How we can make the digital space safer for everyone, especially women
India has one of the youngest youth demographics in the world (27 percent are Gen Z while 34 percent are Millennials) and among the most active online. As online interactions increase, more and more content is created and shared between people, helping them form new and wonderful connections. However, sometimes these interactions also make them vulnerable to harm.
Women are often particularly vulnerable. “What should I do, I can’t tell my family!” is a common refrain, heard from young women across the country as they grapple with the fallout of their private photos being leaked online — sometimes from a hacked account, other times because of a sour relationship. In a culture where cell phones sell because of the quality of their cameras, it should come as no surprise that young men and women are exploring new ways to express their sexuality and navigate relationships, including through taking and sharing intimate photos. However, it is increasingly clear that these new social norms have created new forms of abuse, as intimate images are used for blackmail, shame, coercion and control. Women are usually the victims.
Often, crimes that disproportionately affect women lead to mass panic and lead to an all-too-predictable top-down discourse around the need to “protect our sisters and daughters”. This reaction, however well-intentioned, will end up denying women their freedom and agency by their so-called “protectors”, many of whom are simply asking women to go offline, to be ashamed of expressing themselves, to stay in their lane.
Fortunately, leading academics – many of them women – are at the forefront of research on the topic, so we can more accurately discuss and tackle the evolution of technology-enabled abuse, including intimate image abuse. Industry also has a role to play. If platform providers could be more responsive to women’s concerns and experiences, better design could go some way to mitigating such issues.
A simple example is “unwanted contact”, one of the reasons why women avoid online places. This could mean design choices that help women maintain control over who they communicate with, thereby reducing unwanted messages or advances. It could also mean leveraging open source technology that detects and blurs images so women don’t have to see unwanted images. Therefore, focusing on security tools and features—across the spectrum of websites and apps—can bring forth more ideas for creating a safer Internet experience.
Various parliamentary committees in India have held meetings to discuss the issue of women’s online safety over the years, and part of the government’s motivation for notifying the new IT rules had been rooted in the growing concern regarding the safety and security of users, especially women. and children. These are very good tangible steps. With the IT Act due for an overhaul, there is an opportunity to discuss in detail the nature of technology-enabled abuse, capture what this means, understand how issues affect individuals as well as communities, the language needed to capture such offenses and punishments – punishments, imprisonment or even rehabilitation programs for offenders. This could be the start of an era of evidence-based discussion. Already, we know that crimes against women are the top category in India’s crime statistics, with cybercrime a few rungs lower on the scale. Where the two intersect is where we must focus if we are to make online space safe.
Despite these efforts, it is clear that women in India will not feel safe online unless society allows them to. What can be useful here is to raise the public discourse around technologically facilitated abuse.
The author is Director, APAC Public Policy, Bumble. The views are personal.