Policing cyberspace to fight sex crimes and child porn in India

by Trang Chu Minh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 18 August 2017 10:21 GMT

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Image Caption and Rights Information

Pro bono lawyers from India, Canada and the US joined forces to support a leading anti-trafficking non-profit in its quest to stop the distribution of images and videos of sexual violence in India. 

While the movement against India’s ‘rising rape culture’ has made significant progress since the Delhi gang rape of 2012, little has been done to stop videos of sexual abuse being shared online.

Despite the growing number of live rape videos made available on social media platforms, there is no accurate data on the number of child victims being exploited in this material, as many don’t report their abuse for  fear of shaming and victim-blaming.

In 2015, 96 cases of child pornography were reported – a small proportion, experts say, of the true extent of this issue. Even so, this was a whopping 135% increase from the previous year. Yet no legal or technical solutions exist to block videos of sexual abuse from being circulated online.

Even more shockingly, most social media networks including Facebook or Whatsapp have no mechanisms in place to stop the dissemination of such abusive content, nor do they block the fake profiles used to post these videos. There is also no obligation imposed on these platforms to report the criminal act captured in the video to relevant law enforcement agencies.

This is where Sunitha Krishnan, Founder of Prajwala, an anti-trafficking non-profit, and a rape survivor herself, stepped in. In 2015 she discovered a Facebook page that allowed paedophiles to freely compare notes on their sexual experience with children aged as young as three. On reporting the case to Facebook, however, she was told that the “page did not violate their community standards”. By the time she secured a language review for the site and had it blocked, plenty of similar pages and groups had sprung up in its place.

She eventually brought the case to the police in Kerala state who launched an investigation and was able to bust a child sex trafficking ring whose victims included children aged between ten and 15 years old.

In February 2015, Krishnan received a live video of a twelve-year-old girl being gang-raped by eight men, which was circulated on Whatsapp. The men showed no remorse and were flaunting their atrocious act proudly in front of the camera, while their victim was scarred for life. 

24 hours later Krishnan started the ‘Shame the Rapist’ campaign, exposing the identity of the perpetrators, and organising a series of events to gain national recognition for the widespread presence of sex crime videos on social media.  Hundreds of similar videos were shared with her as a result of the campaign, and Krishnan eventually filed for Public Interest Litigation at the Supreme Court of India.

Her recommendations included the establishment of a central investigative body that would specialise in cases involving videos of sexual violence, and the creation of a mechanism to allow citizens to submit anonymous reports on such videos without automatically becoming plaintiffs.  Importantly, she called for search engines and social media networks to be held responsible for the policing and removal of abusive sexual content circulated on their channels.

The Supreme Court subsequently scheduled a hearing for 21 February 2017, requesting the presence of leading tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo. The court gave Prajwala one week to find out how other countries have addressed this issue, and that’s where pro bono legal help became crucial.

Prajwala made an urgent plea to TrustLaw, to rally an international team of local and foreign-qualified lawyers who could offer expert advice on existing, relevant laws in India and best practices in other countries for the reporting and blocking of sex crime videos.

Pro bono lawyers from J. Sagar Associates and Torys responded immediately and worked around the clock to canvass a legal memorandum on relevant federal, provincial and state laws in the US, Canada and India which sanction the distribution of images and videos of sexual violence. The research showed what legislation in India should look like to address this problem and served as the basis for Prajwala’s final submission to the Supreme Court. 

“This case is a great example of ethical legal work – the lawyers on this project have shown an exemplary commitment to serving society and the public interest”, says Krishnan. “They have demonstrated that even in a commercial environment, the need to protect fundamental human rights can take precedence over business interests.”

“At the end of the day, if anyone reports an objectionable video of a sexual offence being committed or child pornography that's openly shared on the internet, it shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes for it to be removed, before it goes viral with devastating consequences for many innocent lives”, adds Poongkhulali Balasubramanian, Pro Bono Coordinator of J. Sagar Associates. 

Following the hearing, the Supreme Court launched a special technical committee tasked with creating a mechanism for the mandatory reporting and blocking of online content of rape and child porn.  Based on the recommendations of the committee, which includes representatives of all tech firms and Prajwala’s own pro bono counsel, the Supreme Court is expected to issue relevant guidelines on the policing of images and videos of sexual violence at the end of August. 

The project was shortlisted for the 2017 TrustLaw Collaboration Award.