Facebook Is Introducing New Tools to Protect Women in India

Jun 21, 2017

Facebook on Wednesday is unveiling new features that it hopes will make women in India feel safer on its platform.

The social network is introducing two tools that will give users in the country more control over who can download and share their profile photos—images that Facebook users can often see even if they're not friends with the person pictured.

Facebook's research in the Indian market revealed that some users, especially women, are uncomfortable uploading a profile picture of themselves for fear it might be distributed more widely than they wish or otherwise misused online, according to Facebook product manager Aarati Soman. Instead, they use photos of something else—say a dog or other animal—which can make it hard for friends to find them on the site.

They'll be available starting Wednesday. Courtesy of Facebook 

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The first feature is a photo guard that users can trigger. It will keep others from being able to download, share, or send the photo in a Facebook message. The latest version of the Facebook app on Android devices will also prohibit users from screen-shotting a guarded photo. Profile pictures with the added security will be displayed with a blue border and shield, which Soman calls "a visual cue so people understand you would like your picture to be protected."

A mock-up of Facebook's new profile picture guard. Courtesy of Facebook.

The second feature is a design overlay that users can put on their profile pictures. There are several different pattern options that Soman says mimic "traditional art designs from around India." Facebook's decision to add the feature stems from a research finding that an extra design layer on a profile picture made other users 75% less likely to copy it.

A mock-up of Facebook's new profile picture design. Courtesy of Facebook. 

Both tools will be promoted in Indian users' news feeds, and they'll be available in over 30 local Indian languages. Their gradual rollout starts Wednesday; they'll be available throughout India by June 27.

India is one of Facebook's fastest growing markets in terms of users, but low internet speeds, weak infrastructure, and a lack of consumer trust remain challenges there, according to Quartz. In May, Facebook launched its Express Wi-Fi Internet service in India with 700 hotspots. The company partnered with 500 local entrepreneurs to sell the service through vouchers that are priced by the day or the month. It's Facebook's second attempt to promote universal connectively in India. Its first, called Free Basics, was blocked by India's telecom regulator last year for not supporting net neutrality since the service favored some sites over others.

In explaining the rationale behind the two new tools being introduced Wednesday, Soman pointed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg's February manifesto, which called for the creation of a worldwide community. In it, he also mentioned the "real opportunity to build global safety infrastructure." Soman says that in India in particular, the risk of photo misuse "is a top-of-mind concern for women."

"A lot of what affects women offline affects women online," she says.

Anshul Tewari of New Delhi is founder and editor in chief of Youth Ki Awaaz, a content publishing site aimed at India's youth. His organization helped Facebook in the development of the new tools, and he told Fortune about the online risks that many Indian women face.

"Gender-based violence and sexual harassment is a big problem in India," he said, due in large part to "an extremely patriarchal way of thinking." Those attitudes are also present online.

Many men feel they command power over women, even in a virtual setting, Tewari explains. One rampant problem is the unsolicited online messages that women receive on social media from men who try to befriend or control them. Pushback against such advances has, in some instances, prompted men to download women's photos, create fake profiles based on the woman's identity and post unflattering, even pornographic, content, Tewari says.

" There's not clear information on how much it happens," he says, but "a lot of people are struggling [with it]." A legal system in India that's ill-equipped to combat this kind of cybercrime only exacerbates that problem, according to Tewari.

"One thing that a platform like Facebook can do," he says, "is identify ways to protect aspects of your profile that can lead to such violence happening online."

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