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Covid- 19 : Online harassment of women during work from home

With the spreading of Covid-19 pandemic all over the world including India at a pace faster than the speed of viral videos, all service industries and educational institutes have encountered major shocks. In India the government announced complete lockdown on and from 24th March for 21 days. While many elementary schools closed down immediately sending notices to the parents of the children about precautionary steps to be taken while staying safe at home for children, it was not the same case for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The colleges and universities in India started getting closed partially whereby the classes were stopped on an urgent basis and students were instructed to vacate the university premises including hostels etc in the early second week of March, 2020. Several universities and colleges started taking step to make sure that students must get back to their homes or home places before the major outbreak. By then, China, Italy and Spain reported heavy numbers of positive cases and stakeholders back in India were not able to gauge how fast this may affect us. The schools, colleges and universities still did not allow teachers, faculties and admin staffs to stay and work from home because there were no government circulars in this regard. Soon, it was felt necessary that campuses should close down because Covid 19 was definitely not choosing only children. India started having its own share of positive cases too, even though the percentage was far less than her neighbour China, or countries in Europe. 24th March lock down started in India. Within no time, people started enjoying their ‘sudden vacation’ at many places because many still did not believe that India may attract Covid 19 as rapidly as other countries could. Social media sites like TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter started flooding with memes, funny jokes about quarantine. WhatsApp revived its popularity as a chosen medium to communicate with each other. Within a week or so, several stakeholders could understand this lock down would increase domestic violence problems as thousands of women, who may or may not be financially independent, had to stay quarantined with their abusive partners (husbands) for 24×7 and this encouraged more domestic quarrels, violence and abuses[1]. Several men may have also found them in same situations, but indeed, the percentage of such men may be far more lesser than the female victims.

[1] See DebRoy.L.(2020). Domestic Violence Cases Across India Swell Since Coronavirus Lockdown. Published in https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-rise-in-domestic-violence-across-all-strata-of-society-in-the-coronavirus-lockdown-period/350249 on April 7, 2020. Retrieved on 07.04.2020

In between, the cases of online crimes against women including stalking and sending harassing and threatening mails/messages, creation of fake accounts, revenge porn contents, non-consensual sexual contents, non-consensual image sharing, bullying, trolling, online reputation damage cases also started surfacing. While the State and National commissions for women showed their concern for extending help for offline domestic abuse cases, online crimes against women did not receive much response even from the social media websites because such web companies also had to follow quarantine rules for their employees : disruptive internet connections also prevented faster approach to the web companies and the police. The later however, may not be expected to look into such issues right now because the police agencies already have the bad reputation of trivialising online crimes and harassments against women.

Given the understanding that lock down may extend beyond 21 days, several schools and universities started turning to online mode of imparting education. Zoom, the video conferencing app, became the chosen web application for this, closely followed by some other apps including Blackboard coursesites.com. YouTube on the other hand became the favourite platform for students for accessing study materials, reference materials and entertainments during the online classes and beyond the time fixed for online lecture by the teachers. WhatsApp however retained its highest popularity among the senior and junior students for connecting with each other during the class hours. But soon it was understood that no platform is free from abuses. High school students have taken it as a regular habit to make memes about their own classmates, especially female classmates, bully and harass them publicly within the groups; some teens even have gone to the extent of creating fake accounts of their female class mates on Instagram because they have felt somehow they may not have the desired attention from their classmates while they are online. Female teachers are no exception: several of them may have to encounter bullying from students in groups which were basically created by them to convey about online class timings. Several students may have also gone to the extent of capturing screen shots of Zoom and other online classes specifically targeting girl students.

Almost same pattern of privacy infringement cases was reported for online classes for higher education as well. Zoom became worst reviewed platform for conducting online classes as users including women students and faculties reported privacy infringement and cyber security issues all over the world[2]. Reportedly users of Zoom started experiencing cyber flashing (forcefully sending unsolicited pictures of private parts) [3]: they have also experienced strangers penetrated into the zoom meetings only to throw lewd remarks to participants especially women[4]. Several Indian faculties and undergraduate and postgraduate students may have reported similar kinds of harassments including group bullying, trolling and disruptive communications which may break the class lecture related communications.

[2]See Drew Harwell (2020). Thousands of Zoom video calls left exposed on open web. Published in https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/03/thousands-zoom-video-calls-left-exposed-open-web/?fbclid=IwAR1M3yRTYKqUuDJhP0rZLz_z8yDcwrZ5CgQN2yzlsgGA2awhPIEOF31CQlA&utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook on April 3.2020. Retrieved on 07-04-2020
[3]See Zoe Betty (2019) WHY THE UK NEEDS TO TAKE CYBER-FLASHING SERIOUSLY. Published in https://www.thetimes.co.uk/magazine/style/why-the-uk-needs-to-take-cyber-flashing-seriously-73c0r02f9 on 08-12-2019. Retrieved on 04.04.2020
[3]See Farrer Martin (2020). Singapore bans teachers using Zoom after hackers post obscene images on screens. Published in https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/11/singapore-bans-teachers-using-zoom-after-hackers-post-obscene-images-on-screens on April 11,2020. Retrieved on 11-04-2020

What I see as a graver issue of privacy infringement is clicking screen shots of women faculties and students in name of record keeping. I have noticed that such screen capturing may happen specially at times when the female participant may switch on her camera and her facial image becomes visible. In India, the law is silent in this regard as such capturing of screen shots do not fall under the category of voyeurism or privacy violation as addressed under Ss. 354C of the Indian Penal Code and 66 E of the Information Technology Act, both addressing voyeurism (the former addressing voyeurism for women and the later, for all irrespective gender). It is however understood that when a participant (irrespective of gender and age) is instructed and invited to join a web meeting or online lecture series, he/she may have impliedly given a consent for being recorded. For children however, questions of such implied consents may never arise because legally, children may not be eligible to give consent. In that case, it becomes a clear-cut case of privacy infringement. But it may become a public wrong only when such picture is used for sexual gratification including self-sexual gratification. But how this is going to be proved unless the device is going to be put under surveillance? Unless some one finds out that such images have been used for sexual gratification, the Information Technology Act and the data protection provisions, including EU General Data Protection Regulations which has guided the framing of Indian Data Protection Bill, 2019, may not offer much help even if the victims are children[5].

[5]See Halder, D. (2018). Child Sexual Abuse and Protection Laws in India. New Delhi: SAGE Publications. ISBN: 9789352806843

What about adult women then? Unlike children, it would be presumed that they may participate the online meetings, classes, discussions etc with consent and such consent may imply that their presence may be recorded without telling them at what time they may be recorded while they are online. It is expected that they would be in proper attire so that even if their screen presence is captured, it would not be offensive. But here also, we come back to the same question: who guarantees that such images would not be captured by anyone else who may be a participant, but not authorised to record the presence of participants? How will the woman know such image (even if captured by the authorised person) may not be used for unethical purposes including sexual gratification purposes? The law may not have any answer in this case also. On the contrary, the woman concerned may have to face more harassment for raising such issues because Sexual harassment of women at workplace (prevention, prohibition and redressal Act), 2013 may not be always applicable in such cases due to lack of understanding of the nature of the grievances and also due infrastructural issues. Indeed, the claims of the woman may be washed away very easily by defending the situation on the basis of ‘technical and technological misunderstanding’. What we should not forget is, during lock down, quarantine and work from home period, there may be no guarantee that the smart phone or the tablet or the device may not be used only by the original handler : to kill the boredom, family members may access each other’s phones and may use it for playing prank as well.

However, not everything is as bad as we are apprehending! I have noticed several teachers and education management groups are turning their Whatsapp groups to ‘admin only’ mode where other group members may not be able to send messages. Indeed, this is a better way to prevent online harassment of women on WhatsApp groups. But the meeting/conferencing/ teaching platform apps are not yet ready to prevent privacy infringement issues.. The online platforms which had remained as secondary platforms, may not be expected to create robust security policies within a day or two. Neither the government and private stakeholders may do that. This will then create another toothless paper tiger which will be more harmful to individuals, especially women and girls. We need to maintain digital safe distancing for our own protection now. We should work collectively towards maintaining internet hygiene for us, our women and girls during the pandemic. We must understand that even when scientists and health professionals may declare Covid 19 as not so harmless, the pandemic of online harassment of women and girls may not recede. Such contents may surface again and again to remind us what could have been prevented by our simple diligence may never be removed even if the entire web world is disinfected.

Stay home, stay safe and maintain internet hygiene for the sake of us, the entire human society!

Author:
Prof. (Dr.) Debarati Halder, Professor – Legal Studies, Unitedworld School of Law (UWSL)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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