[Editorial] Bulli Bai App Issue

About the issue:

  • Bulli Bai is an app hosted on the Github platform.
  • It has put up an online ‘sale’ of some 100 Muslim women. It has misused their photos from social media for this outrageous ‘auction’. Many of these photographs have been doctored.
  • The targeted women include activists, journalists and lawyers who are vocal on several political and social issues.

Why is this worrying?

  • This isn’t the first time such targeted harassment of Muslim women is being witnessed in India’s online arena. A similar app called ‘Sulli Deals’ staged an ‘auction of Muslim women’ in June last year.
  • The Sulli Deal app too targeted women with an assertive presence on social media and dehumanized them into ‘deals of the day’.
  • The police investigation into the app’s creators yielded little results- because of inadequate response from Github– a platform which doesn’t have a presence in India.
  • The internet has become a place of abuse and hostility for women across the world. Sexualizing and shaming women on the internet have become common enough across the world.
  • However, this case of ‘auctioning’ women, especially those from a minority community, isn’t just the standard issue misogyny. This has happened in a climate of majoritarian excess in India- already witnessing open calls for attack and mass murder of the minorities. This choreographed humiliation of women indulges communal tendencies and could push out the community from the digital public space.
  • The cyber-criminals are being emboldened by the reluctance to register these crimes and punish them for it. They are harnessing women’s pictures not only for pornography, but also for cyber-blackmailing and cyber-bullying the victims.
  • There are even international gangs which have successfully avoided detection by using servers located outside the country.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

How prevalent are such cyber-crime issues in India?

  • According to TRAI, there are 825 million internet users in India (at end of March 2021). Most of them are genuine users. There are only a miniscule fraction of rogue elements.
  • However, this small number of rogue elements have enough capacity to wreak havoc on the common citizen’s life.
  • They have the potential to rip the social fabric by playing with communal fault-lines.
  • Such cases aren’t confined to large metros or to a particular community. Cyber-crime is plaguing the women of small towns too.
  • The recent app cases made headlines and the police are working with CERT-IN (Computer Emergency Response Team, India) to track down the cyber-criminals. However, many other cases go unreported.
  • In many cases, a formal police case isn’t lodged, especially when the woman is about to be married, as marriage is a delicate affair in India and even the slightest accusations regarding women’s ‘character’ could lead to the ceremony being cancelled.
  • According to Crime in India 2020, from the NCRB, there were only 251 cases of women’s photos being morphed or defamed and only 354 cases of fake profiles, registered under the IPC, IT Act and Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. However, the reality is starkly different.

What needs to be done?

  • Registration of criminal case is the first important step towards curbing this issue. It sets the legal mechanism in motion, leading to the criminals’ prosecution.
  • The police should be given better infrastructure and training for tackling cyber-crime. Collaboration with cyber experts on a regular basis can help keep the police updated about the developments in the field.
  • Forensic labs’ capabilities must be improved to enable timely collection of evidence. The central government funds the states and UTs to start cyber forensic-cum-training labs under the CCPWC scheme (Cyber Crime Prevention Against Women and Children). States need to allocate resources for such labs too.
  • According to NCRB, in 2020, court trails were completed only in 9 cyber-blackmail cases with 66.7% conviction rate– leaving 393 cases pending. Similarly, only 29 cases of cyber stalking and bullying were completed- leaving 1,508 cases pending. In such a situation, fast trial of cybercrime cases would be of great help.
  • Given the international nature of some of these crimes, cooperation could be forged with foreign agencies through informal channels and formal treaties. CERT-IN has been commendably working on this front.
  • Social media platforms must be urged to monitor for abusive traffic and check such practices by creating safeguards for women and children.
  • Awareness about cyber-safety should be created among girls and women. In this regard, educational institutions and communities must join the law enforcement agencies in educating their wards about the precautions to be taken while in the virtual world.
  • It is true that internet provides anonymity which is used by criminals to undertake such offensive activities while masking their digital identity and footprints. However, the investigative agencies have the resources and expertise to track them down and the government has the clout to make social media giants comply with their wishes as seen from the central government’s dealings with Twitter.
  • The government must take exemplary action against the app’s creators. Just taking the app down without punishing such criminal behaviour would only encourage more impunity.
  • The government has prided itself for schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and championing Muslim women’s rights through its legislation against the triple talaq. Now, it cannot afford to go slow when there is such a flagrant violation of women’s rights.
  • The centre has often been accused of weaponizing the IPC to prosecute activists and dissenters. This time, the centre must push online platforms to assist the investigating agencies in the investigations and use the relevant provisions to punish the criminals.

Conclusion:

To catch and prosecute cyber offenders, prompt reporting of the incidents by the citizenry, efficient investigation by the police with adequate support from forensics and timely completion of court trials are essential. This current case is one of criminal bigotry and misogyny which must be dealt with using a firm hand.

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