Police in New Delhi have transferred a case involving a fake online “auction” of women to a special investigative unit amid outrage over alleged inaction on a similar case reported six months ago. The Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations unit will probe a case pertaining to images, some of them doctored, of about 100 women belonging to a minority community uploaded through an app on code-sharing platform GitHub, on January 1. The images were posted with text that announced “auctioning” of the women.
Police have also initiated procedures through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) to seek details from the San Francisco-headquartered GitHub about developers of an application on which offensive content was uploaded, in July last year. Procedural delays are reported to have hampered progress of investigation in the 2021 case, pushing police to take the MLAT route, six months after the first case was registered.
Two cases that involve brazen commodification of women, in a span of six months – their faith and political positions also shape a pattern for these attacks – point to the pace at which this version of faceless, relentless online regression is getting normalised. They, significantly, also underline the need for greater political will to ease procedural bottlenecks, to ensure closure.
Mumbai police are interrogating three people in connection with content posted on the app – a 21-year-old engineering student who was taken into custody from Bengaluru, an 18-year-old woman and a 21-year-old man who were detained from the state of Uttarakhand. Police said the probe was anchored on the five followers of the application. The woman is reported to have created a fake social media account to post contents of the app. Two of the detained youngsters have been charged under sections of the Indian Penal Code, pertaining to provocation with intent to cause riot and intent to outrage a woman’s modesty, and sections of the IT Act.
The code-sharing platform has taken down both the apps following complaints registered by some of the targeted women, in New Delhi, Noida and Mumbai. As police track down developers of the app and people who shared its contents through social media handles, the two cases are providing fresh context to misogynist hate-mongering on the internet and limitations in the state’s handling of cases where global intermediary companies are in play. That the targets of the two attacks included journalists and activists should also prepare us for potentially damning abuse of these platforms for political interests.
India’s Minister for Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw has confirmed that GitHub had blocked the app on January 1 itself and that the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT), the country’s nodal agency in handling cyber security threats, and the police are coordinating “further action”. Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi called the app a “cyber conspiracy” to undermine India’s culture of inclusiveness.
The outrage over the fake online auctions has been tagged with the allegation that inaction on the 2021 case had emboldened the offenders. Women who were targeted in the first instance have come out criticising the inadequate follow-up action. They have expressed fear of physical harm and of being denied their voice on social media. It is reported that the Delhi police had sought MLAT procedures following the 2021 case but it took a repeat offence to set things in motion.
The course of investigation in the two cases validates the contention that mere removal of the offensive content, initiated by the platform in adherence with India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, is no deterrent. The Rules also come with provisions proposed to minimise delay in action; they state that the intermediary should report cyber security incidents and share related information with CERT. There has been no official word on the extent to which these provisions and possibilities of MLAT were used in the 2021 case.
The cases have also morphed into a political rallying point. Shiv Sena’s Member of Parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi said her requests to the Union Government for action against platforms propagating misogyny and communal targeting of women were ignored. “For a woman to harass and demean fellow women is beyond me, but yes this is what all-consuming hate can do,” she tweeted on Tuesday.
Satej Patil, Congress party leader and Minister of State for IT in the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra government, said “a much bigger network” could be behind what he called a coordinated crime. Patil, while commending Mumbai police’s work in the case, has maintained that the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union Government was crucial in using provisions including the MLAT to track down the offenders.
India’s IT Rules stipulate that an intermediary which hosts the relevant content should provide, within “not later than 72 hours”, information or assistance to the government agency investigating the offence. The platform’s compliance in the matter will be critical in shaping investigative procedures in cases of online sexual harassment and in overcoming the investigators’ challenge of having to deal with anonymous perpetrators.
The writer is a senior journalist based in India.
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