Taking note of the many shocking videos of sexual assault on women and children going viral, the Supreme Court has issued a notice to India offices of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook asking them to file a response. A bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur asked the social media giants to file their views on how the phenomenon can be curbed. The Court first took cognisance of the matter in February last year after the then Chief Justice H L Dattu received a letter and copies of two videos of sexual assault that were being circulated on WhatsApp from Hyderabad-based NGO Prajwala.
Need For A Central Agency
Before going to the Court, Sunitha Krishnan, one of the founders of Prajwala, began an online campaign called ‘Shame the Rapist’, where she uploaded photographs of the alleged rapists and asked people to trace them. Hours later, her vehicle was vandalised by unknown persons. It was only after the videos reached the Chief Justice and the court directed the CBI to investigate the matter that officials started making arrests.
In court, Krishnan made a specific plea that a central agency be made responsible for investigating such cases. The need for such an agency, she told me, is the vast jurisdiction in which the videos are circulated which literally makes catching the culprits nobody’s responsibility. “The crime happens in one place, the video lands in somebody’s hand in another part of the country. As a concerned citizen, I cannot file a case although I see the crime. It’s there on my phone but I can’t file a case because the jurisdiction is different,” she said.
How The Videos Are Circulated
“Rape is a crime. A video of the crime is being circulated. If we are going to be endorsing crimes and circulating videos of the crime, it’s not done, right?” asks Krishnan, when I asked her about the necessity of asking tech-firms to do something about the issue.
In fact, rape videos in India have a huge market, according to many reports. Asad Ashraf, a journalist who reported on sale of such videos in Uttar Pradesh, told me that the videos are available for sale over the counter, where they aren’t called rape videos, but have more generalised names – a ‘WhatsApp video’ or ‘sex video’. It is only when one watches a video that one can spot its contents.
While Krishnan is seeking an order from the court solely for rape videos and not porn, Ashraf says that rape videos are sold among a set of pornographic videos, making it that much difficult to also control its dissemination.
Explaining the modus operandi, Ashraf told me that videos of sexual assault are shot usually for blackmailing the rape survivor. It is when someone takes their phone to a shop to get his phone repaired or formatted that the shopkeeper gets hold of the video and starts selling them.
Ashraf also added that it is only through known contacts that one can get these videos and that they are not sold openly. This makes it difficult to determine who has shot the video in the first place.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has already granted approval for setting up and for an Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) and a Cyber Crime Prevention against Women and Children (CCPWC) unit to fight cyber crimes against women. It is also setting up Investigative Units for Crimes against Women (IUCAW) for tackling heinous crimes against women.
However, tracking circulation of videos of sexual assault poses a problem even for social media companies like WhatsApp whose communication is end-to-end encrypted. Nikhil Pahwa, who runs Medianama, a media organization focussed on digital and telecom sector, says that the only way under present circumstances to flag such videos is when people report such content. He added that companies should be able to trace the origin of the video after it has been flagged and report it to authorities.
The sheer amount of content being shared online poses another problem. Pahwa says that it is not yet possible to monitor videos using algorithms and companies will probably have to rely on a community policing of sorts online. He added that quick prosecution of those found guilty can act as a deterrent and prevent rape videos from being uploaded.
The matter will be heard in the Supreme Court again in January.