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
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.