Net nanny meets muscular law
By Laxmi Murthy
26 September 2018
India’s new human-trafficking bill could criminalise sex workers and curtail free speech.
When conservative morality is armed with the law and prejudice is given legal validity, the state is transformed into a wet nurse cum security guard. The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2018, passed on 26 July in the lower house of the Indian Parliament, represents a growing trend of increased state surveillance and control, and a carceral approach to dealing with non-compliance with overbroad and vague laws laced with prudery.
Trafficking in persons, as defined by the United Nations, is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons” by coercion, deception or the abuse of power or position for the purpose of exploitation. Human trafficking is considered to be a form of modern-day slavery and is outlawed in most countries.
Following the ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1949, India enacted the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act 1956. However, nowhere was trafficking clearly defined in the law. The acronym of this law, SITA, seemingly deliberately modelled after Sita, the chaste wife of Rama from the epic Ramayana, reinforced the moralism already codified into law. Moving from suppression to prevention of ‘immoral’ trafficking took three decades, but the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), as the act was renamed in 1986, continued to prioritise morality over human rights, focusing its attention on raiding brothels and “rescuing and rehabilitating” sex workers, whether or not they wanted such intervention. Though sex work is not illegal per se in India – with some notable exceptions with respect to soliciting in public places – the ITPA views consensual adult sex work as a misnomer and approaches all women in sex work as victims in need of rescue. This ultimately criminalises even consenting adult sex workers by treating solicitation, brothel ownership and procurement as criminal activity.
Unfortunately, the 2018 trafficking bill has been drafted with this very mindset, and goes on to widen the scope to cover “aggravated” forms of trafficking, including trafficking for the purpose of forced labour, begging, trafficking by administering chemical substance or hormones for early sexual maturity among other things. It also includes in its ambit trafficking for the purpose of surrogacy, at a time when questions around commercial surrogacy and consent of surrogates have yet to be settled in Indian law.
The bill also aims to unify existing criminal law provisions on trafficking. The definition of trafficking in the Indian law is drawn primarily from Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which includes ‘any act’ of physical exploitation, sexual exploitation, slavery or practices similar to slavery and servitude. Trafficking under this bill also includes begging and domestic work. However, critics of the bill, including a collective of sex-worker-rights groups and organisations working with bonded labour, children and adolescents under the banner of the Coalition for an Inclusive Approach on the Trafficking Bill, say that the bill, with its criminalised approach, will further stigmatise sex workers, transgender persons and beggars. The supposed ‘victims’ of trafficking would, therefore, be forcibly rescued, rehabilitated and repatriated, and denied their chosen residence as well as their means of livelihood. The elaborate anti-trafficking bureaucracy to be set up at district, state and national levels seems unwieldy and without representation of the communities it purports to protect.
The anti-trafficking bill embodies a constitutional conundrum: in attempting to fulfil the mandate under Article 23 of the Constitution – to protect persons from exploitation inherent in human trafficking – it can potentially violate fundamental freedoms, in particular, the freedom of speech and expression, a core protection guaranteed by Article 19.
According to Section 39 (2) of the bill, “Whoever solicits or publicises electronically, taking or distributing obscene photographs or videos or providing materials or soliciting or guiding tourists or using agents or any other form which may lead to the trafficking of a person shall be punished (emphasis added)”.
This provision, while intending to criminalise online soliciting, casts a wide net and prescribes penalties – rigorous imprisonment for a term of five to ten years and a fine between INR 50,000 (USD 700) and INR 100,000 (USD 1400) – for vaguely defined acts which may lead to trafficking. It is not necessary, as per this provision, to prove a direct causal link between these acts – such as distributing obscene photographs or providing materials – and the actual crime of trafficking. Such a broad brush is highly problematic and violates well-established tenets of criminal jurisprudence which require criminal intention (mens rea) along with the actual criminal act (actus reus). That is, a criminal act must be accompanied by a criminal intention. Without any burden to prove a causal link, anything deemed to potentially lead to trafficking can be proscribed – for example, any artistic work, academic publication or cinematic representation.
Sexually explicit content – text, audio and visual – has evoked deeply contentious opinions right from the time of the Kamasutra and the erotic sculptures of the Khajuraho temples. There is no one single position on pornography or obscenity among feminists, despite their shared concern about enhancing women’s rights and stopping exploitation. On the one hand, American feminist Robin Morgan’s famous pronouncement back in 1974, that pornography is the theory and rape is the practice, implying that pornography was directly responsible for violence and sexual abuse of women, influenced early feminists the world over, and continues to hold sway among sections of women’s rights advocates. However, while images undoubtedly impact on the human psyche, the causal links between pornography and rape are not established firmly enough to warrant censorship and bans. On the other hand, sex-positive feminists who celebrate varied expressions of sexual desire, especially female sexuality, advocates of feminist pornography (which is not seen as a contradiction in terms), adult entertainers and sex workers have practiced and theorised sexual desire and its many manifestations in ways that are undergirded by consent, respect, agency and autonomy, but not necessarily confined to contemporary social mores. Conversations around sexuality and desire have moved beyond criminalisation of what is considered deviant, but echoes of these conversations do not seem to have been heard in the corridors of the Parliament.
With the prevalent moral disapproval of pornography and adult entertainment, the phrase “taking or distributing obscene photographs or videos or providing materials” can easily be misinterpreted as leading to trafficking. The word ‘obscene’ is itself too subjective and culturally loaded a term to withstand rigorous legal scrutiny. It is a no-brainer that deciding what is aesthetically pleasing erotica and what is unacceptable pornography is in the eye of the beholder and is, therefore, subjective. Where there is no requirement to prove intention, or mens rea, any image or video deemed to be obscene can be censored. This could bring into its ambit online material, articles, literature, magazines as well as artists and their work, and consenting adult sexual interactions in the digital space including adult dating apps like Tinder or OkCupid.
It was only as recently as 2014 that India’s Supreme Court jettisoned the archaic Hicklin Test, which was developed in an 1868 case in England to determine whether specific material could “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences”. This outdated standard was applied, for instance, in the landmark case of Udeshi v State of Maharashtra in 1964 to uphold the ban on the D H Lawrence classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover and to convict Ranjit Udeshi, a bookseller, under Section 292 of the IPC for distributing “obscene” material.
Half a century on, in 2014, Anand Bazaar Patrika, publishers of Sportsworld, a magazine which reprinted a nude photograph of tennis champion Boris Becker and his fiancée, won the case in the apex court which rejected the Hicklin Test. However, the court adopted a ‘community standards’ test derived from the 1957 Roth v United States case that determined what was obscene and was, therefore, unprotected by the First Amendment to the American Constitution that protects freedom of speech. The ‘community standards’ test has itself been challenged for its vagueness, since what is considered to have social importance is itself variable. In addition, the Supreme Court in the Sportsworld case allowed the nude photograph because, in the court’s view, it did not have “a tendency to arouse feeling or reveal an overt sexual desire”. The nude photograph of a white-skinned Becker with his dark-skinned fiancée was deemed to be in the public interest, as its intention was to cast a spotlight on racism and apartheid. However, the justification that the photo did not arouse sexual desire and was, therefore, acceptable, is both highly subjective and problematic in its criminalisation of sexual desire, in that it allows – without any evidence whatsoever – the dangerous possibility of nudity having a causal effect on violence.
Stormy seas and safe harbours
The Trafficking Bill 2018 in its “offences related to media” chapter, continues in its inexorable march towards criminalisation on the basis of vague definitions. According to Section 36, a person is said to be engaged in trafficking of person even if that person “advertises, publishes, prints, broadcasts or distributes, or causes the advertisement, publication, printing or broadcast or distribution by any means, including the use of information technology or any brochure, flyer or any propaganda material that promotes trafficking of person or exploitation of a trafficked person in any manner.”
However, since “promoting trafficking or exploitation” has not been clearly defined, it makes room for different interpretations of liability. There is little in this provision that attempts to impose a clear, rigorous standard of evidence that could demonstrate direct cause. The Bengaluru-based non-profit Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) cautions that, under this clause, the likelihood of authors of adult material, videographers, filmmakers and internet sites being charged with promoting trafficking or exploitation is quite high, since the clause might build a legal link between hosting or producing pornography and trafficking.
Clamping down on internet freedom on the basis of obscenity is not new. In July 2015, the government banned 857 websites that it considered pornographic. This followed the Kamlesh Vaswani case in the Supreme Court where the then chief justice of India expressed his inability to order a ban as it would go against the right to personal liberty guaranteed in Article 21 of the Constitution. In their submission challenging the ban, and underlining the subjectivity in viewing and interpreting content, the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) said, “one man’s pornography is another man’s high art”, making it impossible for them to ban any sites. The ISPs were later told that they should ban only sites showing child pornography, but they submitted that they neither created content nor owned it and that it was not possible for them to view content before hosting it. And therein lies one of the most controversial features of the trafficking bill.
The most pernicious provision of the bill, Section 41 (2), displays a complete lack of understanding of the manner in which the digital space functions. The section penalises anyone who “distributes, or sells or stores, in any form in any electronic or printed form showing incidence of sexual exploitation, sexual assault, or rape for the purpose of exploitation or for coercion of the victim or his family members, or for unlawful gain.”
As the CIS critique of the bill points out, digital infrastructure requires third party intermediaries to handle information during transmission, storage or display. As it is not always desirable or even practically possible to verify the legality of every bit of data that gets transferred or stored by the intermediary, the CIS points out, the law provides ‘safe harbours’ to protect intermediaries from liability, ensuring that entities that act as architectural requirements and intermediary platforms are able to operate smoothly and without fear. It must be noted that users who upload and initiate transfer of information online, are not always the same parties who are directly involved in transmission of content.
In India, immunity from liability or a ‘safe harbour’ for intermediaries involved with transmission or temporary storage of content is currently provided by Section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act), on condition that they: (i) act as a mere ‘conduit’ and do not initiate the transmission, select the receiver of the transmission, or select or modify the information contained in the transmission and (ii) exercise due diligence, which has been defined under the law. The provision for safe harbours has also been tested in court, notably in the case of the virtual market Baazee.com (later acquired by eBay), which had hosted an advertisement for an ‘obscene’ video for two days before it was taken down. The court held that the IT Act would prevail over the IPC, and the managers could not be held liable for the content of the advertisement.
With Section 59 of the proposed trafficking bill set to override existing legislation, the provision of safe harbours under the IT Act will be in jeopardy. Notably, this move to prosecute internet intermediaries is in keeping with a worldwide trend. In April 2018, the United States President Donald Trump signed into law two controversial pieces of legislation aimed to tackle human trafficking online, which have grave implications for free speech. The US Congress bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), and the Senate bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), have been welcomed by some as a victory for victims of sex trafficking. Alarmingly, however, the bills, better known by their acronyms FOSTA-SESTA, create an exception to the safe harbour rule, ie Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA). This provision, which is regarded as a landmark protection, says “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” For over two decades, in the spirit of actualising the immense potential of the digital space to share information, ideas and opinions, this section has provided immunity for intermediaries, allowing users to freely generate content without making platforms and ISPs accountable for such content.
Under FOSTA-SESTA, however, websites are liable to be penalised for advertisements promoting consensual adult sex work, dating or escort services (such as Backpage.com or Craigslist) which could be deemed to promote trafficking. Sex-worker-rights activists in the US posit that such an unwarranted clampdown on these avenues through which adult sex workers could safely screen clients and avoid potentially dangerous situations, is putting them at risk.
Despite the protests against the impact of FOSTA-SESTA on the internet and free expression, parliamentarians in the United Kingdom seem set to follow a similar regulatory route. An All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade in July 2018 called for a ban on “prostitution websites”, by which they mean virtual advertising sites such as Vivastreet and Adultwork which host adult advertisements. Anticipating the same fallout as in the US, Amnesty UK tweeted, “Taking down these platforms will push sex workers deeper underground exposing them to greater risks of violence, exploitation and trafficking.”
According to Interpol, trafficking in human beings is a multi-billion-dollar international criminal industry, which is usually carried out for forced labour, sexual exploitation or for harvesting of tissue, cells and organs. Despite this recognition of the different motives for trafficking, the crime has largely been linked – in the popular imagination, media and, unfortunately, even law enforcement – to sexual exploitation. The thrust of anti-trafficking efforts in India, post-Independence, set the stage for decades of human-rights violations in the name of anti-trafficking, using an ineffective law that penalised victims more than traffickers. The proposed bill, with its ill-conceived criminalised regime, is likely to do more harm than good, and give rise to a repressive regime that is not in the interests of marginalised populations most vulnerable to traffickers. Not only is the bill unlikely to make any dent in the organised trafficking networks, but the fallout of its provisions policing the internet is also likely to hamper freedom of expression and consensual, adult sexual activity mediated through the digital space.
~ Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, and is a Contributing Editor with Himal Southasian. She is currently coordinating a Zubaan-Panos initiative on sexual violence and impunity in Southasia through theatre and other performing arts.