We wrote to the Ministry of Women & Child Development and Delhi Commission for Women about the need to address image based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material on the internet in a rights respecting manner in light of the recent 'Boiz Locker Room' incident. Through this representation, we have tried to provide a broader picture of inadequacies in the existing legal and institutional framework to address these problems and highlighted the role of patriarchal socio-cultural attitudes in emboldening young boys to commit such acts. We have also made nine specific recommendations to ensure the internet remains a safe space for young girls and women where they are allowed to participate on an equal basis and express themselves freely.
In a recent headline grabbing incident, teenage male students from Delhi were called out for sharing sexualized images of young women including girls below the age of 18 years on an Instagram group called 'Boiz Locker Room.' Media reports suggest that the boys used the group to sexualize images posted by girls on their social media accounts and even shared morphed images. More disturbingly, reports indicate that in addition to non-consensually sharing images, the boys made misogynistic remarks objectifying the girls and even threatened to leak nude images of the girls who exposed the group.
Need for Accountability and Rehabilitation
We, at IFF, have consistently sought reform of India's obscenity laws which are rooted in notions of victorian morality rather than individual autonomy and consent. However, online image based sexual abuse is very different from consensual pornography and it subjects women to immense psychological trauma and social stigma. Therefore, there exists a legitimate need to prohibit and punish such harmful conduct.
Nevertheless, we must be wary of adopting punitive and carceral approaches in cases where the perpetrators are minors and there is no accompanying violence. For young offenders, the focus must be on re-education and rehabilitation, and we must acknowledge the role played by patriarchal socio-cultural attitudes which teach boys to objectify and dehumanize women from a young age.
Lack of Institutional Capacity
The government has established helplines, online portals and special investigative units to address cyber crimes against women and children but these measures have failed to result in greater reporting, investigation and prosecution of online image based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material. As per the National Crime Records Bureau’s latest Crime in India Report, there were only 862 cases registered under Section 67A (publication of sexually explicit material) and Section 67B (publication of sexually explicit material depicting children) of the IT Act in 2018. Similarly, only 781 cases were registered under Section 14 and 15 (storage and possession of child pornography) of the POCSO Act in 2018.
These figures are shockingly low considering India’s large population, growing internet user base and the relatively higher number of cases reported for other cybercrimes. The scope of the problem is much larger than these figures indicate as out of the total 16.9 million reports received by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States in 2019, India accounted for 1,987,430 suspected child sexual exploitation reports. Therefore, proactive information disclosure and performance audits are absolutely necessary to ensure that existing mechanisms to eliminate online image based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material are functioning effectively.
Rights Respecting Solutions
In our representation, we have stressed that governments should not force intermediaries to adopt rights harming measures such as weakening of encryption standards. We had also previously highlighted these concerns in our submission to the Ad Hoc Rajya Sabha Committee on the impact of pornography on children headed by Shri Jairam Ramesh.
It is our belief that strong encryption is necessary to protect the privacy and security of individuals, businesses and government actors who use the internet, and this is especially true for groups which lack social power such as women and other marginalized communities. Any weakening of encryption standards would leave us all vulnerable to misuse of our personal data and communications by bad actors including malicious hackers, organized criminals, terrorist groups and hostile nation states.
The importance of security and privacy enhancing technologies like encryption for women is also borne out of past experience of hackers targeting accounts of women to access their private photos. For instance, in 2014, hackers leaked over 500 private photos of various female celebrities by breaching iCloud’s services. Therefore, any decision to weaken the security of our intimate communications by mandating weak encryption standards or creation of backdoors would leave women even more vulnerable to online image based sexual abuse.
In the spirit of constructive solution oriented engagement, we have offered the following nine recommendations to ensure the internet is a safe space for women and young girls where they are allowed to participate on an equal basis and express themselves freely:
1. Seek information from authorities responsible for facilitating reporting of online image based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material about the number of complaints received from individuals, intermediaries, watchdog groups and international law enforcement agencies.
2. Seek information from authorities responsible for investigating and prosecuting online image based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material about the number of complaints in which follow up action was taken such as investigation, identification of perpetrators and filing of criminal charges.
3. Conduct an audit to evaluate the performance of existing helplines, online reporting portals and specialized investigation units.
4. Provide more funding, personnel and technical resources to existing helplines, online portals and specialized investigation units after an assessment of their needs.
5. Work closely with schools and colleges to create a Standard Operating Procedure [SOP] which provides safe spaces for young girls and women to report such illegal behaviour in a manner which does not invite larger social stigma and also provides them the agency to choose the next steps they feel comfortable with.
6. Encourage intermediaries to adhere to industry best practices for eliminating online image based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material which may require deployment of specialized software or fast-tracking human review by content moderators in such cases.
7. Any technical measures adopted to address online image based sexual abuse and child sexual abuse material should not undermine the privacy and security of all users by weakening encryption. Instead, the focus should be on capacity building and providing adequate resources to law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute these offences.
8. Ensure that students receive mandatory and regular gender sensitization and sex education in their schools which is centered on the principles of consent and women’s autonomy.
9. Consider partnerships with women’s rights groups, child rights groups, digital rights groups and social networks to collaboratively work towards leveraging technology to sensitise young people and parents about healthy sexual conduct and behaviour.
In the end, we would like to acknowledge that a lot of our work on issues like online harassment is shaped by prior research done by other digital rights organizations like the Internet Democracy Project, Point of View and Centre for Internet & Society and we would urge you to follow their work as well!