Why the cyber-bullying bill is a lie

I’ve been slacking off on the blog this year, gang. Ever since December of last year, I’ve been meaning to blog my thoughts about Bill C-13, which the Canadian government has dubbed the “Cyber-bullying Bill”.

Chances are if you follow this blog, you know that I care a lot about the issue of revenge porn (i.e. sharing intimate images of somebody without their consent). Late last year, after an opposition MP introduced a private members bill to prohibit revenge porn, our Conservative government introduced their own. It is very likely this legislation will pass.

Since I’ve been arguing for a year that we need criminal legislation to address this issue, you’d think I would be happy about this development. I am not. Find out why by watching this episode of CANADALAND with Jesse Brown, in which I lay out the issues with the so-called “Cyber-bullying Bill,” Bill C-13. SPOILER ALERT: they should really be calling it the Surveillance Bill.

Don’t drain the moat, Twitter. #RestoreTheBlock

Google definition of "block" as a verb

What does “block” really mean, anyway? A cursory Googling bears out the definition above: “make the movement or flow in […] difficult or impossible,” “put an obstacle in the way of,” “restrict the use or conversion of,” or “hinder or stop the movement or action of.”  According to Twitter, on the other hand, “block” just means “blindfold oneself.”

Twitter’s block function has never been perfect. In the old days, blocking a user did not prevent them from tagging you in tweets or signing out of Twitter to view your tweets (if your profile was public). However, blocking someone at least used to kick them from following you and added an extra step if they wished to continue accessing your tweets. Twitter’s newly announced changes to their block function mean that this step is no longer necessary; blocking a user does not prevent them from following you, viewing your timeline while signed in, or interacting with you in any way.

As Zerlina Maxwell points out, this means that harassers can now retweet a user who has blocked them and incite their own followers to join in the fun. It also means that the only way to prevent an abusive user from following you is to set your account to “private.” Many astute Twitter users like Hijabinist and GradientLair.com‘s Trudy and have pointed out that this creates a chilling, silencing effect for the voices of marginalized folks who are most vulnerable to harassment and least represented in mainstream discourse.

There are many reasons to set one’s account to “private” and it’s a personal choice. But is it really a “choice” when folks who deal with online violence like stalking, threats and harassment are told that going private is the only way to control – at any level – their contact with an aggressor? Is fair to remove people’s access to a public platform, and all its tangible social, personal, political and economic benefits, for reasons they cannot control (i.e. another person’s abusive behaviour)? Some people’s jobs revolve around the ability to tweet publicly. Should they change careers because of another person’s abusive behaviour?

In cases of abusive behaviour, the old policy at least placed the (admittedly mild) consequences in the abuser’s court: “you now must face an extra hurdle to access this person’s content, and you will not have the ability to retweet it.” The current policy places consequences for abusive behaviour in the target’s court: “deal with this person’s stalking or cease your participation in a major online public square while your aggressor continues to enjoy a public platform.” There is something about this that smacks profoundly of blaming the victim.

Unsurprisingly, no shortage of Twitter users (almost entirely men so far) have come at me with pompous assertions that it makes sense to loosen the policy because of the old block function’s shortcomings. I can’t even begin to address the flaws with the argument that “Harassers have always been able to log out and view your tweets, so it makes total sense to remove the necessity of logging out at all”, though Ana Mardoll does a decent job of it. The old policy was not a fortified wall protecting against online harassment, but it was a moat of sorts. Easily passable, sure, but many would look at the inconvenience of getting their clothes wet and say “ugh, to hell with it.”

Some folks have suggested the change is benevolent because it clears up a false sense of security some people may have felt by blocking someone. But why wouldn’t Twitter simply clear up the misinformation about the old block function? Twitter seems to have no problem being clear about what blocking does and doesn’t do now, after the policy change. Could they not have made a public statement to ensure users were aware of the old block function’s limitations, instead of applying a change that favours abusers? The old block function may never have been a fortified wall, but that does not in any way justify draining the moat.

For me, privacy rests on two key principles: consent (I know what I am getting into and have the opportunity to say no) and control (to share what I want with whom I want and prevent contact with who I wish). If my only opportunity to say “no” is to say nothing at all, that’s not really consent. If my only opportunity for control is to disappear, that’s not really control.

Goldie Taylor hits the nail on the head when she says “Privacy should not require fully closed or fully open. All social networks should be ‘selectively permeable’ with user control.” General PSA for mansplainers telling me that “Twitter is a public space! Either deal with being vulnerable to anyone who wants to contact you, go private or GTFO”: online privacy does not have to be an all-or-nothing game. And an imperfect mode of personal protection is not a valid argument for no mode of personal protection at all.

The new Twitter block policy is yet another example of how institutions and organizations (including social media platforms) typically reflect dominant societal views. In this case, the dominant societal view is that the onus for preventing abusive behaviour rests with the person being abused. This view holds especially true when the target of abuse is marginalized on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, physical or mental dis/ability, gender expression, etc. Perhaps if more of these traditionally marginalized voices were involved in conceiving and building the tools we use to communicate with one another, those dominant societal views might change. But it seems that Twitter has a long way to go in that regard. In the meantime, we’re left with a “choice” between total vulnerability and forced silence.

Update: In response to public outcry, Twitter reversed the changes discussed in this article. Massive props to Suey Park, who created the #RestoreTheBlock hashtag, and everyone who participated.

Is this justice for Rehtaeh?

Last week we saw major developments in Canada’s ongoing response to the death of Halifax teenager Rehtaeh Parsons: two men were charged with making and/or distributing child pornography (of Rehtaeh), and a new piece of civil legislation was introduced to address “cyber-bullying”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about either one of these developments.

Firstly, I despise the term “cyber-bullying” and would like to kill it with fire. It is so conceptually broad as to be meaningless, it infantilizes behaviour that adults are just as prone to as kids are, and it depoliticizes social aggressions that are often quite political indeed (think sexist harassment like slut-shaming, harassment of gay or gender non-conforming people, or harassment of low-income kids for things like wearing hand-me-downs). I agree with Jesse Brown, who would “rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour”.

Secondly, I have a very basic problem with civil legislation as a response to revenge porn or online harassment: it costs money to sue someone. Sure, you might find a lawyer who’ll take your case pro-bono, but the likelihood of incurring high costs means that only those who can afford justice really have access to it. Our criminal justice system is already deplorably selective about who can access justice (see, for example, the astronomical overrepresentation of indigenous and Black people in Canadian prisons), but at least if you’ve been the victim of a crime, you don’t pay money for your legal representation. This is one reason why I’m a bigger fan of a potential Criminal Code amendment (proposed by Dartmouth NDP Member of Parliament Robert Chisholm) than I am of dealing with the problem in civil court.

This proposed legislation would make it a crime to share intimate images without the subject’s consent. The legislation needs some work (in my humble, non-legal-expert opinion), as it currently places the burden of proof on the accused. If the accused cannot furnish evidence that they obtained consent from the subject, their intent is automatically deemed malicious and guilt is assumed. In past posts I have argued for just this kind of legislation, and there is a certain beauty to its open-and-shut-ness, in that it would circumvent all of the gendered character judgments and “he said, she said” (emphasis on the “he said”) that influence court decisions about sexually-charged crimes. But at the end of the day, I can’t advocate for legislation that merely circumvents the biases and bigotry of our criminal justice system (you know, the same ones that pervade our broader culture) at the expense of the rights of the accused. We need to tackle those biases themselves, not find ways to sidestep them.

This brings me to my ambivalence about the arrests. While Rehtaeh was still alive, she and her family sought justice by attempting to press charges against Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists for sexual assault and child pornography. The RCMP’s re-opened investigation did not result in sexual assault charges. They did, however, charge the alleged rapists with making and distributing sexually explicit images of Rehtaeh during the incident. The RCMP’s decision to press charges on one crime and not the other suggests that they felt the evidence was too murky to conclude that Rehtaeh did not consent. Meanwhile, Rehtaeh was allegedly vomiting out a window while one of her attackers raped her, and our current laws indicate that a person cannot legally provide consent while extremely intoxicated.

That is rage-inducing, but it is also indicative of the culture in which our criminal justice system is embedded and serves to uphold. We have national columnists (to whom I refuse to link) slut-shaming her in death, if that’s any indication of how our culture tends to understand consent when a survivor was intoxicated at the time of the attack. Why would our justice system be any different, even if our laws explicitly spell things out differently (*sob*)?

So I can, quite frankly, understand why the Parsons family wanted to use any tool available to them in our broken system to try and find their own version of justice – including charging the attackers with child pornography, despite the fact that her non-consent (not her nudity or sexuality writ large) was the crux of the violation. That said, I think it sets a precedent that may create problems down the road. For example, imagine a minor’s consensual sexting is discovered by a horrified parent, who sees child pornography charges as a way to punish the kids involved and clamp down on youth sexuality in general. Also, what if Rehtaeh had been 18? Capturing and distributing that photo would have been just as morally abhorrent, just as damaging. This is why I think the legislation proposed by Robert Chisholm fills a necessary gap.

Realtalk though: this legislation wouldn’t be necessary if our culture learned to understand sexually-charged violations in a more equitable and just way. If law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges didn’t build their careers in a culture steeped in sexism, they might quite easily interpret revenge porn as a form of criminal harassment (a law already on the books in Canada). As we saw recently in the case of an appropriately-named former MP’s assistant, Cody Boast, some law enforcement officers and judges already do draw those conclusions. But too many people inside and outside our criminal justice system are quick to blame the subjects of the images for consenting to their capture in the first place. It is this underlying mentality that needs to change. Otherwise we’ll just have another new selectively enforced law on the books.

That’s why I’m glad to see that, despite its shortcomings, the civil legislation in Nova Scotia also includes interventions at the level of the public education system. While those have their own problems (Jesse Brown has some great analysis therein), I appreciate the marriage of legal and educational interventions. To introduce the former without the latter would be putting the cart before the horse. What our education systems really need, though, isn’t a “Cyber SCAN investigation unit” – it’s frank discussion about consent, respect and privacy in sex and relationships (online and offline), and how societal systems of power impact these dynamics on an individual level.

#sheparty is the best party

Sometimes feminists on Twitter use the #sheparty hashtag to host live-chats about a wide variety of topics. Yesterday, @jarrahpenguin (Vancouver) and @OpinionessWorld (Boston) co-hosted a two-hour #sheparty and invited me to be a special guest for the first hour. From 3pm-4pm ET we discussed revenge porn, which anyone who follows my blog knows is an issue of major importance to me. I mean I’ve only written about it, like, 30% of the time.

Our discussion about revenge porn covered legislative responses to the problem (in Nova Scotia and nationally, as well as in New Jersey and Florida), as well as steps that parents and teachers can take to address it with youth. If you’re new to the topic, this discussion was a fantastic introduction. Don’t fret if you missed it, because you can always count on me to Storify these kinds of things for future reference! Here’s a recap of the #sheparty revenge porn discussion. I also encourage you to check out @tootwistedtv‘s Storify of the 4-5pm #sheparty discussion, which focused on feminism and (dis)ability.

Twitter, rape threats and garden variety misogyny

As you can imagine, I have THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about the campaign of rape threats against Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy, and Twitter’s response. I’ve been mostly (blessedly) off Twitter for the last week and a half, so I haven’t said much on the matter, other than this tweet on July 27:
Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 6.41.18 PMFor the uninitiated: feminist advocate Caroline Criado-Perez ran a campaign that convinced the Bank of England to put a single freaking woman besides the Queen on a banknote. If you’re somehow not shocked that this landed her on the receiving end of a barrage of rape threats, surprise, you might be a Woman with an Opinion on the Internet.

Rape (and the threat of rape) has always been a go-to silencing tool among misogynists. They run particularly rampant online in part because the internet offers distance as well as access to people well beyond one’s immediate social circle. A man who feels ineffectual and deprived of personal power in his own life can feel a consequence-free rush by inflicting sexually-charged verbal aggression on an empowered woman he doesn’t know. Thanks, internet!

Or at least, so far it has been mostly consequence-free, but that is beginning to change. Two of the Twitter users who threatened Criado-Perez are under arrest. Twitter UK published a blog post outlining their responses to the situation, including the much-discussed “Report Abuse” button and updating the Twitter Rules to reflect a firm stance on abuse. Changes to the rules are welcome. That sends an important message to Twitter users and the business community about online violence, and may give some in-platform recourse to users under attack.

Shakesville details some of the problems likely to arise from the “Report Abuse” button, mainly that “one-click reporting systems are almost always automated to some degree and are already widely abused by trolls on Facebook and YouTube” (it was a favourite tactic in the campaign against Anita Sarkeesian, for example). Even a more hands-on moderation system can’t solve the problem, unless the company’s culture and training acknowledge the reality of gender-based violence. The Facebook Rape campaign provides a rich and recent example of a large social media platform whose moderation system was devoid of a gender lens. Many Facebook moderators categorized graphic depictions of violence against women as “humour”. This is unsurprising – our culture is steeped in that kind of messaging, why would we expect Facebook or Twitter to be immune?

Honestly, I feel our culture has the greatest potential for change if misogyny is out in the open. That doesn’t mean I feel remotely safe in a space saturated with it, or that I don’t want platforms like Facebook and Twitter to do what they can to make their spaces safe for all users. But misogynists have always been around, and in the same or similar numbers as we see now (though now we, regrettably, call them “trolls” – my thoughts on that here). They used to reserve their hatred for partners, colleagues, family members, one-off encounters and maybe the occasional letter-to-the-editor. Now misogynist hatred is diffused across many targets, near and far. It’s mundane. It’s time-stamped. Screencaps provide evidence difficult for a “devil’s advocate” Facebook friend to refute. I want this garbage out in the open air and sunlight where it can be referenced and challenged – because it’s there regardless. This is garden variety misogyny.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported Criado-Perez’s campaign, has called for greater coordination between Twitter and law enforcement to help users under attack. I also believe law enforcement has an important role to play in curbing online rape threats and all other forms of violence against women, and that we must continue putting pressure on them to do so. But here’s the rub: institutional and technological interventions will always reflect the beliefs and values of the culture that shapes those institutions and the people who work with them. It’s why police forces, colleges, Twitter, etc etc etc do such a crap job of holding accountable the perpetrators of gender-based violence, online and offline. And they’ll continue to do a crap job of it until our culture takes this shit seriously and looks to the perpetrators (not the survivors) for change.

Well-meaning folks have been telling Criado-Perez to just stay off Twitter, because is it really worth all that trouble in the end, they wonder? FUCK THAT. Pushing opinionated women out of public discourse is exactly what these very small, very loud misogynists are trying to accomplish. We’ve been telling women to shut up about this stuff for long enough. Do you really want to hear more from the world’s misogynists than from its Caroline Criado-Perezes?

So keep reporting rape threats to the police and to Twitter, sure, but we also need to be pushing for the deeper change needed to turn institutional tides. We need to help people who work in these institutions to understand the role that rape threats play in silencing and subordinating women. One way to do that? Women: for the love of everything good in this world, don’t shut up, and deal with jerkoffs however the hell you want.

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!

“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.