A defamation case in India is pitting a powerful man against an anonymous Instagram account that shared the stories of sexual assault. The ensuing legal battle could strip away one of the most important things for women who want to speak out about abuse: anonymity.
Last month, the Indian Supreme Court ordered Facebook, which owns Instagram, to reveal identifying details behind the person running the @HerdSceneAnd account. The account had published anonymous stories accusing influential sculptor and painter Subodh Gupta of sexual misconduct amid India’s reckoning with the Me Too movement.
“Anonymity can be a powerful tool in protecting free speech,” said HuffPost India technology editor Gopal Sathe, who reported on the contentious case with audience and engagement editor Nehmat Kaur.
The case is addressing many complicated issues, including data privacy, survivor advocacy and government intervention in tech.
People around the world are watching the case closely to see how Facebook will respond. The U.S., U.K., Australia and other governments have been pressuring the company to make it easier for law enforcement to identify its users, and now this case against a group of daring Indian women might just make that possible.
“Although companies like Facebook and Twitter often position themselves as enabling social movements, what we know is that the big tech companies are all harvesting and analyzing the most minute details about each of us, and this puts us all at risk the moment they decide that complying with a government order to invade privacy makes good business sense,” Gopal said.
Without a guarantee of anonymity, abuse survivors who want to warn other people about a perpetrator’s behavior may be less likely to speak out.
“In India, thousands of women implicitly trusted Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with their stories of harassment and assault,” Nehmat said. “Now they’re in a position where they’re relying on a profit-seeking, technically amoral corporation to act in ideological and ethical ways to protect their identities.”
The ruling has left many young women, including students and new professionals who may have little social or economic capital, in a vulnerable position, Nehmat said.
Stay with us as we follow the next hearing set for November to see how Facebook handles the request to reveal who is behind @HerdSceneAnd.
“What happens then is going to basically shape how women use social media for sexual harassment and assault accusations going forward,” Nehmat explained.
What are your thoughts? Do you think social media platforms should be responsible for protecting the identities of possible abuse victims? Let us know.
Thanks for reading,
Read more from Gopal here. Follow Nehmat on Twitter (@nehmatks) for more on the Me Too movement, pop culture and her dog.
And a note: We’re in the process of making some technical changes to our newsletters, so we’ll be taking off next week. We’ll be back on Oct. 26!
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