No more ‘Bulli Bai’: Creating a safer internet for women
The alleged auction of Muslim women online, a repeat of a similar act in the middle of 2021, has brought to light a plethora of online and offline issues once again. In the middle of 2021, news about a digital application called SulliDeals had images of Muslim women being shared as “auctions”.
The case was reported to the police, but no major developments were reported for months.
Just as 2022 was taking off, another app, this time called “BulliBai” emerged, once again displaying publicly-available images of largely Muslim women, who were purportedly available for “auction”.
Investigations by the Mumbai Police and then by their counterparts in Delhi reveal a number of 18-21-year-olds who allegedly came up with the coding, creation and dissemination of the “BulliBai” application.
So, what does this mean for the privacy and data protection of Indian citizens?
Tackling viral hate speech
First, it is clear from the arrests made so far, young men and women are susceptible to a viral narrative that not only produces hate speech and misogyny but is also polarising. As this case demonstrates, such hate speech and polarising content can lead to illegal acts with dire consequences.
On January 6 last year, the United States witnessed how viral hate speech can lead to something as serious as an “insurrection” that can threaten the very foundations of American democracy.
The proliferation of social media and digital connectivity has been recognised as a tool for empowerment and democratization of information. However, there are now clearly identifiable harms that need to be urgently recognised.
The fact that three individuals based in different locations such as Uttarakhand, Assam and Karnataka, driven by hate for a particular community could digitally connect, collaborate and create an app such as “Bulli Bai” is deeply worrying. The fact that they were possibly driven by digital content that is hateful has major implications for the rule of law, as well as internal and national security.
Policymakers and experts have to work together to recognise the real-world harms and dangers of hate speech and the effect it can have on young minds.
Information privacy violations
Second, the fact that Indians now lead a major part of their lives online makes it imperative to create a safe digital space for all.
The fact that in August 2017, a nine-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court unanimously recognised privacy as a fundamental right is testimony to how critical digital safe spaces are. Without a guaranteed online safe space, India’s dreams of becoming a digital power will remain unfulfilled.
The Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) set up by the United States in 1993 issued three key principles for privacy. The principle for information privacy states that “personal information should be acquired, disclosed, and used only in ways that respect an individual’s privacy”.
In the case of the women impacted by the “SulliDeals” and “BulliDeals” applications, clearly, this was a violation. The victims, ranging from minors to a 65-year-old woman, were all deprived of their consent, as their images were used for an online “auction”.
The sharing of sensitive personal data of these women with malafide intent can be construed as a crime under sections 509 (insulting modesty of a woman) and 354D (stalking of women) of the Indian Penal Code. It is also clearly a violation of their fundamental right to privacy.
Thirdly, both the online “auctions” of women speak volumes about the inability of the local police to tackle the issue quickly. The clear failure of the police to act in time when the “SulliDeals” case was first reported, clearly emboldened the creators of the “BulliBai” application.
The enforcement of law is predicated on the ability of law enforcement officials to quickly and efficiently investigate and prosecute crimes. The fact that the police could not react for six months is very worrying.
For decades, police reforms that would sensitize the police and make it more efficient and accountable have been rotting away in a bureaucratic labyrinth. This leaves Indian citizens vulnerable to new crimes and harms that online spaces can pose.
According to a report based on information revealed under the Right to Information Act, only 31 FIRs were registered in 2019 against 15,000 complaints filed on the Indian government’s website to report Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM).
Lacking workforce and underfunding are some of the key challenges grappling with the criminal justice machinery, resulting in poor rates of prosecution in these incidents. Obviously, there is a massive gap in the ability of the police to investigate and prosecute cybercrimes.
The inability of countries like India to access digital information that could have led to the successful investigation and prosecution of those behind “SulliDeals” also needs to be addressed urgently.
So far, India needs to depend on bilateral instruments such as the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) to access information that can help investigate and prosecute online crimes. There is also the Budapest Convention for Cybercrime that allows its member countries to access online data in real-time.
India has steadfastly refused to sign such protocols, leaving Indian law enforcement solely dependent on MLATs that are broken and inefficient. It takes months, and sometimes even years, to access information from other countries. While policymakers have suggested “data localization” as a means to address this issue, the nature of the global internet makes it impossible to host all the data within national boundaries.
Instead, pragmatic steps to become a signatory to a global and multilateral convention that enables data sharing for cybercrimes will go a long way in enabling India’s police forces to investigate and prosecute. It is time policymakers recognise that a safe and secure internet is the only way to achieve India’s hope to emerge as a digital and economic super.
If the internet becomes a tool for threatening and subjugating the fundamental rights of citizens, it will only lead to anarchy that will threaten India’s democratic and economic foundations.
(The article was first published in India Today)