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How Will Facebook’s Change In Policy Towards Sexual Assault Humour Affect India?

Pressure from women groups and the media have managed to make Facebook change its policy toward hate speech provoking violence against women and other groups. Women Action Media (WAM) had written an open letter to Facebook to take swift action on addressing the representation of rape and domestic violence on Facebook, and asked users to to spot their own images, and post them on Twitter under the hashtag #fbrape.

They had also tweeted to advertisers using the same hashtag like this:


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There has been persistent demand to address the representation of rape and domestic violence against women for months now but the final nail in the coffin was this open letter which not only addressed Facebook but also requested advertisers to stop advertising on Facebook. It seems when 15 of Facebook advertisers decided to stop advertising, Facebook decided to change its policy toward sexual assault. According to Facebook’s statement, the company plans to review and update the guidelines used to evaluate reports of violations of their Community Standards around hate speech, training their teams on the changed guidelines, work with legal experts and representatives of women’s coalition, among others.

But does India need this policy change?

If you ask me, hate speech and sexual assault are just one part of the real deal that the website needs to be addressing. I personally know women whose photographs from Facebook have been morphed into pornographic images without their permission.

Even with my pro-free speech beliefs, I also believe that Facebook posts that say – ‘CSK RAPED xyz team in the match yesterday’ should be brought down (it really happened). For those of you who don’t know, Oxford dictionary defines rape as – ‘the crime, typically committed by a man, of forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with the offender against their will.’

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So can we be a little bit more sensitive about using these words? You may have used it innocently to talk about a cricket match but that doesn’t change the meaning of the word or the perpetuating cultural effect of using such words, very casually. As matter of fact, even Indian women use it quite casually and then we like the post and even share it sometimes. The need is to sensitize and not censor. I sincerely hope Facebook gets the difference.

Speaking of sensitizing people, the reality in India in India, even well-known journalists, activists and writers in this country face threats with gang rapes and stripping for being pro-women and anti-rape. BBC’s recently reported about the online attacks on journalist, Sagarika Ghose, writer, Meena Kandasamy and activist, Kavita Krishnan. Sagarika Ghose has now deleted her Twitter account after repeated personal threats and threats even against her daughter. Only after BBC’s attempt to contact Rediff, did the website decide to bring down the offensive chat content against Kavita Krishnan posted by an anonymous account named @RAPIST. Unfortunately, Rediff is also a prominent news website and to think that they did not remove the degrading content in the first place is quite depressing. Why wait for some other publication to show up on your doorstep?

Fortunately, the Criminal (Amendment) Bill 2013 was passed this year, to include voyeurism, cyber stalking and harassment, sadly only as an after effect of a gruesome gang rape of a woman that resulted in her death. Yes, there are laws now but how many women are encouraged to report about the harassment or stalking or for obscene content?  Indian women face both, the problem of receiving online threats, abuses, being stalked online and also the problem of receiving further blows for standing up to it. Even if the issues arise online, these problems have strong cultural roots at least in India. Are laws enough to make the internet safe for women?

Before we answer that question, lets not forget another unaddressed issue in India – the lack of a privacy law. A privacy law would solve a lot of problems for women and all Indian citizens alike. Instead, the real depth of the problem has come to light only now with a recent Centre for Internet & Society report that shows about 76 surveillance companies in India help the Government of India in surveillance of Indian citizens. Privacy law would mean a lot especially for women in India considering that it would (hopefully) include both offline and online threats that women face in the country. Presently, without the privacy law, it somehow seems that women can complain/report only when their data is being abused or when they receive a threat. So what about the times when my data is being accessed without my permission for any reason, not just abuse?

So going back, are laws enough to make the internet safe for women? No and yes. Change in policy and laws still give us the provision to fight for our rights. But I would say that this is something that all social media networks and online media should look at solving, not just Facebook because women are either discouraged from claiming their rights or using the law in most parts of the world.  However, unfortunate it may be that Facebook responded only after threats from advertisers, it is still a big leap in addressing the safety of women, all across the web.  I also know that even with this policy change, many women may be threatened even right now as I write this post. We definitely have a long way to go with respect to keeping women safe on the web but for now, we should celebrate and acknowledge the progress made.

Note to social media networks & online media: Before more women groups and media start targeting your website, it would be a welcome change and a prudent move for you to address this problem on your own. This is a sincere request.

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