Online predators

23 Jan 2018


IDEALLY, one should not have to worry about unwelcome advances, whether in a physical or online space; but as most — especially women — would testify, the reality is far from a world where unsolicited advances are non-existent. Equally alarming is the kind of overtures and threats children are vulnerable to when using the internet, and especially social media. However, this does not mean that those susceptible to threats online are banished from having any online presence; rather, it is important to know the layers of protection as well as legal remedies available to internet users, especially women and children.

The reason many Pakistani women do not use their own photo for display on social media is the violation of privacy and harassment that they face online. This shows that as opposed to popular belief, societal cleavages and denial of public space to women is seen in digital spaces as well. Unsolicited messages, explicit photographs, friendship requests, and even marriage proposals from strangers are common on social media in Pakistan.

Even worse is the bullying, abuse, and condescension in response to women expressing their opinions on the internet, especially on matters related to politics, society or religion. Ad hominem attacks, slut-shaming, and rape threats and death threats are a common lived reality for vocal women online; the distance that the use of internet affords abusers encourages this. The case for vocal transgender and other sexual minorities can prove to be even worse. However, there is a comforting presence of vocal activists and their supporters who are becoming increasingly active in calling out abuse on the internet.

The case of a doctor sending his female patient a friend request and leaving comments under her photographs sparked a necessary debate in Pakistan on what constitutes harassment on the internet. Nuan­c­ed discussions around the complexities of the fiduciary relationship between patient and doctor, as well as the power disequilibrium between women and men were important takeaways from the case, as is the need for a code of ethics on social media for professionals in fields such as medicine and education.

Children and teenagers can be especially vulnerable over the internet.

Children and teenagers can be especially vulnerable over the internet. Predators, paedophiles, and potential kidnappers lurking behind fake accounts can mislead children into gaining their trust through social media platforms and gaming sites. Further, activity and information publicly available on children’s profiles also serves the risk of providing information regarding the location, contact information, and habits of children.

Given these risks especially for vulnerable groups on the internet, a number of precautions should be taken to increase digital safety.

Firstly, we must ensure that our personal information, as well as our children’s — eg date of birth, telephone number, address, school name, places frequented regularly — is not publicly available on the internet. Caution must also be exercised in the sharing of photos of children publicly on the internet, as well as information such as the school they go to or the location and details of their after-school activities. All information shared on social media platforms should be restricted to friends only rather than publicly visible.

Secondly, we must ensure that everyone in the category of friends or followers that can view our private information and posts are those who we and our children know personally and can trust. There should be no strangers added to our accounts because that risks our safety. Parents or guardians must regularly monitor who their children are interacting with. A relationship of trust must exist between children and adults so that they can share details of strange interactions rather than fearing being blamed for it by adults.

Thirdly, the habit of checking into places live on social media platforms should be discouraged. Not only does this invite potential unwanted corporate advertisements, but also exposes our location to strangers online, inviting the risk of identifying movement patterns.

Whereas these measures are important to pre-empt risks of online presence, there often are brea­ches of this security as well as of trust we put in people. Fortunately, several legal remedies exist in the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016.

The unauthorised use of identity information is criminalised under Section 16.

Offences against the dignity of a person including dissemination of false information with intention of intimidating and harming reputation or privacy of an individual are criminalised under Section 20.

Section 21 criminalises offences against the modesty of a person, including dissemination of sexually explicit images, as well as imposing photos of individuals on sexually explicit images, and coercing minors or adults into sexually explicit acts. It also protects the right for an adult or guardian of a minor to request removal of such content from the internet.

Section 22 criminalises acts relating to child pornography.

Section 24 stipulates punishment for proven cases of cyber stalking, including attempting to contact a person despite clear disinterest, monitoring the use of internet or phone of an individual, watching or spying on a person that intimidates them, and taking and distributing photos or videos of someone without her or his consent.

Complaints falling under the ambit of Peca 16 can be submitted to the Federal Investigation Agency through the website of the National Response Centre for Cyber Crime (NR3C), or by complaining directly to the FIA complaint cells. However, justice needs to be made more accessible through all police stations. Further, the cases under Peca 16 so far show that the FIA needs to be equipped with improved investigation capabilities and forensic technology for efficient handling of cases, and judges and investigation officers need to be trained to deal with cases relating to technology and the internet. Until that is done, courts should make use of amicus curiae that are experts in the field.

It must be stressed that perpetrators of abuse and harassment on the internet should not be able to continue with impunity, and blame, shame, and punishment should be reserved for them rather than their victims online that are innocent users of the internet. Further, citizens should become proactive in calling out harassment, abuse, and bullying online. Importantly, the state should focus on administering justice to victims of abuse and harassment on the internet rather than harassing dissenters and critics of state policy that exercise their right to freedom of expression. The process of making the internet, just like our physical spaces, secure for everyone with equity is a slow one, but all stakeholders must act with due diligence and caution.

The writer is an activist and researcher, and director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2018