating and keeping contacts with him. This ‘aftermath’ may also include creation of revenge porn contents which is not recognized by Indian laws.
However, we should not overlook the exception clauses of S.354D IPC. When such repeated persuading is done in the course of positive purposes which includes monitoring for the security purposes, for the benefit of the victim etc and when the act is ‘justified’ by an order for doing so from competent authorities, it may not attract criminal liability. This actually means if the monitoring includes surveillance by proper authorities and for proper reasons, it would be not be considered as cyber stalking within the meaning of S.354D.
6 people in Massachusetts who had been former employees of EBay Inc company, have been charged with conspiring to commit cyber stalking and tamper with witnesses as they started threatening a couple, who runs a newsletter on e-commerce by sending anonymous emails, delivering stuffs like live cockroaches, bloody masks etc
With the spreading of Covid-19 pandemic all over the world including India at a pace faster than the speed of viral videos, all service industries and educational institutes have encountered major shocks. In India the government announced complete lock down on and from 24th March. While many elementary schools closed down immediately sending notices to the parents of the children about precautionary steps to be taken while staying safe at home for children, it was not the same case for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The colleges and universities in India started getting closed partially whereby the classes were stopped on an urgent basis and students were instructed to vacate the university premises including hostels etc in the early second week of March, 2020. Several universities and colleges started taking step to make sure that students must get back to their homes or home places before the major outbreak. By then, China, Italy and Spain reported heavy numbers of positive cases and stakeholders back in India were not able to gauge how fast this may affect us. The schools, colleges and universities still did not allow teachers, faculties and admin staffs to stay and work from home because there were no government circulars in this regard. Soon, it was felt necessary that campuses should close down because Covid 19 was definitely not choosing only children. India started having its own share of positive cases too, even though the percentage was far less than her neighbor China, or countries in Europe. 24th March lock down started in India. Within no time, people started enjoying their ‘sudden vacation’ at many places because many still did not believe that India may attract Covid 19 as rapidly as other countries could. Social media sites like TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter started flooding with memes, funny jokes about quarantine. WhatsApp revived its popularity as a chosen medium to communicate with each other. Within a week or so, several stakeholders could understand this lock down would increase domestic violence problems as thousands of women, who may or may not be financially independent, had to stay quarantined with their abusive partners (husbands) for 24×7 and this encouraged more domestic quarrels, violence and abuses. Several men may have also found them in same situations, but indeed, the percentage of such men may be far more lesser than the female victims.
In between, the cases of online crimes against women including stalking and sending harassing and threatening mails/messages, creation of fake accounts, revenge porn contents, non-consensual sexual contents, non-consensual image sharing, bullying, trolling, online reputation damage cases also started surfacing. While the State and National commissions for women showed their concern for extending help for offline domestic abuse cases, online crimes against women did not receive much response even from the social media websites because such web companies also had to follow quarantine rules for their employees : disruptive internet connections also prevented faster approach to the web companies and the police. The later however, may not be expected to look into such issues right now because the police agencies already have the bad reputation of trivialising online crimes and harassments against women.
Given the understanding that lock down may extend beyond 21 days, several schools and universities started turning to online mode of imparting education. Zoom, the video conferencing app, became the chosen web application for this, closely followed by some other apps including Blackboard coursesites.com. YouTube on the other hand became the favourite platform for students for accessing study materials, reference materials and entertainments during the online classes and beyond the time fixed for online lecture by the teachers. WhatsApp however retained its highest popularity among the senior and junior students for connecting with each other during the class hours. But soon it was understood that no platform is free from abuses. High school students have taken it as a regular habit to make memes about their own classmates, especially female classmates, bully and harass them publicly within the groups; some teens even have gone to the extent of creating fake accounts of their female class mates on Instagram because they have felt somehow they may not have the desired attention from their classmates while they are online. Female teachers are no exception: several of them may have to encounter bullying from students in groups which were basically created by them to convey about online class timings. Several students may have also gone to the extent of capturing screen shots of Zoom and other online classes specifically targeting girl students.
Almost same pattern of privacy infringement cases was reported for online classes for higher education as well. Zoom became worst reviewed platform for conducting online classes as users including women students and faculties reported privacy infringement and cyber security issues all over the world. Reportedly users of Zoom started experiencing cyber flashing (forcefully sending unsolicited pictures of private parts)  : they have also experienced strangers penetrated into the zoom meetings only to throw lewd remarks to participants especially women. Several Indian faculties and undergraduate and postgraduate students may have reported similar kinds of harassments including group bullying, trolling and disruptive communications which may break the class lecture related communications.
What I see as a graver issue of privacy infringement is clicking screen shots of women faculties and students in name of record keeping. I have noticed that such screen capturing may happen specially at times when the female participant may switch on her camera and her facial image becomes visible. In India, the law is silent in this regard as such capturing of screen shots do not fall under the category of voyeurism or privacy violation as addressed under Ss. 354C of the Indian Penal Code and 66 E of the Information Technology Act, both addressing voyeurism (the former addressing voyeurism for women and the later, for all irrespective gender). It is however understood that when a participant (irrespective of gender and age) is instructed and invited to join a web meeting or online lecture series, he/she may have impliedly given a consent for being recorded. For children however, questions of such implied consents may never arise because legally, children may not be eligible to give consent. In that case, it becomes a clear-cut case of privacy infringement. But it may become a public wrong only when such picture is used for sexual gratification including self-sexual gratification. But how this is going to be proved unless the device is going to be put under surveillance? Unless some one finds out that such images have been used for sexual gratification, the Information Technology Act and the data protection provisions, including EU General Data Protection Regulations which has guided the framing of Indian Data Protection Bill, 2019, may not offer much help even if the victims are children.
What about adult women then? Unlike children, it would be presumed that they may participate the online meetings, classes, discussions etc with consent and such consent may imply that their presence may be recorded without telling them at what time they may be recorded while they are online. It is expected that they would be in proper attire so that even if their screen presence is captured, it would not be offensive. But here also, we come back to the same question: who guarantees that such images would not be captured by anyone else who may be a participant, but not authorised to record the presence of participants? How will the woman know such image (even if captured by the authorised person) may not be used for unethical purposes including sexual gratification purposes? The law may not have any answer in this case also. On the contrary, the woman concerned may have to face more harassment for raising such issues because Sexual harassment of women at workplace (prevention, prohibition and redressal Act), 2013 may not be always applicable in such cases due to lack of understanding of the nature of the grievances and also due infrastructural issues. Indeed, the claims of the woman may be washed away very easily by defending the situation on the basis of ‘technical and technological misunderstanding’. What we should not forget is, during lock down, quarantine and work from home period, there may be no guarantee that the smart phone or the tablet or the device may not be used only by the original handler : to kill the boredom, family members may access each other’s phones and may use it for playing prank as well.
However, not everything is as bad as we are apprehending! I have noticed several teachers and education management groups are turning their Whatsapp groups to ‘admin only’ mode where other group members may not be able to send messages. Indeed, this is a better way to prevent online harassment of women on WhatsApp groups. But the meeting/conferencing/ teaching platform apps are not yet ready to prevent privacy infringement issues.. The online platforms which had remained as secondary platforms, may not be expected to create robust security policies within a day or two. Neither the government and private stakeholders may do that. This will then create another toothless paper tiger which will be more harmful to individuals, especially women and girls. We need to maintain digital safe distancing for our own protection now. We should work collectively towards maintaining internet hygiene for us, our women and girls during the pandemic. We must understand that even when scientists and health professionals may declare Covid 19 as not so harmless, the pandemic of online harassment of women and girls may not recede. Such contents may surface again and again to remind us what could have been prevented by our simple diligence may never be removed even if the entire web world is disinfected.
We can no longer say “Stay home, stay safe” because as the government decisions suggest, universities and colleges may soon reopen phase by phase. The news of reopening business establishments brought cheers in the minds of people despite the fear of community transmission of the disease. But the reopening of the institutions may further escalate the victimisation of female faculties and teachers who may have been targeted by the online perpetrators. Such victims may even fear for loss of their job if the nature of victimisation includes creation of fake profiles and the same carries the names of the institutions. We must understand that such victims must be supported against further victimisation including possible job loss as they may not even know what had been their responsibility for attracting such sorts of victimisation. It has become mandatory now to maintain internet hygiene and safe digital distance from possible perpetrators for the sake of us, the entire human society!
Please note: please do not violate the copyright of this blog. If you need to cite it/use it for your work, please cite the same as Halder Debarati (2020). “Covid- 19 : Online harassment of women teachers and students during work from home.” Published on 10-06-2020 in https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/internetlegalstudies.com
As the entire world went under lock down, we saw a huge surge of online activities since the first week of March, 2020: several organizations changed their work policy to accommodate work from home policy through cyber space. Schools turned to virtual classes. Universities and colleges sought for conducting webinars, online essay competitions, quiz competitions etc to engage the students. Higher education system also opted for online pedagogy which included online thesis submission, evaluation of the same, online viva voce for Ph.D and Master’s degree evaluation, conducting online sessions on different degree courses, and so on. Resultant, there was a tremendous growth of demand of online meeting platforms which were considered as least essential during normal times. It is but obvious that such platforms started failing participants especially in regard to privacy issues. The WHO guidelines made everyone to rely on online banking, online e-commerce and related transactions and this gave a golden opportunity to the fraudsters to loot people who had to suddenly adapt this digital life culture without properly knowing about digital hygiene, cyber safety issues etc. the government on the other hand insisted on uploading health apps which would give a clear way for mapping and surveilling health of users and also let the user know about the health data (even though in a very minimum scale) of other users residing in near vicinity.
Parents, schools, universities and colleges, administrators, police and the courts have remained busy in ensuring that the dangerous pandemic does not engulf the entire society, the homeless and jobless migratory laborers reach their home place (amidst much chaos) and hospitals and health clinics mandatorily open their doors to patients who may be Covid positive. But no law, government orders or policies may control the minds of people and adolescent children who are either up to take revenge in a sophisticated and ‘smart way’, or to sexually gratify themselves or may have adolescent inquisitiveness about sexual issues. It is not only the Bois Locker room that attracts my attention here: millions of issues of online violence of women and girls have been surfacing now.
I take this opportunity to discuss here what are the women’s rights that had been codified by international instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenants on civil and political rights, socio-cultural -economic rights , Convention on elimination of all sorts of discriminations against women (CEDAW), EU Convention on Cyber Crimes etc. Summing up the rights created/guaranteed /expanded, the following Rights may be considered for understanding how these are supported/violated on the cyber space:
Right to lead a dignified life : This right has been considered as a prime rights as an independent right as well as within the broader meaning of right to life. Right to dignified life may essentially imply that no woman should be considered as a mere sexual object : she should not be subjected to inhuman treatment at home, at workplace or at cyber space. The labour market should not treat her as mere body for sexual enjoyment. She should not be subjected to flesh trade under any circumstances and the workplace should ensure her right to dignified life irrespective of her work profile.
But is this right being upheld on cyber space? several researchers and practitioners including myself had researched upon several patterns of online harassment of women and this may include gender bullying, trolling, doxing, online flesh trade, unauthorised access to device, data, profiles etc, cyber stalking, creation of fake avatars for wide defamation, non-consensual image capturing and sharing, voyeurism, revenge porn, creating and sharing obscene contents targeting women and girls etc. Be it gender bullying, trolling, doxing or cyber stalking, or creating fake avatar or gratifying revenge taking mentality or sharing non-consensual images, it may be seen that women are denied a right to lead dignified life on cyber space. consider the recent case of one TikTok user who had been charged for creating videos showcasing physical assaults, sexual assaults to women and allegedly instigating for physical violence targeting women. Neither Facebook, nor Twitter, nor Instagram, nor YouTube, nor TikTok have taken any measure to control such showcasing of violence and harassment of women. TikTok is flooding with thousands of videos showcasing harassment of women: some show women being beaten, some show women being touched inappropriately, some also show women in indecent manner especially when it come to sharing non-consensual images at public functions, public places etc. YouTube however leads in such cases if I talk about “funny videos” : there are ‘funny wedding falls”, “funny crying brides” “funny garland exchange scenes” to vigorous trolling of women who may show case their culture, homes, cooking skills etc. Several women have also reported cyber stalking by their male colleagues and supervisors at workplace as well. As a cybercrime victim counsellor, I have received hundreds of cases where women have been victimised by way of creating fake avatars, majority of which are of the nature of revenge porn. The laws created to safeguard the right to lead a dignified life for women have also failed them several times: during this lockdown, police may not be able to assist women who may report bullying, doxing or trolling or creation of revenge porn or sextortion etc unless it is attracting a bigger interest like that of Bois locker room case. Several women had been turned down by the police by making them understand that these are trivial offences and the police may not be able to assist them in spite of the fact that such offences may be considered as cognizable.
2.Right against discrimination on the basis of gender, color, creed, race etc: This is considered as a prime right under CEDAW. But women have been vigorously targeted defying this very right. Consider the case of Sara Baartman, who had been an exhibit on the topic of racial and gender discrimination for over two hundred years now: She was bought by white businessmen from South Africa to earn money over showcasing her body shape which was am matter of huge sexual curiosity in Europe during 19th and 20th Century. She died in 1815. But the so called civilized society did not leave Baartman even after her death: her mortal remains and skeleton were kept in Museum of Man in Paris which further attracted visitors to see her mortal remains including her genitalia. It was only in 2002 that the civilized society decided to finally put Sara to rest, but not before making her as a symbol of racial porn icon which still floats on internet. The same lust for black, Latino, Asian, women still can be seen on porn sites which earn huge revenue from the consumers of armature porn, racial porn, black porn etc.
Leaving aside the sexual gratification part, internet and cyber space also host loads of contents and pages which are discriminatory in nature. Almost all the web companies host (knowing or unknowingly) several pages where women from different age group, of different color, belonging to different race, caste or creed and nationality and socio-economic background are constantly bullied, virtually dissected and routinely harassed. Several of such women may not even know that they are being harassed on the cyber space by way of creation of contents which may be in the nature of bullying, trolling, creating racially/sexually abusing still/video contents etc.
3.Right to livelihood: This is the most interesting right that needs to be discussed in this context. Internet has provided different ways of livelihood to women: be it earning money by showcasing different types of skills on YouTube, or by promoting particular brand/s of cosmetics or spices or clothes or electronic items etc, or by being a blogger, content writer etc, women did get a platform to earn money. This however also includes acting on porn platforms. Interestingly, the laws existing in different jurisdictions (barring certain countries), do not hold women criminally responsible if they participate in creating sexually explicit contents which may fulfill certain legal conditions: for example, the said content is created through proper legal mechanism with full consent of the actor, the content creator/host has certified that the same is strictly meant for adult entertainment purposes and has explicitly displayed age restriction in the opening page of the content, has not used any child for creating such contents and has taken due diligence to restrict sharing of such contents to children . But if seen from the perspectives of privacy infringement and related shaming/doxing/defamation perspectives, it may be seen that users of internet may go beyond the aims of tech companies (who would promote the platforms for using it for earning livelihood), to block right to livelihood for women. Thousands of women may have lost their jobs, or job prospects because of revenge porn or nonconsensual porn contents that may have shared knowingly to have unethical gain by perpetrators. The Intellectual property rights of women who may have tried to earn a living by showcasing their skills on the internet, have never been recognized or may have been violated grossly. Again, profiles of some women may also have become a regular source of income for the perpetrators who may illegally use such profiles to dupe others.
4.Right to legal aid and fair hearing: Every individual has an inherent right to access legal help, free legal aid and fair hearing. This applies to perpetrators and victims, men, women, children and people belonging 3rd gender as well. If we speak from the perspective of cyber crime victims, it may be seen that women victims may not always be given proper hearing for different types of online harassment cases. As mentioned above, several types of harassment may be seen as trivial offences. Many of the harassment are neither recognized by laws as criminal offences as well. Even though several international stakeholders including UNICEF has also acknowledged the patterns of online criminal activities like revenge porn, doxing etc, the same could not be added as criminal offences by several Governments for reasons known best to them. This has definitely hampered creation of proper legal and criminal justice infrastructure where the police had remained untrained for dealing with such sorts of victimizations. There are however, several attempts to address certain types of online harassment by pulling legal understandings from different provisions which are not necessarily meant to address the said harassment : for example, the concept of bullying and trolling have been addressed by expanding the scope of defamation and criminal intimidation laws, issue of non-consensual image sharing have been largely covered by voyeurism and copyright laws and the stakeholders have tried to cover revenge porn under the voyeurism, creation/sharing of sexually explicit contents etc. None of these could actually yield fruitful results all over the world. Resultant, we get to see less reporting of the online criminal activities targeting women and even lesser conviction rates.
5.Right to privacy: This may be said to be the basis of all other rights discussed above especially from the perspective of rights on cyber space. The more the digital communication technology progressed, the human society had seen more privacy infringements. The web companies at the beginning had put more emphasis on the negligence of the users/contributors to protect their privacy while the former argued that their platforms provide for privacy and safety setups that are user friendly. But soon it was seen that neither the data bank of the hospitals, the government departments, banks, nor that of the web companies are safe. Women including women users of cyber space are sandwiched between the privacy infringing individual perpetrators, and also the web companies. Privacy on the cyber space has become a myth now. With the growing rate of capturing nonconsensual images and sharing the same on online platforms without permission, it is evident that the concept of privacy on cyber space has expanded its scope to cover the issue of privacy on physical space as well.
But everything is not always dark. NGOs working on awareness building could reach a milestone where women have started understanding that such online harassments actually violate their basic rights. The more the victims would use the reporting mechanism, the more the courts and the law makers would understand the pressing need of making laws and ensuring proper implementation of the same. It is expected that such awareness may lead to larger human rights movements.
Since 16th March, 2020 most of the countries started planning for partial lockdown for preventing the fast spreading of Covid -19. By 22nd March, most of the countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and in the USA , Australia etc called for total lock down. India was no exception. Almost all universities, colleges, schools and other workplaces faced the impact of lockdown. People including adults and children became extremely confused as there was no specific indication as when worldwide lock down would be lifted. Europe saw a rapid increase of the Covid-positive patients. USA joined soon. Many Asian countries including India could not afford to let people do their business as usual. Indian government called for a lockdown period for 15 days first. But before the finishing the of 2 weeks period, the government had to reconsider and extended the lockdown period till 3rd May, 2020. However, several State governments in India are considering for further extension because the numbers of Covid 19 patients are increasing. Schools and universities decided to conduct online classes with huge preference to Zoom. Adults and children shifted more to online entertainment because television industry came to a standstill due to lockdown as well. However, the tele industry did consider sharing old versions of the daily soaps.
While people went in lockdown, many took to internet to entertain each other : social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and digital and internet communication apps like WhatsApp etc soon saw a flood of user generated contents which are now hugely consumed by others. Not all of these user generated contents are actually for entertainment for all. There were several contents which were and are still being made specifically to target and harass women and girls. The first platform that started getting contents for gender harassment, especially harassment to women was Zoom app which was being used by most of the educational institutes and workplaces for holding online meetings, classes, webinars etc. In several cases it was seen that Zoom meetings were unauthorizedly accessed by unwanted persons who started posting harassing, sexually explicit comments, disrupted meetings with exposing private parts, showing masturbation etc. Soon Zoom authorities came with a pubic declaration that cyber security and safety measures of the platform were not strong enough to tackle such sudden huge use. Who could actually be held responsible for such unauthorized access then? The web platform implied that organizers of the zoom meetings and classes must take precautionary measures. But were we really ready and aware and to take such precautionary measures? Probably no. The Zoom app mismanagement actually led to four kinds online crimes :
Unauthorized access to the meetings
Data privacy infringement
Creation of sexually explicit contents
Making gestures etc to harm the modesty of women
While this is just one kind of offence, online harassment of women did not remain restricted to this only. Given the fact that during lock-down most of the stakeholders of criminal justice machinery including the police and courts and the web companies are working with limited man power and infrastructure facilities, perpetrators have taken this time to escalate harassment. The communication apps like Whatsapp, Facebook messenger etc are now flooding with online bullying. This is seen especially in the school and college groups. These platforms have become chosen platforms for throwing harsh, insulting, intimidating comments towards classmates, batch-mates and also towards the teachers, especially female teachers, colleagues and users. I myself had been targeted by some bullies and stalkers on Facebook messenger and Whats App as well.
Apart from this, the other patterns of online harassment which has raised to a maximum height during the Covid -19 lockdown stage, that came in my observation is creation of impersonating profiles on social media. We must however appreciate the fact that impersonation by using unique identities have been considered as an offence Under S.66C of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008), which speaks about punishment for identity theft and says “whoever, fraudulently or dishonestly make use of the electronic signature, password or any other unique identification feature of any other person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to rupees one lakh”
Several of such impersonating profiles are of the nature of revenge porn. some may also fall in the category of sexually explicit and voyeuristic contents , but may not have the mens rea as that of revenge porn ( the element of revenge taking mentality is not present), especially since these images may have been captured in the public places or may have been collected from other profiles etc. TikTok and YouTube are of no exception in this matter. People are restricted in their homes; they have taken to TikTok content creations which may include uploading contents including women doing different activities, that may have been captured in public places. Consider videos showcasing women cooking and sweating, eating at weddings, resting at home by lying down or in a leisure posture, women and girls walking on the roads, at college/school campuses, working in a working place etc: TikTok content creators may take such audio visual images, pickup any specific posture of women that may be consumed more by viewers and may upload such clippings with texts (sometimes sexually explicit) and background sounds that may be available on Tiktok or may be created by the users . One must not forget that TikTok was questioned earlier on their lack of due diligence for not taking down abusive contents earlier by Supreme court of India: Google Play services removed TikTok from their platform as well. But soon TikTok cleared all legal hassles and came back in android services again.  No doubt, the App is back again for being (mis)used to harm the modesty of women and infringing the privacy of women and children during quarantine time when the victims may feel more restrained to reach out to criminal justice machinery and the websites.
But we should not think that this is an exclusive problem of India only. I did get to hear about sudden growth of online harassment targeting women from different regions of the world: be it USA, Australia, South Africa, UK , Ireland or even our neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh or SriLanka .women, including working women, volunteers who may have come to different Asian countries from the US etc, health workers, law students and professionals, every where women are facing similar problems to reach out to criminal justice system to report crimes. Even if they may reach out, the police and the courts and the websites as well are not in a position to offer a quick help.
Several stakeholders may provide several suggestions to stay safe online and maintain the hygiene of the devices to save ourselves, especially women from rising level of cyber crimes during lock down period. But are we concerned about the mental health conditions and impact of victimisation of online harassment on women during lock down? Several women may be living with abusive partners, husbands who may have cheated on them, or even other women family members who may have been victimised online and who may in order to share the trauma, disclosed the victimisation to the former. Unlike trauma that may generate from physical harassments, online harassments during lock down may bring unique traumatising effects. Devices handled by women may be detained and they may not be allowed to contact anyone in case the harasser spreads his vicious net to reach out to husband or other male members of the family. Victim women may even go to the extent of self-harming too. They may even try to destroy the evidences of online harassment by deleting the contents from their phones if the harassment is in the nature of bullying or threatening message etc. In case of revenge porn content or in the case of non-consensual image sharing, victims may even try to block the profiles without saving the evidences. In several other cases, they may take up irrational coping mechanism like counter bullying or contacting the perpetrator asking him to take down the contents. they may even try to contact amateur hackers, which may prove extremely dangerous for them. Emotionally such women victims may become completely withdrawn and may even show aggressiveness as well.
What could be done in such situations as lock down in India has been extended for the third time. My opinion in this regard is as follows:
The police control rooms in each district must open a dedicated 24-hour service unit specially equipped with infrastructure and properly trained police personnel who may handle such digital harassment cases and evidences to receive complaints from the victims, especially women victims of online harassment.
Some types of online offences have been recognised by our domestic laws; some however have not received any focussed laws. But that does not mean that only offences that may contain complaints towards creating porn contents, threatening and defamatory contents etc, may be given priority and FIR may be registered for such offences which may fall within the meaning of cognizable offences. The police must entertain all complaints and must guide the victims in all cases.
Police may rope in NGOs, cyber crime and cyber law experts to create an expert committee in every district and metropolitan area to provide immediate counselling to the victim as how to save the evidences of online harassments and how to share the same with the police for the purpose of investigation.
Victims may get an immediate feel of relief when they are told that their complaints are registered. The police therefore must not neglect to look into each type of compliant. Such gestures from the police may prevent the women victims from committing self harm or from taking any irrational steps to saver their reputation and that of their families.
Courts and prosecutors must also consider extending their support whereby judicial magistrates may join such endeavours to support the victims. We should remember that it is only adults, but children may also be involved as victims as well as perpetrators. Unless the courts are extending supports through electronic mediums, it would become extremely difficult to win the trust of victims as well as general public for Criminal Justice machinery at this time of lock down.
Last but not the least, we must not forget that in cases of online harassment of women, web companies are the foremost liable sectors. The Due diligence clause must not be suspended due to lock down. The web companies must consider each and every take down request and reports on objectionable contents and must adhere to Indian legal understanding for restricting the access to such contents.
Indeed, the Lockdown period is a testing time for the entire human civilisation. But if we do not restrict unethical and illegal usage of information technology, the impact of online harassment may be more traumatising than the Covid-19 experience.
Stay safe, stay strong and do not misuse the Information and digital communication technology.