Examining the legal frameworks to address sexual violence and technology

This series establishes an understanding of women’s safety and sexual violence as a public health concern and offers an overview of how tech based solutions are increasingly making an effort to address related issues of sexual violence in India.

Tech based interventions for addressing sexual violence are increasingly being developed. What is of concern is that do we have adequate legal frameworks in India to support such interventions. In general, what are our laws relating to sexual violence in the cyberspace? Additionally, what are some guidelines that service providers, like social media platforms and internet supply providers have to follow with regard to acts of sexual violence? We must also look at some legal concerns surrounding these tech based interventions that are developed to address sexual violence.

Feminism in India (FII) conducted a study on 'Violence online in India: Cyber crimes against women and minorities on social media,' which finds that nearly 50 per cent of women in major Indian cities have experienced online abuse.

Online sexual violence: what does the Indian law say?

India does not have adequate legal provisions that deal specifically with online sexual violence. There is a reliance on differential readings of other laws to  tackle cases of sexual violence in the virtual space. Some aspects of online sexual violence are covered under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and the Information Technology Act, 2000. (IT Act).

Acts of voyeurism, stalking, sexual harassment as covered under the Indian Penal Code, can be applied to online spaces as well, though these only recognise acts perpetrated by a man against a woman. For e.g., Section 509 of the IPC deals with words, gestures and acts intended on insulting the modesty of the woman. Intrusion of the privacy of a woman is also dealt with under this section, a conviction has also been made under this section for stalking and harassment of an Indian woman online. The IT Act makes some provisions for voyeurism and stalking, these provisions are gender neutral. You can read a detailed explainer on online sexual violence and the law here. Revenge porn, an act of online sexual violence, is not explicitly provided for under the law, primarily Sections 67 and 67A of the IT Act are relied upon in such cases. Sections 67 and 67A of the IT Act are against the publishing and circulation of what the act calls 'obscene' or 'lascivious' content.

There is additionally no law that provides for maintaining anonymity of the complainant or for a witness protection scheme.

Guidelines by service providers as an additional layer of legal protection?

In the face of glaring formal legal gaps, can guidelines by service providers act as an additional layer of legal redressal? Internet service providers have ‘acceptable user policies’ that disallow the use of services for any purpose that violates that law and additionally prohibits the sharing of content that is deemed inappropriate, including content that would fall under revenge porn. These also include provisions that prevent the use of their services for attempting unsolicited contact. These policies also include redressal mechanisms and actions that the service provider can take against the perpetrator. These policies though do not directly address violence against women and are vague in nature, lacking uniform structure, implementation and grievance redressal. Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube etc., all have guidelines and community standards in place that regulate the working of their platform, these guidelines fail to address sexual violence explicitly. Though some social media platforms are making efforts to improve awareness and education regarding sexual violence online and are encouraging counter speech as a measure to tackle online hate and sexual abuse.  

They measures by service providers though fail to be entirely adequate in terms of providing legal support against sexual violence.

Legal concerns surrounding tech based interventions meant to tackle sexual violence.

There are legal concerns surrounding privacy and data protection in most tech based interventions meant to tackle sexual violence. India has inadequate legal provisions for ensuring companies and providers adhere to strict norms of data protection and privacy. In such cases, the leaking of private data can have multifold consequences for individuals. If interventions follow Indian law and are subjected to the Indian jurisdiction, their liabilities are low. If they follow the law of some other country while they are in use in India, dispute resolution will mostly be in the country of the law, making it impossible for an Indian to take action without great personal cost. Often times these interventions can provide inadequate, incomplete or incorrect information or support to the survivor, with an added disclaimer generally dissolving them of any liability. There is a need for such interventions to be responsible to the cause they are supporting and ensure that they take utmost efforts to ensure protection of personal information and that they provide only correct information.

Several laws and guidelines seem to be ignoring or refusing to explicitly state terms that address violence against women and sexual violence specifically. There is a need for strengthening the law and its implementation while building awareness regarding these legal provisions and methods of ensuring legal support. Alongside gender sensitisation of police personnel, government officials, and judicial officers is required to ensure actual implementation of any evolved law.

About the Author

Vandita Morarka

Vandita Morarka is the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective and the Policy, Legal and United Nations Liaison Officer at Safecity (Red Dot Foundation), tweets @vanditamorarka.