The issue of violence on women has crossed the boundaries of home, society and is now widespread on virtual world too. Newsclick interviewed Neha Dixit and Apar Gupta on the same issue. On one hand, Neha believes it to be byproduct of patriarchal society and rigid caste structure prevalent, while Apar feels that it is also a failure on the part of our legal system. Both of them see it as a medium to suppress voices of dissent. Newsclick also discussed how the changing political scenario of the nation is promoting it.
Rishab Baily- Hello and welcome to Newsclick. The use of social media has become quite a craze in India. With millions of people using Facebook, Twitter and other such services, we've seen an explosion of user driven content, online debate and discussion. However, there's a dark side to how social media services are being used which is often ignored. In the Indian context, it is a depressing familiar story. A person posts a fairly innocuous comment, that contains views unpalatable to a few and the person is promptly barracked and abused often till the person quits using the internet. It's bad enough if the user is a male but if female, the level of hate spewed against them is often of completely different level, ranging from sexual innuendo to death threats and threats of rape. To discuss the issue, we have with us Neha Dixit, a freelance journalist and Apar Gupta, a technology lawyer.Thank you both for being with us today. Neha I'd like to start with you. Do you think it's fair to say that women in particular are easy targets for online trolling and there always seems to be a sexual angle to the trolling, that women bear the brunt of, I mean, from name calling, to public shaming, to threats of rape. Would you think that this is just a reflection of our society or is it something specific to the internet possibly because of heightened sense of anonymity may be?
Neha Dixit- I agree with you when you say that it's a reflection of society because anyway in everyday language misogyny is so deeply entrenched, the kind of language we use and then women who are posting stuff online face this because they come across as more assertive and the very strategy to pull them down is by using this language and as you say, it is definitely anonymity that please into this whole situation because a lot of trolls if you notice the handles on Twitter or otherwise as well people who come and post on your blogs there is actually not a specific name that they have and the handles that they use to abuse women, and there have been several cases in the last 5 months in particular where the moment activists, journalists, writers, the moment they are talking about anything that is largely opposed to the majority online, they get attacked with these kind of abuses. There are rape threats all the time, the violence is so deeply entrenched in the way one is addressed and it is always moved away from the topic of discussion and, it does, definitely, come from the fact that it is extremely patriarchal set up, even on the internet and the misogyny is deeply rooted.
RB- So, let me take that to Apar. So, while the sort of abuse we have seen in a lot of cases in the recent past have clearly been over the top. Often the police have failed to deal with these incidents in any proactive manner. So why is this, the case? Are our legal provisions insufficient?
Apar Gupta- There is no getting away from the systematic faults which are visible in India, that there are no police reforms, there is no police funding, police works 2-3 days at a stretch, and they are incentivized not to register FIRs as on the contrary to show that there has been a progressive decrease in crime through proactive policing.RB- So would u actually think that that's an area that we really need to concentrate on, given also that India is planning to go ahead with having smart cities in digital India and so on and so forth.
AG- Certainly, I would think that the best way possible is to actually investigate offences without doubting the testimony of a victim, registering an FIR, however at the same point of time; substantive provisions should not have disproportionate penalties in a sense which can then be used against activists itself. For instance, there are documented cases where under the indecent representation of women's act, women activists themselves have been charged with non bailable offences, for putting up posters with respect to, for instance, breast cancer, because they are depicting women in a state of undress. At the end of the day, legal solutions which are recognizable, have to go beyond mere substantive additions to the Information Technology Act in which we create new category of offences which have punishments for 7 to 10 years. Let's look at systematic faults, concentrate on police, concentrate on courts, give them more money, funding, and set up a better infrastructure.
RB- So, what you seem to be saying is, broadly, the legal system is in place but the way it is enforced, and so on and so forth, is not ideal?
AG- If you look at it, substantive offences exist even for using abusive language, which contemplate an imprisonment of 3 years. For instance, every time abuse is slung across the internet, investigation is not the problem, registering an FIR is not the problem, it's the conviction. Take, for instance, a provision on which all of us will agree, which is outraging the modesty of a woman by using insulting words. However, going beyond the rape threats etc. can be directly prosecuted under it. Why aren't prosecutions ending in convictions within a period of 1 to 2 years?
ND- Just to add to that point, like Apar said, that there is a law in place, but since May 16, the kind of cases that have come up, for instance, students are getting arrested for critiquing Modi, or the BJP, or the present government, so when one is discussing these things, this also has to be taken into account that if such a law is in place, to what effect is it getting implemented.
RB- It's often argued that if you have an online presence at all, you are opening up yourself for abuse, and you just have to learn to deal with it, or you ignore it. So how do you differentiate between a harmless banter and aggressive trolling, I mean, where do you draw that line, given in your personal instance?
ND- If I say the last 4 articles that I have written and they had something to do with the minorities, with Muslims, with the present government, Modi, for instance, an article that I'd written for a foreign policy magazine, which was about defamation cases and the moment they come up, one was waking up with 300-400 emails every single day, and with all kinds of rape threats. And in fact my blog was reported and I could not access my blog for good 2-2.5 days. And each time one would open twitter, because the trolls are organized and especially the right wing is really organized that way, because there are certain handles that you can identify who do this every single day, from 8 'o' clock in the morning till 11 'o' clock in the night. And they follow each other and the moment somebody starts criticizing an article, a write up or a statement, suddenly there'll be 20,000 people in one single hour writing things to you. So, one should say that it just starts at that level, at the level of rape threats and abusive language, so, one started reporting for instance, in this particular case when I had written this article on defamation case, I started reporting these handles, how many handles can you block in a single day? It was happening with some other writers and activists as well, so now we have formed an informal group, so the moment somebody is sending rape threats to somebody in this group, we start reporting it, and we've managed to get several accounts deactivated.
RB- Apar I've often felt that in India, law enforcement agencies, institutions prefer to take the easy way out, I mean, by clamping down on any unorthodox statements or statements which could possibly, in any wake of end the majority sentiment. Do you think that courts are being sufficiently careful to protect the freedom of speech when it comes to religion and other such issues?
AG- Rishab if you look at it, 295A and other provisions in the Indian Penal Code were originally made at the time when there were communal disturbances happening, in which the legislature felt that there should be provisions, which took into account that India as a multi cultural, and secular country with large populations of different communities pocketed should stay in peace and harmony. This of course arises from our painful history of partition. If you look at it, in modern practice, the way these provisions have been used, they are being used, more often than not, against people who voice dissent. For instance, if you look at the recent instances in Kerala, college students have been charged with it for creating a crossword quiz. But then again, we go back to it, how does police register FIRs? Police is always reluctant to register FIRs, because not only does it show increase in the incidents of crime, but they have only two recourses after they register FIR. It is either to investigate and submit a charge sheet to court or secondly to file a closure for the absence of evidence. If it does the second, it can be challenged by the complainant in court, thereby, bringing them into scrutiny by the court itself, as to why they did not register the FIR. What we are not having today is honest discussions which are forcing our government rather than making criminal law amendment acts to make police reform amendment acts, as well as setting up additional courts, funding these two arms of government, which are essential to maintain law and order.
RB- Neha, given also, of course, what you have just mentioned about how you got the right wing fringe, in particular, which seems to have emerged from the shadows, particularly after the new government has come into power, so do you have comments on the use of religion?
ND- It is very apparent that the moment there are words like Muslim, or Modi, or the BJP, the moment there is an article up there on Twitter, you see this entire army coming in and attacking the person who has posted it.
RB- We have now situations where almost every political party has a social media wing with armies of paid volunteers who are out to troll people.
ND- Correct and then it just increases, and there's absolutely strong evidence to believe that they are actually paid and organized because they do it 24x7 the moment one person goes off, the other person takes over from that very point. So also, I would like to mention that because they have such a huge presence online, on social media, so then when we say we report abuse, for instance, my account was reported because I was tweeting this and because there were so many people who were opposed to what I was writing. So one has to look at it in that perspectives as well you know. Okay, the people are reporting abuse but suddenly, if 20,000 people reporting my account for indecent stuff then, what happens? So then, how are we going to take it forward? So, that is also an important question and since the new government has taken over, it is unfortunate that it really increased and there is no space for any dissent any longer.
RB- So, do you think intermediaries generally... or social media providers, or the service providers, they actually have a role in filtering content and should Facebook and Twitter ,should they be in charge of what's happening on their sites or is that the police and the judicial authorities should play the first role?
ND- I think it’s a very tricky question, because the moment you say that somebody is designated to see what is going online, then you are actually even giving the power to that person to decide and make that kind of an editorial intervention, that whether it should be there or it shouldn't be there. So I think at that level, it's very tricky. But on a local level, I would say, by example, what I've been using and other people too, there are apps like Black dot which we've been using to filter this kind of content. Each time somebody is writing some stuff to me I am using that app and it gets filtered and it's according to my need, and what I want to be filtered but on a larger level, I think it's very tricky, it can just sway in any direction.
RB- Fair enough. So Apar, where do you stand on that sort of balance between free speech v/s rights?
AG- The internet by itself is a huge tool for democratizing voices which never had it and it allows people who have not traditionally had a power of publication to actually go and publish, for instance, we have http://menstrupedia.com/ where women freely discuss myths with regards to menstruation. Now what is the role of platform in that? They will of course need to create some platform that allows them to exchange these views. Good alternative right now is to work with these private cooperation’s, at the same time work with our government to allow them the space to post these things. For instance, all of these cases, in which FIRs are registered, ultimately the intermediaries also, more often than not, made a party to the case, made a witness to the case and added expense on them. So if you have substantive laws, which are in line with good freedom of speech principles, then you won't have these issues to begin with.
RB- We've had reports on how the recent violence in Ferguson, sites such as Facebook and Twitter, have because the way algorithms structured not being carrying from those particular events.. Clearly there is a filter bubble already created in these websites so can u have technical measures that could read out certain types of abuses, not just rely on a person?
RB- my only problem would that be then it will be always over broad when you rely on technology to censor, leave aside a human being, a human being has political preferences, technology is dumb, so if u are trusting technology to filter censor, it will not be intelligent, it will be dumb. It will block a lot of art forms for instance, what separates a video which is glorifying rape from one which is throwing it into question, sometimes we as human beings ourselves cannot decide, we have long ranging debates on Twitter that whether this depiction of rape was sensitive or not, right? How can we trust technology to do that?
RB- Last question, we've always had this issue that whether we'll be able to enforce our laws or given of course that of foreign companies have taken plea in court that are not necessarily bound by the laws of India have different freedom speech laws, so how do u think this will actually play out actually be able to enforce laws effectively in the online space?
AG- I think so the problem of enforcement is not as great as it is made out to be. It's a Trojan argument used by the Government of India to force data localization in which these companies have to register or have servers in India. it also has another end to it in which they want to monitor intercept communications. That's another topic, okay. But let me tell u broadly having studied the interception regime in India, it is not transparent, there is no checks and balances and it's done as per the executive demands. Secondly, I think most of the perpetrators of this abuse for instance which we are talking about are based in India. You do have the token NRIs who sitting abroad engage in abuse but I think it's a directed in India by itself. Moreover, there are legal tools which exist for instance letters rogatory can be enforced after our local courts issue orders for their extradition etc. It can be done but yes, it's not as easy as, for instance, arresting somebody who is locally within the jurisdiction of a state.
RB- Thank you both of you for joining us today. That's all the time we have today on Newsclick and do join us again later.