Thursday, 18 April 2013

Virtual Threat : the new ‘Real’ for the Indian Woman

By Ishita Y. Aggarwal - Centre for Social Research
“If it’s not on your face (literally) it’s not important.” This may be the solacing refrain of all those women who continue to feel and fear torment not just physically but also virtually. Yet the “not important” has probably become the definition of the new “cool” for a certain somebody: the chic way to continue the abashed trend of harassing women. Let’s call these ‘youngsters’ trying to have some ‘fun’ or sometimes ‘proving points’ by dragging women to the virtual ground, as cyber-stalkers, cyber-harassers or just simply cyber-criminals: Chic?

But, what or where’s the ‘real’ threat in a virtual world? You do not like what they say? Don’t read! You do not like what they do? Do not see! You do not like being soiled in an argument with them? Do not speak! There we are! We have replicated the 3-monkey-model of the Gandhi era. Who does it apply to in the IT era? Women, of course! That now, is ‘threat’ enough.

They say women have been targeted globally but what is more important (let’s not also forget) is that they have been targeted, essentially. The factor which makes women “essential” targets is the urge both men as well as some hallowed women (who have reached the same consciousness as that of these men) feel in order to: set things right or just oblige themselves under the ‘fundamental’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. To their utter delight these persons have of late been helping themselves to the free, easily accessible, ‘world wide web’. The web spins itself out with a single ‘click’, much like how Spiderman would do it. But this one is for your eyes only.

Weaving crime online may be somebody’s game but for the rest it is step in a dangerous whirlpool. The’ Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Layers’ in a report spoke extensively of the cyber threats women face in the country . A list of identified crimes drawn is:
  • Harassment via e-mails
  • Cyber Stalking
  • Cyber Pornography
  • Defamation
  • Morphing
  • Email Spoofing
While it is not completely appropriate to say that victims of cyber-crimes are women alone, 75 per cent of these cases have been known to target women. With regard to cyber-stalking and cyber-harassment a study was conducted in 2007 which revealed the shocking data that at least 12.5 per cent women who were being stalked online had a personal or intimate relation which the abuser. 62.5 per cent of the harassers set themselves into the process through online chats or e-mails.

The ‘Quick Heal Annual Windows and Mobile Malware Report, 2012’ revealed that while the PC continued to be a potential target, malware is increasing on mobile platforms, especially ‘Android’. There has been a 90 per cent spurt in ‘Windows’ malware in India while attacks on mobile platforms have risen by 30 per cent. This now puts at risk women android users who may be using networking ‘apps’ such as the popular “Whatsapp” amongst others.

The rise is social voyeurism is being fed by digital nuisance. 50 per cent of the websites available contain pornographic content .The latest MMS sex-scandal involving a popular small screen actress, has been confirmed by the Cyber Crime Cell as ‘morphed’ . The offending sites have been booked under the IT Act 2000 and IPC 1860. This case stands as an example of the multiple MMSs which spread like plague while the police authorities keep grappling for cyber-monitoring.

Delhi has been zapped by the sudden spurt in cyber-crime which has gone up by 1850% since 2010 which reported 2 cases and 2011 which saw 39 . Only 15 persons were arrested for cyber crime in Delhi in 2011 under the IT Act and 36 under the IPC. There were 496 reported cases of obscene publication online in the country in 2011. 443 arrests were made. Without delivering a direct comment on that number, it is more convenient to understand the issue this way: out of 3682 crimes registered under the IT Act in 2011, the number of arrests was 1600, but the number of convictions was 7 .

Apart from sexually-laced incidents against women online, a general trend of viewing women as easy targets for harassment, in an easy situation, is also growing. The benefit of the virtual space for the criminal is that it keeps the identity of the offender conveniently veiled. The government and the Indian Police are also thoroughly unaware of what constitutes cyber-freedom. The ‘Palghar Facebook arrest’ case outraged the country when two young girls were arrested for posting a comment on social networking site, Facebook. They were questioning the ‘bandh’ over Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackray’s death. The police itself subsequently dropped charges against the girls but the Maharashtra government has been left red-faced for a long time to come. The dropping of charges may be a welcome act but why did the illegitimacy behind the arrests not oblige the authorities to render compensation to the two accused?

Activists have recently been mass targeted by pro-Modi supporters for having expressed views and concerns over his policies and claims. Misogynists roared “like the women in Gujarat, you should have been raped because you converted”. Any steps taken against this one? None.

The greatest dilemma of our system is that though the IT Act, 2000 covers online abuse and its various forms, it does not anywhere mention cyber-crimes specific to women. The closest we get to the common online women-abuse law is Section 66 A of the IT Act, which states/covers :

  • Punishment for sending offensive messages via electronic mail message
  • Any electronic mail message that is grossly offensive or is menacing
  • Any false information causing annoyance, insult, danger
  • Causing inconvenience
  • Deceiving or misleading recipient
If found guilty of the crime offenders may face up to 3 years in jail as well as penalty. Aggrieved women can also charge under Section 509 of the IPC which considers “Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman” as a crime.

The thought of apathetic cyber-jurisdiction, loss of evidence online, lack of cyber-savvy police and jurisdictional personnel, is mind-boggling. It is up to the nation to learn the tricks before the democratic women of this country continue to be soiled with the increasingly undemocratic cyber-abuse. A nation where only 39 per cent of 137 million users are females, the online perception of women may be as skewed as the user ratio itself. The virtual reality reflects societal reality. The woman who cannot exercise her basic freedoms to speech, movement and individuality in reality is assaulted the same way when she is found navigating spaces, online. The call for online morality will lead to a subjective debate. What the women need is to brace themselves up. They need to report and be assured that arrests would lead to convictions! There is no reason why a virtual threat or offence should not be looked upon with as much seriousness as any physical assault. In fact, it is essential to note here that nothing about these threats is, ‘virtual’. It is as real as it can get. Women cannot continuously be given solutions for prevention. What they deserve is redemption: from all the crass, virtual or not.

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