The internet is a rowdy place. Here, online abuse is a regular feature, fraud and misinformation vie for space, and any invention in the world shows up to wedge into the differences of humanity. Gender based abuse and bias shows up regularly. They stem from the sleazier side of technology.

Yet, human beings keep coming to the internet for more. Like the red and the blue pill in The Matrix, the choices humanity is left with are to become ignorant and happy or all knowing and desolate.

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Even when the internet helps us, we have social media preying on our need for constant communication, gratification, appreciation. Any information that titillates us wins. Already, Facebook and Instagram are in trouble because of election disinformation in the European Parliament elections in June, where the European Commission opened an investigation into suspected breaches of EU online content rules. Consequently, Facebook owner Meta has set up a team to tackle disinformation and abuse of GenAI in the elections.

OGBV, the Old Online Predator

Gender based abuse has been rampant on the internet, possibly because of the culture it panders to. Currently, Miss AI competitions are already hitting it high. Yes, create AI women based on the latest beauty standards and judge them. Reap awards to the tune of US$20,000. Meanwhile, Open AI’s GPT store has been flooded with AI girlfriend bots.

For decades, the problem of Online Gender Based Violence (OGBV) has been making the internet unsafe for many women. A recent study (based on an analysis of 94 court cases) on online gender-based violence in India reveals that Indian courts tend to treat cases of online violence towards women as less severe than physical violence due to the misconception that online space is less real or tangible than the physical world.

Despite the internet being hailed as a great equalizer, its pledge of providing a free and open space falters when women encounter hate speech online. Regrettably, many find themselves without the understanding to articulate such acts of violence or seek redress

Radhika Jhalani, Legal Counsel at Delhi-based legal not-for-profit organization SFLC.in

Radhika Jhalani, Legal Counsel at Delhi-based legal not-for-profit organization SFLC.in said, “Online Gender-Based Violence emerges as a formidable threat, casting a dark shadow on the active participation of women and marginalized communities in the digital realm. Despite the internet being hailed as a great equalizer, its pledge of providing a free and open space falters when women encounter hate speech online. Regrettably, many find themselves without the understanding to articulate such acts of violence or seek redress.”

SFLC.in tied up with UNESCO to launch a guide on dealing with Online Gender Based Violence (OGBV). The guide, titled ‘How To Defend Your Online Spaces Against Online Gender-Based Violence’, helps identify the various types of online abuse that take place and takes the user through possible recourses available to them to combat this form of violence. The guide is available in English, Hindi, Marathi, and Malayalam.

The educational guide from SFLC.in and UNESCO is designed to help users understand what constitutes OGBV, help them identify it, and take a user through possible recourses. The guide covers offenses of online sexual harassment, cyberflashing, cyberstalking, non-consensual dissemination of private and intimate photos or videos, doxing, morphing (including deepfakes), voyeurism, online sextortion or sexploitation, hate speech, identity theft and offenses targeting minors.

Unsafe Online Ads

Even as Instagram is looking to put unmovable ads, i.e. ads you cannot skip, the Annual Complaints Report published in May by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) says digital ads accounted for 85% of ads processed, and had a lower compliance rate of 75%, compared to 97% for print and TV.

This raises serious questions about the online safety of consumers, as was highlighted last year as well. 94% of the ads that were processed were picked up suo moto by ASCI. 49% of the advertisements picked up by ASCI were not contested by the advertisers. A total of 98% of cases eventually required modification as they violated the ASCI Code.

Also, this year, healthcare emerged as the most violative sector, contributing to 19% of cases, followed by illegal offshore betting (17%), personal care (13%), conventional education (12%), food and beverage (10%), and realty (7%). Baby care emerged as a new contender in the top violators category, with influencer promotions contributing to 81% of baby care cases.

Out of the 1,575 advertisements processed in the healthcare sector, 1249 violated the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, 1954, and were reported to the sector regulator. 86% of the healthcare ads appeared on digital platforms. 1311 advertisements for illegal betting were sent to the appropriate authorities for further action. Of the 1064 ads that ASCI examined in personal care, 95% of them appeared online, with more than half (55%) being influencer non-disclosure cases.

With the highest number of violative ads seen online, advertisers and platforms must work more closely with regulators and self-regulators to keep consumers protected

Manisha Kapoor, CEO & Secretary General of ASCI

Manisha Kapoor, CEO & Secretary General of ASCI, said, “With the highest number of violative ads seen online, advertisers and platforms must work more closely with regulators and self-regulators to keep consumers protected.”

Data Leaks with Online Dating

Dating apps are the most vulnerable when it comes to user data protection. Recently, gay dating app Grindr has been facing a mass data protection lawsuit in London from hundreds of its users whose private information, which included HIV status, was allegedly shared with third parties without consent.

It’s incidents like these that prompt these dating sites to take extra precaution. In February, Tinder introduced more identity checks for UK users, which involve a passport or a driving license to be checked against a video selfie. Those who sign up for the scheme voluntarily get an icon on their profile, which certifies that the authenticity of their age and likeness.

But Can We Escape the Internet?

Already one in four children today has a smartphone. Group chats on WhatsApp and other social media apps are ruling our days. On TikTok and Instagram, people are sharing their experiences of taking care of relatives who have reached their final years. New apps are being created to take care of our loneliness, like Los Angeles-based Buffet, which behaves like Tinder by matching people up and suggests a place to meet like OpenTable.

This addiction to the internet and social media cannot be good for us. Yet, that’s what’s in store for the future generation. According to research, as social media platforms contribute to teenage cancel culture, they can  disrupt vital conditions needed to flourish as a developing social being. Negligent usage of technology and social media, which is increasing among younger users is resulting in risky behaviour. These kinds of behaviours range from anxiety to cyberbullying, device addiction, problems with self-perceptions of one’s own body and depression, among others.

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Some people are exasperated by this. They are even turning away from smartphones opting for dumber phones. There is a growing trend for lower tech devices, with a minority of people swapping their smartphones for “dumb phones”.

Smart but depressed or dumb but happy, like the red and the blue pill in The Matrix, these are the choices humanity is left with.



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