Technology, consent and privacy

Nobody (even at their age!) should struggle this much to read a situation.Tonight my fellow faculty member at Academy of the Impossible, Ramona Pringle, hosts an awesome-sounding event (which I sadly cannot attend) called The Connection Paradox: Creating a Social Blueprint. The event’s purpose is to flesh out an idea of how we want to live with technology and with each other. Since I can’t be there, she asked me to send her a few thoughts about the issue, and because of the things I often blog about, my thoughts automatically drifted to gender, privacy and consent as they relate to technology. Here are some of my jottings on the subject.

The dominant fear-mongering rhetoric around privacy and technology has given people an excuse to violate others’ digital privacy in ways they likely know (at least in the back of their minds) are immoral. Because the prevailing wisdom is “nothing is private in digital space”, our culture’s collective response to things like the sharing of intimate images is “well, she shouldn’t have sent him the photo in the first place”. This collective response flies in the face of the distinction between one-to-one and one-to-many communication. If a person chooses to send something via a one-to-one channel (or one-to-a-select-few, such as a group chat with 2 others), the tacit message is that the communication is for this person (or these people) alone. If a communicator wants a thought or image to be widely shared via one-to-many, they will do so themselves. I believe when people distribute intimate images that were texted or emailed to them alone, they know in their hearts that they are hurting and violating the other person, but our collective wisdom justifies their decision to share. That collective wisdom is what needs to change.

I feel this is a manifestation of some people’s belief that technology is an “objective” entity that functions and self-moderates automatically as its own animal, independently of human beliefs, values and behaviour. It strikes me that this is not unlike how people tend to think about the “free market”. I so disgree with this characterization. We are technology – we are the ones who make it, who use it, who decide how it can and should be used (though of course, we aren’t able to predict and control that use absolutely). We can set new and different standards of behaviour and use. IMHO, one of those “new” standards should be what is really a pretty basic/ancient moral code: if someone tells you something privately (especially if aspects of it are sensitive and/or could be harmful to anyone, whether they are involved or not), unless the communicator asks you to share or it’s in the public interest to share, keep it to yourself.

How to implement this standard? I dunno (sorry). It’s a complex cultural issue. In the case of revenge porn I believe the problem is also shrouded in misogynistic ideology that privileges public access to bodies (especially women’s bodies). I do think it would help to start teaching kids about consent as an important subset of how we educate them about privacy in a technology context. This teaching doesn’t have to apply solely to digital violations of a sexual nature (like revenge porn). For example, consider a situation in which a teenager confides to a friend about their crush via one-to-one chat, and the friend posts a Facebook status about it.

Consent should be an integral part of how we educate about privacy, but I think many parents and educators (not to mention the media) would be hesitant to do so. Why? Because it might in some ways qualify or mitigate (and perhaps in some folks’ eyes, undermine) the dominant, hand-wringy messages about BEING CAREFUL WHAT YOU POST because NOTHING IS PRIVATE ANYMORE. But I think it’s necessary. Educating about privacy shouldn’t just be about protecting our own privacy, but also about not violating the privacy of others. And this learning should start early.

How we can stop revenge porn

Today I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible to discuss how to wipe the heinous phenomenon of “revenge porn” off the face of this green earth. Revenge porn is the colloquial term for when people share nude or sexually explicit photos/video of another person without their consent. I’ve written about revenge porn here, here, here, and here. I encourage you to check out my Storify of our amazing discussion at today’s event.

The event generated a few ideas that are worth exploring, and fast. Why fast? Nova Scotia has assembled a Cybercrime Working Group to put together legislative options by June, for projected implementation in fall 2013. The Nova Scotia Justice Minister wants to implement legislation that could “make circulating an intimate image for a malicious or sexual purpose a crime” or “create a new section of the Criminal Code for distributing intimate images without consent” (two very different outlines, IMHO). We want to have a say in how they put this together.

In terms of influencing legislation, we wanted to ensure consequences for youth offenders are rooted in education and development of healthier social norms regarding sex, consent and accountability. We discussed conducting a series of formal and informal discussions with youth. Discussions would focus on their views on/experiences with revenge porn, the social consequences currently meted out and their feelings about those, what kinds of formal consequences they think are appropriate and why, and what kinds of knowledge would help them navigate these situations. The results of these discussions can be consolidated into a whitepaper and could be shared with the media (with confidentiality of participants protected, of course).

In terms of public education, we want to ensure the Ontario curriculum has opportunities built in for students to explore sexuality in a positive way through the lenses of consent, social media, and the law. If these opportunities don’t currently exist (or are not being implemented in practice), we want to form a coalition of organizations advocating for change.

In terms of public awareness, we want to further discuss the possibility of an ad campaign (e.g. posters, videos, etc.) focused on sharing explicit images without consent. This campaign may be in the spirit of the “Don’t be that guy” campaign to combat sexual violence. The next step for such a thing could be a one-hour brainstorming session wherein we free-associate words and ideas connected to the word “consent.” We’ll also be exploring potential media partners/sponsors.

Wanna get involved in any of that? Head over to “Contact” and get in touch so I can put you on the circulation list for updates and collaborative docs!

Child porn isn’t a “community issue,” RCMP

TRIGGER WARNING for sexual assault, victim-blaming, revenge porn.

rehtaeh parsons

On Sunday, rape culture and revenge porn claimed another teenage girl: 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. A year and a half ago, 15-year-old Rehtaeh was allegedly gang-raped by four boys in a friend’s home, one of whom took a picture of her rape on his mobile phone and distributed it to the school and community at large.

You can probably predict what happened next. The community rallied around her in disgust that someone would take and share such a photo? Oh, haha, you must be new here, Decent Human Being. Nope, she received a barrage of text messages and social media posts calling her a slut, begging her for sex, and generally shaming her for having been caught with her clothes off, despite the fact that it was allegedly not her choice.

She tried to escape the misery by switching schools and later checking into a hospital, but ultimately the trauma of the alleged assault and ensuing barrage of harassment proved too much. On Thursday, April 4th, Rehtaeh hung herself. On Sunday, April 7th, her parents took her off life support and the world said goodbye to a bright young woman with a promising future.

To add insult to injury, the RCMP did not seem to invest much effort into investigating either the assault or the photograph’s distribution (though they are apparently now investigating the “sudden death of a minor” – useful, thanks). I won’t get into their failure on her rape case, as Anne Thériault has already done a good job of that. I want to ask why the fuck Rehtaeh’s mother was told by the RCMP that the distribution of the photo was “not really a criminal issue, more of a community issue.”

I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure distributing nude photos of a 15-year-old constitutes a criminal issue: child pornography. The RCMP admitted they were able to trace the photo to one of the boys’ mobile phones, but apparently couldn’t determine who had snapped the picture. What about who distributed the photo, RCMP? The photo was allegedly sent to the entire school and surrounding community – surely a path to the sender exists. And surely our federal police force has access to the latest and greatest technologies to investigate these things.

It’s especially fishy because I seem to remember our Public Safety Minister making a widely lambasted pronouncement that anyone who opposed his draconian internet surveillance legislation “stood with the child pornographers.” (Remember that, Canada? LOL.) So yeah, I kinda figured distributors of child pornography would be a favourite target for the internet-savvy members of our law enforcement community. How foolish of me.

I guess this isn’t the easy, popular kind of child pornography to prosecute – the kind where the distributor is a sweaty 55-year-old man living alone in a basement. I guess when the distributors are close in age to the child, law enforcement decides it’s too much of a “he said/she said” situation for them to get involved. “A community issue.” This sounds suspiciously like how law enforcement tends to treat other forms of sexual violence.

That revenge pornographers with teenage victims are not treated as the child pornographers they are says a whole hell of a lot about bias and failure in our justice system. But really, while minors are the most vulnerable and deserve the most protection, restricting legal recourse for revenge porn survivors to those under 18 would be a failure too. People of all ages have been subject to the malicious distribution of nude and sexually explicit photos intended for private use (I’ve written about it before). Why do we place a higher premium on the photographer’s intellectual property rights than on the subject’s right to privacy?

I’m going to spitball an extremely obvious solution: why do we not have a law requiring the distributor of a sexually explicit photograph to provide written consent from the photo’s subject? Why do we place the burden of proof on the subject to show that she did not consent to the photo’s distribution, rather than on the distributor to show that she did consent?

I think the answer might lie in the commonly held, subconscious perception that women’s bodies exist for public consumption. It’s a problem with deep social roots, but that doesn’t mean our legal system can’t begin to address it. Let’s get cracking, cops and prosecutors. This isn’t a community issue.

“Lady” problems

On Friday a woman who I respected as a peer, despite our tendency to disagree on matters relating to feminism, wrote a piece for VICE disparaging forms of womanhood that she considers lesser (certainly less subversive) than her own. She goes as far as to suggest that those who don’t line up with her standards of womanhood (in which the Woman’s impulse when she is wronged or in danger is to destroy her oppressor) are not women at all, but “ladies” or even “girls”.

She crudely used me as an “example” of a lady concerned only with “amicable co-existence with men and ‘the status of women,’ so long as it doesn’t upset the status quo.” Her reasoning? Last year I turned to the justice system to prosecute a man who harassed me incessantly for months on Twitter. Well this guy bothered her too, y’know, and getting rid of him was as easy as being “directly and verbally a cunt” until he disappeared. As such she felt it was within her rights to judge the acceptability of my decision to go to the police, and to deem me an inferior woman (not a Woman, but a “lady”) for it.

“Good ladies, for example, complain daily about female bodies and identities being “policed,” then call the literal police, the literal fucking patriarchy, when something threatens that body or that identity. […] Giving the bro-force some nice, educated, single, white female to protect is the lowest of low things a lady can do, and while it was maybe, depending on her immediate threat level, okay to report him, it would have been far righter to fight back, to go Foxfire on the guy.”

Thanks, Sarah. I’m glad to have “maybe” secured your approval for the choice I made in order to protect myself, although it was “the lowest of the low” things I could have done [?????????]. The morally superior choice, the “righter” choice, would have been vigilante justice, “going Foxfire” on the guy. If only all women being relentlessly pursued and harassed by men who come across as hostile toward women and emotionally unhinged (perhaps dangerously so) knew that they could just form a gang and beat the living shit out of the guy.

I’m not entirely sure that such choices would end as poetically IRL as they do in, well, literature and films. I’m also not entirely sure how responsible it is to advise the readers of a publication that this is the “righter” way for women to deal with situations that make them feel unsafe. But then, Women probably don’t concern themselves much with issues of personal responsibility because they’re far too visceral for that.

For most people, I hope it would go without saying that perhaps Sarah’s experience with this guy was not identical to mine, and perhaps she is in no position to determine what the best way to handle it would have been, because we are not the same person nor are we in identical situations.

The police and the justice system are far from perfect, both on the handling-gendered-violence front and the knowing-what-the-internet-is front. I am more than a little insulted at the insinuation that I’m naive to their roles in the patriarchy. But there are officers who are doing what they can to push their institutions in the right direction. I was lucky enough to find such an officer, who spoke in front of a group of his peers last week about online harassment at SMILE (Social Media in Law Enforcement) Conference.

I would never attempt to prescribe the most appropriate or “right” way for a woman to cope with a situation in which she feels unsafe and in which I lack personal knowledge – I’ll leave that sordid task to other Women. The truth is for many women in many situations, the police are not a viable option. But I’m not willing to wholly write them off, and I’m certainly not willing to make determinations about the character of any woman who turns to them in her pursuit of justice and safety.

The more officers like Detective Bangild find opportunities to do good work and set positive examples for their peers, the more viable police may become as an option for women in dangerous situations. And if some Women continue to choose vigilante justice over courtroom justice, well, I wish them the very best in those endeavours and hope they choose their tools and targets wisely. There are many routes to personal safety and peace of mind, and none of these routes make the traveller any less a woman.

Not all Twitter fights are trivial

This morning I woke up to find a popular and respected Globe & Mail international affairs columnist making a light joke about a Scottish chef murdering his girlfriend. When people said “hmmmm not okay” he made more jokes in response. Albeit these jokes did not suggest he actively felt like “hahaha domestic violence”, but can we not make light of these scenarios please? It is extremely irresponsible use of an influential voice (a major privilege).

So I confronted him and, to his credit, he ultimately deleted the tweet and acknowledged the joke’s inappropriateness. In the process, a feminist I like and respect suggested this kind of transgression is not significant enough to warrant a Twitter fight, which she considers a “small” act of feminism. While I don’t think each of these conversations changes the world, I don’t think they should be dismissed either. I wrote about how it all went down for Canada.com – read the rest here.

I’m not done thinking or feeling or writing about this, so expect more here in the next day or two.

I hope revenge porn survivors get their revenge

A group of at least 23 women in the United States has filed a class-action lawsuit for invasion of privacy and causing mental anguish against revenge porn site Texxxan and its hosting service, GoDaddy (like you needed another reason to hate GoDaddy).

Revenge porn is a vile category of online content wherein a person posts nude photos or videos of another person without their consent (usually a woman, often an ex-lover). A cursory Google search will yield pages of sites hosting such content. Many of these sites include the women’s names, contact information and links to their social media profiles. Some of them include maps to the women’s homes.

As we all know, there is no shortage on the Internet of sexually explicit photos or video of consenting women. Porn (with consenting parties) is probably the Internet’s most popular application. The knowledge that women on revenge porn sites have not consented to the photo or video’s distribution is precisely what makes these sites titillating for their fans. One advocacy group, End Revenge Porn, likens it to “cyber-rape”.

Revenge porn perpetuates a culture that sees women’s bodies as public property, regardless of whether or not they have consented. Revenge porn ruins lives. Revenge porn, and a culture that sees it as invariably the woman’s fault, might have been what killed British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd.

Courts in Quebec and Australia have ruled in favour of the survivor in revenge porn lawsuits, awarding damages of $40,000 to the survivor in both cases. Unfortunately one US statute, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, appears to leave American survivors of revenge porn without much recourse. This section protects websites from legal responsibility for any content submitted by users.

John S. Morgan, the lawyer representing the Texxxan lawsuit’s lead plaintiff Hollie Toups, plans to argue that sites which advertise an illegal purpose for collecting user-generated content are not protected under Section 230. He may have precedent. In 2003, California district court ruled that website Roommates.com was not protected under Section 230 for their publication of a discriminatory roommate-finding questionnaire. Their reason? The questionnaire specifically induced site users to express roommate preferences that were illegal.

Revenge porn is yet another example of the legal system struggling to adapt to how much of our communication, transactions, and lives play out on the Internet. I’ll be following this case, and I hope you do too.

Women’s Organizations: We Get Emails!

TRIGGER WARNING: discussions of physical and sexual violence; racism; threatening, profane and obscene statements about women’s bodies, character and sexuality.

Anyone who works in the areas of women’s rights and empowerment can probably share at least a few stories of the threats, obscenities, and general vitriol hurled their way via email, social media, and telephone – hell, probably even fax machines though I don’t have confirmation on that. If I were to speculate on the reasons why men (and it is mostly men) wage such campaigns of abuse against women’s organizations and publications, I’d say their intent is to intimidate, humiliate, and generally cause emotional distress. Whether they’re doing this to attempt to compromise the organization’s work, to vent what they believe to be righteous anger, or to take the evil feminists down a peg is really beside the point.

This means that most women who want to work in this area must have an extraordinarily thick skin. Not only do you need to cope with work that in my experience is intensely emotionally draining (and sometimes triggering), you need to be prepared to face an inordinate number of abusive, hateful remarks and threats against your safety. While I do think the interconnectivity, instantaneity and social insulation of the internet facilitate more torrential harassment, I expect this phenomenon (and perhaps much worse) would probably be familiar to the feminists of eras past.

I think it’s important that people who care about gender equity but are not engaged with the work day in and day out understand the severity of what feminist workers and volunteers have to face. In that spirit, here’s a small sampling of comments that have been received on a variety of platforms by either myself or women I know who work in women’s rights and empowerment.

[REPEATING THE TRIGGER WARNING HERE, THIS STUFF IS PRETTY NASTY]

“bitches who made this [project] deserve to be raped for thinking all men are rapists.”

“I don’t understand the practicality of a rape whistle. Isn’t it kind of hard to blow a whistle when the woman’s mouth is already full blowing a dude’s dick? :)”

“I think the proper present for International Men’s Day is a blowjob. Feel free to start sucking anytime, honey.”

“somebody should drag u in a back alley and rape u”

“As a guy, every time I see something like this [project], I proceed to get a shiver, grab my ballsack, and gentle hold it, reassuring it that it shall not be such a violent or horrible creature that causes pain and misery to others, but will remain as a peaceful, benevolent dick that will be solely used for going pee pee standing up. OH THE SHAME”

“all women should be raped and killed. all they are good for is making sammiches and their fuckhole they are useless evil cunts.”

“i’d eat u out then blow ur brains out i’m hardcore like that”

“I guess you’ve been asking for a good beating and raping all along.”

“*hoooot* Time to rape!”

“some day you’re going to ROFL at the wrong badass motherfucker and he’s going to teach you a lesson you won’t forget very soon ok? you might think it’s funny to laugh at other people but some of us have feelings too and you need to take into account because if you hurt other people they’re gonna hurt you back, probably with shotguns and rocket launchers. what goes around comes around motherfucker.”

“Every person involved in this [project] is a dumb fucking cat piss stench cunt. You deserve to be launched into outer space to die.”

“She’s only a Muslim anyways. So if she is raped, what does it matter?”

“keeping man-hating cunts in check: MANHOOD101. COM”
Sorry to be the harbinger of doom and gloom, but this is reality for many of us. I might make this into a monthly or bi-monthly series of sobering reminders.