The internet has opened up a new window of opportunities for women. At Women’s Business Incubation Program, we have witnessed women entrepreneurs using the digital space to sell their products and services, connect with communities, learn new technologies, share ideas and much more. Yet, it has also become one of the more unsafe spaces for women. From celebrities and political leaders to ordinary women and children, no one is spared from cyber-attacks.
In spite of strong cyber laws like Section 67, IT Act 2000, that can send a person to jail for five years with a fine up to ten lakhs for publishing obscene content online, we rarely see these laws implemented. In 2016 and 2017, a total of 66 people were arrested in Kerala under cyber-crimes (67 & 67A) and yet none of them were convicted in those years. Zero percent conviction rates will discourage victims from reporting cyber-crimes and even more dangerously, erode public trust in the judicial system.
It is time for us to work collaboratively to make cyber spaces safe for women and children. While awareness on cyber laws is important to address the issue, we should also look into other crucial aspects that affect cyber-crime victims. In addition to the traditional channels of reporting such as police stations and cyber cells, a support network for cyber-crime victims must be in place to encourage victims to report such crimes, through free legal services by NGOs for drafting, filing and following up on complaints. A standard complaint format that will help victims to identify specific online crimes, along with the information regarding laws and punishments, will motivate and help victims take informed decisions.
Police stations must be equipped to be receptive towards complaints and to instill confidence in women to report such crimes. Regular updates on the status of a case (via SMS/email), non-intrusive and victim- centered services that prioritize privacy and the well-being of victims, must be put in place to improve reporting rates. Under no circumstances, the victim should be pressured to withdraw the case and also any such act from the accused must be prevented. Gender sensitization training for police officers is vital to bringing an inclusive outlook to our existing system and also to encourage the officers to refrain from any kind of victim blaming.
Recently, after the rape and murder of the Hyderabad vet, the police shot dead all the four suspects while in custody within 10 days of the incident, drawing praise from the family of the victim and fellow citizens across social media platforms. While it was in clear violation of the Indian judicial system and encourages people to take the law into their own hands, it also points to a larger problem, of the frustration and impatience of citizens in the current judicial system. The judiciary must take cues from such incidents and proactively engage in reducing costly delays in legal procedures. This can be done systematically by identifying the specific causes of delay in the system such as lack of resources, delay in collecting digital evidence, absence of usage of technology for automating processes where it is appropriate etc. While technology has changed the way we live, shop, communicate, entertain; its potential seems untouched by the legal services. Instead of embracing basic technology reforms such as digital documentation, filing, scheduling and online tribunals, we are still debating whether to print legal documents on both sides of a paper to be environmentally conscious!! This needs to change.
In addition to failing to use technology developments to address unmet legal needs, the judiciary is yet to take concrete action on social media companies for meddling in elections. Lack of clear policies and laws regarding the accountability and responsibility of technology companies in cyber-crimes, is an encouragement for these companies to remain passive spectators of cyber-crimes. It is not the responsibility of the technology companies to come up with laws to combat cyber-crime and it is about time the judiciary upgrade its technical knowledge to draft new laws on the role of technology companies in cyber-crime.
Finally, most of us have witnessed online abuse happening to others. Instead of being passive spectators, we must reach out to the victim and provide support. Be it commenting on the abuse thread with a positive message or reporting inappropriate content to the social media company or even liking a post that calls out the abuse can ease the pain of the victim. Now if you are a victim of cyber abuse, please report the crime. Once the cyber-crime is reported, the next thing we face is the emotional pressure from the suspect and their family to withdraw the complaint. Based on our interviews with police officers, we have found that withdrawing the case after the initial arrest of suspects is one of the reasons for low conviction rates in cyber-crime. Therefore, it is time to rise up and pursue legal battles for the larger cause of making all cyber spaces safe for women. Most importantly, know that you are not alone in this battle.