30 April 2013

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Imagine a TV station inviting a guest and giving the audience the opportunity to freely ask questions, with the guest deciding which questions to respond to. Imagine a member of audience then threatening the guest with rape, and the TV station’s representative responding by simply passing on the microphone to the next person, leaving the guest to fend for herself. Imagine the TV station then also refusing to provide any assistance to the guest following the incident. Outrage would, justifiably, ensue. Last week, Rediff treated a guest in much this way – during a Rediff-organised online public chat.

On 24 April, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) and a leading figure in the anti-rape protests that have been rocking the capital since December 2012, participated in a public chat at the invitation of Rediff. The topic of the chat was the rising incidences of rape and violence against women in the country. During the chat, Krishnan was repeatedly threatened with rape by a participant whose handle read ‘RAPIST’. RAPIST wrote: ‘Kavita tell me where I should come and rape you using condom’. Earlier the same person had made comments such as ‘Kavita tell women not to wear revealing clothes then we will not rape them’, to which Krishnan had in fact responded. All comments by RAPIST were written in capital letters.

To Krishnan’s consternation, Rediff left her completely out in the cold when it came to dealing with the abuse. A representative from the company who had come to her office to help her set up the chat was supportive of Krishnan, but not in a position to intervene. Another representative who participated in the chat also did not act – whether or not he could have is not clear. If Rediff was monitoring the conversation at all, no action was taken at any point, be it by providing a warning to the offending participant or by blocking the person. When Krishnan commented on this afterwards, a Rediff representative, though ready to extend support in other ways, first argued that it wasn’t possible to block participants, then changed his story and claimed that moderators had overlooked the threats.

Overlook rape threats made in capital letters by a handle called RAPIST on a public chat about rape in India? If lapses by its staff were indeed the root cause of Rediff’s inaction, it would have been commendable if Rediff had admitted this and had immediately committed to better equip its staff, through training and sensitisation, to make sure that such situations will be handled considerably better in the future.

But Rediff’s actions following the incident give the impression that this wasn’t just a matter of one employee failing to discharge his duty. Following the chat, Krishnan demanded that the company apologise, as well as provide her with a screen shot of the abuse. Despite friendly promises being made, Rediff in the end did none of that. In fact, when the company finally posted on Rediff News an edited transcript of the chat, supplemented by a summary and commentary, Krishnan was not even informed of this. She also was not informed that the offender was located in Denmark; like all of us, she, too, had to find that out by reading the report on Rediff News. Moreover, the transcript omitted Krishnan’s last message to the participants in the chat, which explained why she was signing off and that she was disappointed with Rediff’s response. Krishnan had explicitly requested this to be included so that readers would understand why she had left the chat so suddenly.

On 26 April, Rediff editor Saisuresh Sivaswamy claimed on Twitter that Rediff was ‘examining what to do next in the matter’. Four days later, examining still seems to be all that Rediff has done. Rediff’s failure to address this issue is clearly a systemic one.

Ideally, of course, one would want to have a situation in which Rediff would not even be required to respond to a post like this. Ideally, other participants in the chat would have descended on the person with the handle RAPIST as soon as he made his first comment, to support Krishnan and to marginalise the abuser, not the abused. But such a culture of solidarity, with associated practices, has not yet firmly taken root on the net. Moreover, in this particular instance, even if such a culture had existed, it might not have made much of a difference, as it isn’t clear whether participants in the chat were actually able to see each other’s questions and comments, unless Krishnan responded to them. In circumstances such as these, then, the actions of a company such as Rediff become particularly important.

Rediff, of course, argues that it has apologised, and it is true that seven paragraphs down, the report that the company published about the chat on its website comments in one line, ‘Unfortunately, a chatter from Denmark brought down the level of discussion - and there were hundreds of serious questions - by making a few offensive posts, for which we apologise to Ms Krishnan’. But what Rediff seems to have misunderstood is that an apology from the company is not required for the abusive comments as such. What Rediff needs to come clean on is the company’s complete failure to support Krishnan in responding to the abuse at any point in time, be it during or after the chat. For a company to use an individual to drive greater traffic to its site but then completely deny any responsibility to help when she is threatened, is simply unacceptable. By condoning such behaviour on a public chat that was Rediff’s initiative and by thus allowing Krishnan to be silenced, Rediff has effectively contributed to supporting the culture of silencing and abuse that one would hope the chat was meant to challenge.

Rediff seems, going by another tweet from editor Saisuresh Sivaswamy, to be hiding behind India’s legislation on intermediary liability to deny responsibility. This legislation, and its attendant rules, absolves companies such as social networks and Internet service providers from any liability for illegal content uploaded while using their services, as long as the company in question responds in a timely manner to any complaint they receive in accordance with the so-called IT Rules. Strong safe harbour provisions for intermediaries are a crucial element in the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression online, and the India’s IT Rules in particular are in fact in urgent need of improvement for this very reason.

But whatever the state of safe harbour provisions in India at the moment, for Rediff to seek recourse to protection under this section in this particular case is somewhat dishonest. Intermediary safe harbour provisions are meant for instances in which the company in question does nothing more than provide a platform. It can be disputed whether Rediff’s role in this instance was indeed limited to that. Insofar as the company invited Krishnan for the Q&A and fixed the topic for discussion, Rediff can indeed be seen to have ‘initiated the transmission’. Moreover, seeing that, following the chat, a report was published by Rediff on its news site, the media arm of the business thus also clearly sought to benefit from the interaction. In addition, perhaps in a tacit admission of the fact that it is operating in a grey zone here, when Krishnan pressed the point that she wanted to pursue this matter with Rediff, she was provided by a lower-ranking official of the company not with a complaints email id, but that of the Rediff editor.

The point here is not to demand for less protection for intermediaries – or for more stringent regulation of media companies for that matter. Krishnan herself has in fact repeatedly noted in interviews that she believes stricter regulation is not at all the answer and that view is one that is widely supported. But the ethics of Rediff in this instance does deserve to be questioned.

Where online interactions are their initiative, companies such as Rediff can make a crucial contribution to ensuring that the Internet is a safe space to engage for women, minority groups, marginalised people – in fact, for all of us. In this particular instance, for example, Rediff could have issued a warning to the offending user during the chat. If this hadn’t worked, they could possibly have blocked the user from participating further, in accordance with company guidelines. Even if no action had been taken during the chat, Rediff could immediately and vocally have come out in Krishnan’s support following the incident, and provided her with all the support she desired and required. Seeing that it does not seem to have a policy in place on this issue yet, Rediff could also itself publicly have initiated a broader conversation on the question of what it could have done during the chat to keep Krishnan out of harm’s way while also fully respecting the right to freedom of expression.

By inviting a woman for a public chat on the issue of rape and then completely denying any responsibility for ensuring her safety, Rediff’s commitment to create an online environment in which women can participate as equals to men is severely in question. What IS Rediff’s policy in this regard? And in the larger fight against rape and abuse, whose side is Rediff really on? By not clarifying its stance on this occasion, Rediff has lost an important opportunity to send out a positive signal that it considers the right to freedom of expression one that should be equally available to all. It is not too late yet, however, for the company to explain, and strengthen, its policies and position.

Rediff, your users still really want to know.

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