As online spaces for sexual harassment proliferate, Hong Kong authorities struggle to keep up

Photo from Hong Kong Free Press. Used with permission.

This article is originally written by Jennifer Creery and published on Hong Kong Free Press on September 8, 2018. The version below is republished on Global Voices according to a content partnership agreement.

It was a slew of messages on a Telegram group of 10,000 users, which shared explicit images of women without their consent, that led activist Emilia Wong to take action.

Wong is an online activist who runs a “Gender blog,” where she publishes essays on bodily autonomy. After six months of quietly watching the Telegram group, she put up a series of damning screenshots on her platform. What resulted was a media furore that triggered an intense debate over the legal protections afforded to victims of smartphone-related sex crimes.

The Telegram group, “Street Shooting Valley @callginhk”, had been operating on the messaging app for over a year, and had amassed a loyal following of voyeurs who posted over 100 new explicit photos a day. Their name is a reference to the practice of taking surreptitious upskirt photos of women in the street and sharing them online. But their images also include leaked nudes and some, Wong thinks, of underage girls. She said:

Their values are really twisted…They treat women as extremely sexual objects. They think that a woman’s worth is solely invested in her sexuality and how appealing she is to men.

Under Section 161 of the Crimes Ordinance, a person who is convicted of “access to a computer with criminal or dishonest intent,” (smartphones included) is liable to five years’ imprisonment. However, prosecutions have been put on hold until the court of final appeal clarifies the law over a disputed case next year.

The delay was applauded by users of @callginhk, according to Amy (not her real name), who joined the group after being upskirted in July. She explained:

I was on the MTR and a man tried to follow me, like a detective…He was obviously taking photos of me, because his phone was at his stomach or knee area, in quite a low position… I was frightened and thought he might have mental problems.

Afterwards, Amy’s friend told her that the images might be on a rumoured group for voyeurs on Telegram — an app that had become popular in the community for its secure encryption. Amy got the name of the group from her friend and joined in:

When I entered, there were so many members…I was shocked and afraid because I thought Hong Kong was a safe space, but now I doubt its safety.

A representative from women’s rights social media platform, The Asian Feminist, told HKFP that poor legal protection of women in the city leaves them vulnerable:

Hong Kong generally has lagged behind in tackling violence against women, from domestic violence to upskirting. There is currently no law specifically to tackle upskirting, and from what we read from media reports about the crime, the punishment tends to be light, like the 18-month probation given to a doctor who took upskirting photos of hospital patients.

Those found taking indecent photos are currently prosecuted under a range of laws, including “Disorder in Public Places” and “Loitering.” However, a representative from the anti-sexual violence support group Rainlily told HKFP that these laws fail to criminalise the sexual nature of the offence.

‘They think they are heroes’

The @callginhk screenshots paint an unforgiving portrait of the users — narcissistic, entitled and crass. Wong shared her observation:

They think they are heroes…If a woman is not physically attractive to them, then she is basically worthless. They only treat them as pieces of meat, It’s quite degrading.

She said users will proclaim that it is a woman’s honour to have their pictures taken by them as it shows their appreciation of her.

Wong herself is a bodily autonomy advocate, posting non-explicit nudes to a small group online:

I would post more revealing pictures and say that women have the right to wear what they want and still be respected.

But in a world of ubiquitous communication, word (or images) travels fast, and soon her pictures found their way to the Telegram group, where users lambasted her appearance: “Let’s all report the fat c**t’s posts,” user Thomas Chan urged, while another, Kit Hey, declared “There are probably thousands of people who hate the fat c**t.” One user on Facebook speculated that she was a part-time prostitute.

Her activism has led to a torrent of online abuse, including death threats and emails to her teachers and employers. This hasn’t shaken her resolve. She said that she plans on setting up an online system to report abuse and offending users:

It’s like a balancing strategy, to make them feel like they are not as safe in those groups.

Easy technology

On Taobao, a popular Alibaba-owned shopping website, spy cameras disguised as pens and car keys sell for as little as HK$160. There are no restrictions on who can buy them, making them an easy tool for upskirting offenders. Wong said:

In [@callginhk] they have discussed how to take these pictures better. They talk about the cameras that are hidden in glasses, in your specs, in zippers, in shoes…They ask whether anyone has bought these cameras, and are these cameras usable…From some of the pictures, you can see that the angle is really weird, as if there’s a camera in someone’s shoes, because it’s impossible for the angle to be that low if you’re holding a normal camera or your phone – so I think someone has bought it and is using it in Hong Kong now

One issue facing authorities tackling online sexual harassment is the rapid turnover of groups like @callginhk. As soon as one is discovered, it’s quickly deleted and replaced by another under a different name. “Telegram is the most severe platform right now because of how safe the perpetrator feels,” Wong said.

Wong said that her efforts to report the group to police were swept aside:

I have contacted the police, but I think their actions are rather slow… only after these things were exposed to the media that they really did their follow-up. Before, they didn’t really reply [to] me…I don’t think the police can really adjust to the fast-changing environment of social media and the internet era.

In a statement to HKFP, the police have said that they are investigating the incident:

The Police remind the public that the cyber world of the internet is not a virtual space beyond the law. Under the laws of Hong Kong, most of the ordinances stipulated in the real world may also apply for the cyber world.

Telegram has not responded to multiple requests for comment from HKFP. @callginhk no longer operates as it did before – administrators have now banned nude content and upskirt photos, but users can still access dozens of links to groups for pornography and prostitutes. With a wealth of other groups to browse from, there appears to be no clear end in sight.

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