IT for Change is engaged in a project that addresses gender-based hate speech in the online public sphere. Supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, the project responds to the current reality in India where women are not only speaking up against patriarchy, but also claiming public-political space despite pervasive sexism and misogyny.
It adopts three main strategies: (a) highlighting blind spots in dominant legal frameworks that prevent effective recognition of sexist/misogynistic speech online as a violation of women’s rights; (b) offering ways to reform content governance and intermediary liability legislation to ensure timely redressal; and (c) building a proof-of-concept model to resist normalization of sexist speech online.
Feminist Perspectives on Social Media Governance
February 2023: IT for Change, in collaboration with InternetLab, co-organized a roundtable in April 2022 to catalyze a productive debate revolving around the central question: What new imaginaries of social media governance will be adequate to eradicate the unfreedoms arising from misogyny in online communications agora?
As part of the roundtable, we brought together 20 academics, lawyers, digital rights activists, and scholar-practitioners committed to feminist politics, to collectively reflect on, discuss, and debate these questions, in order to weave a rich tapestry of perspectives on future directions for social media governance.
This curated compendium of essay submissions is from the participants of the roundtable and offers glimpses of the enriching discussions that were held.
The Indian Judiciary's Tryst With Online Gender-Based Violence: An Empirical Analysis of Indian Case-law
[Forthcoming in 2023]: IT for Change has undertaken a detailed study of 90 cases examining judicial responses to different kinds of cases of technology-facilitated gender-based violence from the Supreme Court, 17 High Courts, and 2 District Courts across the country. This study has yielded certain striking insights into the pervasiveness of certain regressive patriarchal stereotypes. At the same time, we have also found some promising signs. In the years after the landmark Puttaswamy judgment which recognized the right to privacy as a fundamental right, courts are increasingly adjudicating privacy violations such as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images as privacy violations rather than through outmoded Victorian notions of obscenity and impropriety.
Our study shows, however, that there is still much ground to be covered in terms of the promotion of gender-sensitive judicial attitudes and effective orders to prevent further violence in such cases.
Profitable Provocations: A Twitter-based Study of Abuse and Misogynistic Trolling Directed at Indian Women in Public-political Life
Anita Gurumurthy and Amshuman Dasarathy, IT for Change
August 2022: IT for Change undertook a research study on hateful and abusive speech on Twitter directed at 20 Indian women in public-political life.
The broadest finding from this research is that all the women who were a part of the sample received some amount of abuse on the platform. None of the women were entirely spared. The study also found that the abusive speech received by women in public-political life rarely had anything to do with their work or their politics. It invariably took the form of gendered attacks on their bodies or character. The study concludes with a few recommendations for legal-institutional responses targeted at digital platforms.
The Internet-Enabled Assault on Women’s Democratic Rights and Freedoms
December 2021: In this paper, Arti Raghavan writes about the problem of online gender-based violence in its various forms, and the need to develop legal responses that are commensurate with the scale and unique nature of the problem. She draws attention to the sui generis nature of online (as opposed to offline) hate which is characterised by the speed, volume and frequency of hatfeul messages. She argues that these new forms of misogynistic speech have implications beyond its chilling effect on women’s freedom of speech and expression, including the manner in which it profoundly impairs women’s exercise of citizenship rights and their democratic participation.
She argues that there is an absence of a constitutional vocabulary for gendered hate speech to appreciate how such speech reinforces structures of oppression and discrimination on the lines of gender. Central to her argument is the need to recognize the complicity of social media platforms in enabling and profiting from the viral spread of such hateful messages. As a way forward, she proposes rejecting the victim-perpetrator binary of the criminal justice system, and makes a case for focusing regulatory efforts on de-platforming harmful content, and stemming its virality and circulation.
Submission to the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression for the UNGA Report on Gender Justice
June, 2021: IT for Change and InternetLab jointly responded to the call for inputs into the General Assembly Report on Gender Justice from the Office of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Building on the findings from our IDRC-supported research collaboration Recognize, Resist, Remedy that interrogates gender-based hate speech online in India and Brazil, we have articulated a feminist critique of the mainstream global consensus on determining the boundaries of the right to free expression.
Our submission argues that the rights of free expression and equality must be interpreted as mutually reinforcing values, and not in conflict with each other. The freedom of one ought not to result in the unfreedom of the many. We put forth the claim that the prevailing legal position on the right to freedom of expression has not been adequate to contend with the misuse and abuse of online freedoms in the digital public sphere, and this has resulted in a chilling effect on women’s first-order right to public participation. We also argue the need for new normative and legal benchmarks for gender-based hate speech that are attentive to the unique challenges posed by viral hate in the digital paradigm, grounded in the feminist principles of dignity, autonomy, and equality.
Rethinking Legal-Institutional Approaches to Sexist Hate Speech in India
February, 2021: A systematic study of the problem of sexist hate speech, examining not just the culture it manifests in, but its legal-institutional-technostructural underpinnings, has not been done in the Indian context. This project, undertaken in association with EdelGive Foundation and IDRC, Canada, is an exploration of sexist hate speech that aims to proactively and collaboratively shape, through a feminist framework, the normative trajectory of the online public sphere. This project brings together scholars and practitioners to unpack ‘sexist hate speech online’, with a view to developing:
1. A normative framework for the law to tackle online misogyny
2. A roadmap for the enforcement of such norms on social media platforms, and
3. A strategy to influence the ongoing process for amendment of laws.
Cyberviolence Against Women – A Roadmap for Legal Reform: Inputs to the Law Review Consultation Convened by the National Commission for Women
December, 2020: We produced a feminist analysis of the problems in the law that occludes accountability for victims of gender-based violence, as well as recommendations for legal-institutional reform towards freedom for women from cyberviolence, as inputs to the ongoing law review consultation on cyber crimes against women, convened by the National Commission for Women in December 2020. Sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence on social media is trivialized and dismissed as a normal part of the online experience. Law enforcement agencies and platform intermediaries have failed at evolving effective and timely responses, hampered as they are by pre-digital legal-institutional frameworks whose conceptual frames fall short of grasping the new taxonomies of violence in digital sociality. Against this backdrop, the ongoing law review consultation is a timely and laudable initiative especially as it coincides with two very important legislative reform processes – the complete overhaul of the IT Act (2000) proposed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the reform of substantive and procedural aspects of criminal law spearheaded by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Participatory Action Research on Gender-Based Hate Speech Online with a Karnataka-Based Youth Group
September-December, 2020: A Participatory Action Research (PAR) project with a youth group in Karnataka, India was facilitated by IT for Change and Samvada, an organization that empowers young people to create social change. This project aimed to aimed to co-evolve a proof-of-concept of a viable intervention model for young people that can promote a new online culture of zero tolerance for sexist speech. The model sought to build awareness among the cohort about misogyny, and develop and implement strategies to counter it. The participants engaged in training sessions and discussions, administered a survey on perceptions of online sexist hate, and launched a unique, Kannada-language digital media campaign against sexist hate speech. Through the PAR, the participants identified the need for systemic change, discovered their own political voice, and laid claim to the digital publics.
Submission on the Draft Amendment to Intermediary Guidelines Rules 2018
January, 2020: We shared specific recommendations on the content moderation aspects of platform governance with the relevant ministry that addressed the overlaps between gender-based hate speech and other forms of online violence against women. Our submission to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology towards the ongoing revision of internet intermediary liability guidelines under India’s Information Technology Act, 2000, brought in considerations of tackling online sexism and misogyny.
Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur's Report, 'Privacy: A Gender Perspective'
October, 2019: Our recommendations on privacy and gender to the UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy highlighted, among other issues, the social and community surveillance of women that has a chilling effect on their participation in online publics. Our submission also outlined the challenges to regulation posed by the techno-social underpinnings of misogyny online.
A Feminist Social Media Future: How Do We Get There? (Bot Populi)
March, 2021: To reclaim the emancipatory potential of social media for feminist transformation, we need urgent action along two fronts – a global normative benchmarking exercise that leads to new content moderation standards grounded in women's human rights, and techno-design alternatives for the creation of decolonized network infrastructures. This piece brings together insights from the Bot Populi podcast series Feminist Digital Futures, where feminist activists from across the Global South reflected on what it would take to reclaim the transformative potential of social media.
What’s So Private about Online Sexual Harassment? (Bot Populi)
October, 2020: As women stake their claim in online publics, many have faced backlash in the form of online gender-based violence, much of which has been dismissed based on the patriarchal idea of women's presence in public spaces begetting 'temptation'. Additionally, the purely geo-spatial understanding of 'public space' in Indian laws addressing sexual harassment, and the general legal ambiguity about online publics, has lead to the accused in cases of online sexual harassment being acquitted. Bhavna Jha, in this article for Bot Populi, reflects on the Madras high Court's interpretation of “Public Place” in cases of sexual harassment in virtual spaces and emphasises the necessity of a feminist review of laws that are blind to the reality of spatial fluidity in a post-digital society.
Articulating a Feminist Response to Online Hate Speech: First Steps (Bot Populi)
October, 2020: As online publics become integral parts of people's public and private lives, it is more important than ever to consider the ramifications of online hate speech against women and femininity. While the judiciary and social media platforms have tried to control online misogyny, their 'solutions' have been inadequate; sidestepping concerns of privacy, consent, and women’s dignity to focus on 'honor', free-speech, etc. In this article for Bot Populi, Anita Gurumurthy and Bhavna Jha emphasize the need to collaboratively develop a feminist articulation of how sexist hate can be curtailed across the techno-legal fictions of public, private, and digital spaces – making them safe and equally accessible.
Public Participation is a Woman’s First-Order Claim to Being Recognised as a Human Being, the Pandemic Can’t Be Allowed to Undermine That (Firstpost)
June, 2020: The Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how deep the fault lines of gender inequality run and how women’s claim to the public is but a carefully negotiated allowance given to women. In this article, Anita Gurumurthy and Bhavna Jha argue that public (including online) participation is women's first-order claim to being recognized as human beings, and the pandemic cannot be allowed to undermine that.
Why the Debate on Political Ads on Social Media is a Distraction (Firstpost)
November, 2019: This media piece by Anita Gurumurthy and Bhavna Jha is a contribution to the conversation on intermediary liability and the importance of responsibilisation of social media platforms. It argues that the law cannot become an instrument to legitimize private censorship, but must aim to slow the spread of intolerant attitudes, weaken extremist political forces, and guard against abuse by authoritarian populists, while providing judicial oversight and user right to appeal. It was originally published in Firstpost.
Events and Engagements
Roundtable on Feminist Perspectives on Social Media Governance
IT for Change and InternetLab organized a two-day closed roundtable on Feminist Perspectives on Social Media Governance on April 19-20, 2022. This roundtable was part of our Recognize-Resist-Remedy Project, funded by IDRC Canada, that explores how women's first-order right to participation can be reclaimed in the platformized publics of the Internet age.
For a brief synopsis of the overarching themes covered in the roundtable, read our syntheisis report of the event here.
Find the blurbs of the essays presented at the roundtable and copies of the draft essays here.
Sexism and the Online Publics
February, 2021: IT for Change, with support from EdelGive Foundation and International Development Research Centre, Canada (IDRC), brought together legal scholars, practitioners, platform intermediaries, feminist activists and journalists in a three-part webinar series, titled Sexism and the Online Publics, to unpack sexist hate speech online across February, in the lead up to International Women’s Day, 2021. The stellar lineup of speakers included Amber Sinha, Aparna Bhat, Arti Raghavan, Asha Kowtal, Mariana Valente, Mariya Salim, N.S. Nappinai, Shehla Rashid, Vaishali Bhagwat, Vishal Gogne, Vrinda Bhandari, and more. The series was open to the public and sought to create a much-needed space for an informed deliberation to address an issue vital to women’s fundamental rights in a democracy.
Safe Digital Spaces, a dialogue on countering cyberviolence (Open Forum at IGF 2020)
November, 2020: In the first wholly virtual avatar of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), IT for Change co-organized and participated in an Open Forum to feed into a multi-stakeholder consultative dialogue. Led by the Web Foundation and UN Women, this Open Forum sought to develop concrete solutions to address intersectional online gender-based violence across platforms from a technological and policy perspective. Participants in the Open Forum highlighted the need for tech companies and governments to learn from grassroots CSOs in order to build concrete solutions to online abuse, and therein emerged a call to build more localized, effective models of content moderation and reporting flows.
Judges' Training on A Feminist Perspective on the Right to Privacy
July, 2020: IT for Change’s Anita Gurumurthy facilitated a training session on the Right to Privacy: A Feminist Perspective for newly recruited judges at the Delhi Judicial Academy. The session focused on the evolution of the doctrine of privacy and its implication on platform publics in a datafied economy. The need for carving out a right to privacy in the new public sphere was explained through the lens of gender-based cyberviolence, and the feminist principles of privacy in the new public sphere, autonomy, dignity and equality were emphasized. The session went on to discuss techno-policy considerations in interpreting the right to privacy through complex real-world applications such as facial recognition technologies, privacy enhancing technologies and encryption.
Panel on Intermediary Liability and User Rights
January, 2020: IT for Change’s Bhavna Jha participated in a panel on intermediary liability organized by the Centre for Internet & Society. The panel examines sections 69 and 79 of the IT Act that permit the government to mandate intermediaries to remove/block content. The discussion focused on the procedural flaws of the law, issues of due process, and the lack of transparency in the legal process of content takedown.
Internet Detox: A Fail-Proof Mechanism to End Online Sexism (Panel at IGF 2019)
November, 2019: IT for Change, along with InternetLab, organized and participated in a panel on ‘Internet Detox: A Fail-Proof Mechanism to End Online Sexism’ at the Internet Governance Forum, Berlin in November 2019, which was one of the three propositions around gender to be accepted.