Cyberbullying and online harassment is a major global problem. The lack of a physical presence only means that people are more mentally exposed in the digital realm. A majority of children in India encounter online harassment in one form or another, but their parents are oblivious of the fact. Facebook recently launched a portal to tackle cyberbullying, and allow parents to let their children navigate the social network safely. We discussed online harassment with Mishi Choudhary, the Executive Director of Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a Delhi-based not-for-profit legal services organization. SFLC.IN brings together students, lawyers, technologists and policy analysts to defend freedom in the digital realm.

Can we differentiate between trolling and online harassment?
Trolling can turn into harassment but these aren’t always interchangeable terms. Sometime in days of internet yore, trolling could have meant posting of messages  to provoke a response or disrupt a conversation but unfortunately it has now transformed itself into harassment, sustained abuse, threats and debasement either on grounds of their actual or perceived characteristics.

The behavior of some users these days  causes substantial emotional distress while serving no legitimate purpose.

In what ways is the online community in India different from developed countries, like the U.S., when it comes to dealing with online harassment?
This is not an Indian or an American problem as harassment gets contextual and  covers itself in local colors, like the Adarsh Liberals v Bhakts characterization in India sees a parallel in Left v Alt-Rightor Tea party supporters in the U.S. Because of the “online disinhibition effect” , people all over the world throw away civility and start behaving in ways they would otherwise think twice before saying to anyone if they were to meet such people in person.

A lot of online abuse in India is political in nature. How far does it affect the citizens’ rights to freely debate politics online?
At SFLC.in, we have been studying online harassment as form of censorship that forces people out of participating in the online discourse. we wish to call attention as how this acts as a blow against freedom of expression itself because people are pushed out of discussion as there is no civil, substantive discourse that is conducted.

In a net which is increasingly monitored, in which people are very heavily surveilled, abused, there is also a way in which people are more at risk about the destruction of their right to speak than ever before. Part of that is internet shutdowns i.e depriving entire commnunities of access to the net, the action of closing off the venue of speech altogether for public reasons good or bad or indifferent.

All this seems to be sending a message that if you wish to speak freely at places in the net where free speech is supposedly prized, you have to be prepared to give up all protection against the kind of crudeness, anger and aggression that no human being should have to take at any time, let  alone all the time. We don’t want the discourse to be reduced to a vulgarity that’s why the hashtag #KeepItCivil. The problem with today’s social networking in that sense is that aggression and reduction of human dignity has now scaled up and we need to do something about that.

What can the government do to limit online harassment? Are there any gaps in laws that when plugged, could reduce the incidents of online harassment?
We interviewed many people for our report but nobody, even the ones most abused, wanted the Government or law enforcement to intervene, unless words translated to real actions for which criminal law already exists. People praise the promise of the internet, people feel empowered by a smart phone in hand, they saw what happened with abuse of sections like 66A and use of criminal defamation to silence voices. Enough laws exist. What the Government can do is educate people about keeping it civil, even political parties can ask their supporters to be respectful of others’ opinions.

Twitter has been widely targeted in the recent past for failing to contain the online abuse. How far are platforms liable to contain incidents of online harassment?
Platforms cannot be held liable for user generated content. We cannot have a Digital India if we will start holding platforms responsible for every abuse word uttered. Having said that, Twitter released another iteration of its policies on November 15, 2016.  Each new follower will need to be manually approved by the user. Followers will also be unable to re-tweet or quote their tweets. Twitter has demonstrated  awakening to the widespread prevalence of bullying and harassment on the platform, and it is seen taking incremental and public facing measures to limit such instances.  We are working with them and other such platforms to educate people about their policies and we hope Twitter or other platforms will keep their commitment to free speech and privacy of their users.

I will call attention to a part of our report on online harassment that documents what the companies policies are , how they deal with these issues,  but I wish to highlight as to how cumbersome it all is, how difficult it is, how much friction there is involved in preventing other people’s free speech from harming one’s own and to be the arbiter of free speech.

Is it fair to say that harassment is generally targeted at well-known public figures on social platforms? What checks and safeguards are available to such people?
Not necessarily, but they do have more followers and receive brickbats and praises in form of words by an order of magnitude more than others. We make recommendations for everyone like:

  • Thoroughly screen the personal information shared online
  • Avoid uploading photographs that identify you or your location
  • Keep a tab on information others post about you
  • Use strong passwords and change them periodically
  • Block the perpetrator
  • Report incidents to the concerned service provider
  • Ask influencers to call perpetrators out
  • Ask for help. SFLC.in will be launching ahelpline soon to help people meander their way through these seemingly daunting processes.

Should platforms reserve the right to strip online abusers of anonymity, if such anonymity is used as a cloak to abuse or harass others?
Its not an easy question but it’s a comfortable, lazy fix that everyone wishes to run to. We should not forget that much of the harassment occurs for the benefit of the audience, so those who participate in Internet mobs should be called out by other influencers. The platforms already have a lot of power, we don’t want them to strip us totally of our privacy to anyone who comes calling.  Some politically incorrect ideas may only be acceptable to discuss under a pseudonym on the internet but raise important issues in the society, say in our society where we still cannot talk openly about LGBT rights.

Publish date: December 23, 2016 11:41 am| Modified date: December 23, 2016 11:43 am

Tags: , , , , , ,