Author of The Vedic People ( Orient BlackSwan), English Education in India, 1715-1835 (Routledge), (jointly with Jayant Narlikar) of Astronomy in India (INSA), and Sanskrit & British Empire ( Routledge, forthcoming)
Roving Eye: Coping with Voyeurism in Internet, Digital Technology(2005)
Roving Eye: Coping with Voyeurism in Internet, Digital Technology
The MMS episode in Delhi and the spycam case in Pune have thrown up fundamental questions on Internet and digital technology. How do we formulate laws to regulate the Internet? And, how do we deal with the voyeurism that digital technology has made possible, if not sanctified?
In a conventional communication system, all information is received at a central office, processed and dispatched to different destinations. If the central office is destroyed, the system will collapse. However, the Internet is decentralised by design and inherently anarchic. It breaks a dataset into small packets which independently find their way. If a particular route is blocked or crowded, the packet will find another. Once the packets arrive at their destination, they recombine to form the original message. Therein lies its strength. Its dangers also stem from the same circumstance.
Internet liberates the word, image and sound from physical constraints and transmits them at high speed and low cost. It is an improvement on existing arrangements, but in one respect it has opened new vistas, namely, pornography. In permissive societies this has meant new opportunities for child abusers, while in more conservative societies it has meant access to material that did not exist before.
Language is older than grammar. Grammar is derived from the actual usage of a language and then employed to regulate the language itself. Traditional laws are like the grammar, derived from the social situation to protect certain frameworks. But new laws in the high-tech driven globalised world constitute a break with the past. They have neither the benefit of a pre-existing theoretical framework nor the bedrock of precedents.
These laws must necessarily be futuristic, with the current crop of law-makers, enforcers and interpreters all operating in a vacuum. The newness of the situation is compounded by the short timescales on which the world now operates. To avoid miscarriage of justice and international embarrassment, all stakeholders must devise a standing mechanism for evolving the legislation till it can be placed on a firm footing.
Had the schoolboy at the centre of the pornographic MMS case been in the US, he would not have been charged with the crimes he has been accused of in India. He would have been punished for far more serious offences. Even if the MMS clipping was made with the approval of the girl, the boy would still be guilty of making it public and commercially exploiting it without her consent. The irony is that one cannot even talk of the real victim. And since the boy is protected by his minority, we have been looking for fatter necks to fit the noose.
In the MMS case, the clipping was made by the actors. Phone cameras are increasingly been employed to covertly capture intimate and private images, especially of women, which in turn are used to embarrass or harass them. Saudi Arabia has taken the extreme step of banning camera phones altogether. The South Korean government has ordered that all future mobile handsets must produce a sound of at least 65 decibels whenever they are used to take a picture. Other governments are tackling the problem at legislative level. The US Congress has already passed a Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, which prohibits the photography of various parts of people’s unclothed bodies or undergarments without their consent. In Australia, camera phones have been banned around swimming pools, while in Taipei, restrictions have been placed on their use in public places.
The case of the Pune-based landlord spying on his women tenants goes to show that digital voyeurism has arrived in India. We need to address the problem at various levels. First, like South Korea, India should insist that all camera phones sold in the country make a sound or preferably flash a light. Since manufacturers view India as a giant lucrative market, it is desirable that India use its clout to impose standards. Secondly, India should incorporate right to privacy as a fundamental right. It is however a well-known fact that many crimes against women go unreported because of the stigmatisation of the victims by society. Violation of privacy through technology should be severely punished, and the identity of victims kept secret, no matter what their nature of activity or antecedents.
When new technologies emerge, the first people to appreciate and utilise them are the ones with ulterior motives. It is the duty of the state to protect the society. The state no doubt knows it except that the timescales now are much shorter than before.
The law as it stands must be respected and enforced. Yet one suspects that in the MMS case sociocultural aspects are more important than the legal ones. Technological and social changes have today rendered upper-class Indian parents a confused lot. They believe that the values they grew up with are irrelevant and not worth transmitting down the line. Unable to touch the mind, heart or soul of their children, they are trying to clear their own conscience by loosening the purse strings.
Fashions come and go. But basic civilisational values remain the same. Parents, teachers and the society must exercise their moral authority in support of these values. A havaldar’s danda cannot be a substitute for a parent’s frown.