Why women need a data protection law : Online shopping carts, pregnancy apps to their online presence itself

Pragati Sharma

It often happens that before I post something on my Instagram profile, which happens to be private, I wonder not only about how it will be perceived by others (a usual side effect of being a social media user) but also how it another person can simply take a screenshot and share or use it without my consent. Hypocritically enough, sometimes, I do, too. Even though photo sharing based social media apps alert the user when someone takes a screen grab of the post (Instagram and Snapchat stories), however, the same does nothing to deter sharing and subsequent use of the screen grab.


In this age and time, the expectation of privacy has reduced, both online and offline. In public we are constantly under surveillance in one way or another, be it Credit Card swipes or CCTV Cameras in public places. One knows that the data we share online, odds are that not only it can be viewed by people who do not have direct access to it, but also stored, shared, and used in many ways to target the data sharer as a user, consumer and a citizen.

However, the expectation of reduced privacy does not forgo at the same time, the very expectation of privacy. This is at the core of the doctrine of informational self-determination in which privacy continues to exist for a person despite its reduced expectation. This applies especially for women as several studies and experts have concluded.

Experts and studies

According to a study conducted by the University of Washington to assess the perception of privacy in a public place, especially where the surveillance is not related to security, ‘women are more concerned than men about their privacy,both as watcher and the watched.’ Furthermore, ‘A majority of men and women interviewed said they would be uncomfortable with having their images recorded, as opposed to being used in a real-time display. The study also shows almost twice as many women as men voicing concern about even real-time display of their images.’

It is no secret that online profiles of users are studied for their information in order to provide more individualised experience within the platform. The demographics are stored and used to observe, predict, and manipulate the user behaviour. The incident involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is only the most recent example of how user demographics was used to predict and manipulate behaviour. Women from the age of 18-49 are considered a highly valued demographic in terms of internet marketing opportunities. Consider the example of iVillage, cited by Erik Larson in the New Yorker, where a pregnant woman can enter her due date and receive a calendar showing day by day what's likely to be happening inside her body. Women with overlapping calendars are directed to a "Pregnancy Circle" an online support group where they can trade advice and concerns and are simultaneously prompted to purchase items such as books from Amazon.com, baby goods from iVillage's iBaby, and maternity clothes from iVillage's iMaternity.

How many times have you filled your online shopping cart with all the things you liked while browsing, but did not complete the purchase and after a few hours received an email from the said website for “abandoning your cart” or something more sentimental, “your cart misses you.” Or when you see an advertisement of a detox tea to shed the last 5 pounds, because you happened to Google a celebrity’s diet secrets, or simply because you subscribe to a health and wellness website.

If one compares the prospects that online marketing and shopping holds to a coal mine, websites that target female users are mining diamonds from the proverbial coal mine.

Professor Ann Bartow of the University Of New Hampshire School Of Law, in Our Data, Ourselves: Privacy, Propertization, and Gender, opines that “unregulated online data collection is a threat to all consumers. Because women do most of the shopping, and most of the "sharing," in meet space, and their presence is increasing in cyberspace, they are most vulnerable to the slings and arrows of online consumer profilers.” She further argues that collection of information online is of "singular importance to women.

This is primarily because women control the spending habits and patterns of their households, making them a special target for collection of information and profiling on the basis of the data collected. Bartow argues that online data collection needs to be regulated in order to prevent women from being targeted.

Working towards some solutions

The irony remains that if you want better, more individualised services, you need to share information that is personal, and if you do, you are a target and another valuable chunk of data to internet based marketing.

According to Ana Brandusescu, a Research and Policy Officer at the Web Foundation, “the link between these topics and gender might not appear obvious at first glance; gender plays a significant role in the design and implementation of technology, online privacy, and data protection. In turn, how technology is deployed, how online privacy is protected, and how data is collected and used all impact women differently than men.

However, in the case of women, the expectation of privacy is not limited to online shopping demographics, but also extends to digital security. In case of women, there is threat to their emotional and mental wellbeing. There are so many instances where prominent female activists became targets of online smear campaigns, bullying and gender based harassment, and in many cases forced to shut down given the disturbing and sexually abusive nature of the threats by cyber mobs.

Anita L Allen, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, in her paper Gender and Privacy in Cyberspace says, “A woman-centred perspective on privacy in cyberspace is vital because only with such a perspective can we begin to evaluate how the advent of the personal computer and global networking, conjoined with increased opportunity for women, has affected the privacy predicament that once typified many American women's lives.”

Working towards solutions that dismantle patriarchy based cultures is hard. A data protection law is not a silver bullet which will take care of these deep, cultural issues. But it holds a promise that it can return back control to people, especially women online. While the Indian Privacy Code, 2018 is far from a perfect, the seven principles by focussing on protecting the autonomy of an individual are a modest guide to how a data protection law may be able to deal with some of the problems most women face online on social media.

Psst.. This post was authored by a volunteer to promote greater conversation on data protection. If you have ideas for public engagement and want to volunteer your time for this campaign please do get in touch with us at email hidden; JavaScript is required

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