Transferable consent: On Bill C-13, surveillance and cyber-sexual assault

Today I was invited to speak to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights about Bill C-13, the so-called Cyber-Bullying Bill. Here’s a transcript of my speech.

Thank you for having me here today. My name is Steph Guthrie, and for the last year I’ve been speaking and writing at length about the issue Bill C-13 claims to tackle. While the bill’s name in the press is the “Cyberbullying Bill”, the more specific problem addressed by components of Bill C-13 is known as “revenge porn,” a term I hate for both its inaccuracy and sexualized sensationalism.

Whatever you call it, we’re talking about sharing sexually explicit images without the consent of the person or persons depicted. While some such cases involve hacking, in many cases the subject consented to share the images with one person for private use, such as a sexual partner, and that person then violates their trust and shares the image with others, despite the subject’s (in most cases) obviously implied expectation of discretion.

The crux of the harm inflicted here is violation of informed consent. If I share an image with another person privately, that consent is not transferable. Had I known that the other person might later share the image with others, I would be unlikely to consent to letting that person access the image to begin with. So any consent I provide to a person accessing that image is pretty clearly contingent on them keeping the image to themselves.

For me, informed consent is an integral part of privacy. Indeed, in her influential Privacy By Design framework, Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian cites freely given and specific consent as a vital element of digital privacy.

Cavoukian’s principle can be applied to non-consensual intimate image-sharing, which, let’s be honest, is an incredibly clunky way of describing what is ultimately cyber-sexual assault. A survivor of cyber-sexual assault did not provide specific consent for their image to be shared with others. The perpetrator simply treated their consent as transferable to any other use, any other disclosure.

And as I’m sure some other speakers will be sharing with you, the results of this are devastating. Women (and it does mostly happen to women, though men are not immune), well, their lives are destroyed. The images follow them into their job interviews and on their first dates and to the Laundromat. In some cases the perpetrator of the cyber-sexual assault incites violence or stalking against the survivor, publishing their personal information and the dates and times of their professional engagements, encouraging their “fans” to make an appearance.

In any case, the assault constricts the survivor’s ability to live life normally and comfortably, because they are constantly living with the idea that the people they encounter may know intimate things about them that they didn’t consent to share. Even if the survivor knows they did nothing wrong, they must still deal with the judgments, misperceptions and intrusions of others. So for many survivors, their ability to move freely, safely and happily in this world is limited.

I’m fortunate to not yet have been attacked and tormented in this way, but I could be. It’s common for authorities and the media to malign people who send so-called “sexts” as teenagers with poor judgment and impulse control, but that doesn’t line up with reality. According to a Harris poll in 2012, a full 40% of people who send these images are in the 18-34 age range, and 20% of all adults sext (a Macafee survey puts that number closer to 50%). And I’m willing to bet a lot more than 50% of us have trusted a romantic or sexual partner only to learn later that our trust was misplaced. Cyber-sexual assault can and does happen to a lot of us.

When Rehtaeh Parsons died by suicide after months and months of torment from her peers and indifference from authorities following her own sexual assault, first in the flesh, then online, I heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper say that “we’ve got to stop just using the term ‘bullying’ to describe things like this. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity”. At the time I was already a vocal advocate for legislation to tackle cyber-sexual assault, and was accustomed to hearing political and legal decision-makers blame the victim, so I was cautiously optimistic at Prime Minister Harper’s remarks.

Then I realized, as many Canadians realized, that most of Bill C-13 is not really about what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons. Buried within C-13 is a set of decent Criminal Code amendments to tackle cyber-sexual assault. Though I see some minor issues with those amendments that I may refer to in the Q&A, the base for good cyber-sexual assault legislation is there in Bill C-13. But you have to dig pretty hard to find it, amid the many other sweeping amendments that more closely resemble the lawful access provisions found in Bill C-30 back in 2012 – you know, the time when Canadians were told that opposition to the bill was tantamount to support for child pornographers.

While some of the more egregious elements of the former Bill C-30 have been removed from this latest incarnation, it still significantly expands the state’s capacity for surveilling Canadians without the pesky oversight of our court system. One of the most troubling provisions in Bill C-30 was that it mandated the disclosure of user information to police without a search warrant. The newly designed provision in Bill C-13 very cleverly softens this, instead stating that police can request information, and the person or organization to whom they direct their request can voluntarily comply. However, the very next provision in Bill C-13 removes all civil and criminal liability for anyone who discloses another person’s information to police upon request.

This granting of immunity removes much of the incentive for an internet service provider to deny the request. As law enforcement officers and prominent figures of power and authority in our lives, it is also debatable the extent to which a person might feel compelled to provide the information to a police officer, even if technically they are “volunteering” to do so. In the last week, a steady stream of damning media reports have indicated that the practice of voluntarily disclosing user information to police is already in full swing amongst Canadian telecommunications companies, with the state making over a million requests for user information in the course of a year. All without warrants – i.e. without due process. All, quite obviously, without the user’s consent.

Maybe most of Bill C-13 isn’t about cyber-sexual assault, but it violates the same privacy principle of freely given and specific consent. Most of us do not and would not give free and specific consent for the state to access any and potentially all of our data by way of our internet service providers if we had any meaningful choice in the matter. The consent we give is to our internet service providers, and if the police want our information because they suspect we are engaged in criminal activity, well, most of us would assume that’s what search warrants are for. Bill C-13 enshrines the idea of transferable consent in law, immunizing anyone who shares our information and violates our privacy without adequate legal justification for doing so.

While obviously different in many ways, the limitations on personal freedom imposed by Bill C-13 bear some striking similarities to those imposed by cyber-sexual assault. The state could be following us into our job interviews, on our first dates, to the Laundromat. The Bill’s provisions will restrict Canadians’ abilities to live life normally and comfortably, because they are constantly living with the idea that the state may know intimate things about them that they didn’t consent to share. Even if they know they have done nothing wrong or illegal, they must still deal with the judgments, misperceptions and intrusions of the state. So for many Canadians, if Bill C-13 passes, our abilities to move freely, safely and happily in this world will be limited.

That’s why it pains me to say, after a year of arguing for legislation that criminalizes cyber-sexual assault, that I cannot support this legislation as written. I cannot trade one set of civil rights for another. We should separate the components of Bill C-13 that deal directly with cyber-sexual assault from those that do not, and debate them as different pieces of legislation. Not only would this be in the best interest of Canadians, but it would do greater justice to survivors of cyber-sexual assault than amalgamating their cause with another one that serves the state’s pursuit of power more than it serves Canadians.

Making Popcorn with Rob Ford

You may have heard of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s embarrassingly tone-deaf utterance earlier this week.

Oh, which one? I know, it’s hard to keep them all straight. This time I’m referring to “It’s no one’s business what happens in my office.” May I remind you he is THE FUCKING MAYOR OF A MAJOR CITY. I’m pretty sure it’s literally every Torontonian’s business what happens in his office.

Unfortunately, this statement is very much in the spirit of the way Rob Ford has governed city affairs since he was elected Mayor. It’s sort of ironic, considering his history as a councillor of slamming the Miller administration that preceded him for a lack of transparency.

With that in mind, I thought I’d use Mozilla’s Popcorn tool to create a round-up of all the times in his mayoral tenure that Rob Ford has made good on the statement that “It’s no one’s business what happens in [his] office,” set to the tune of Yackety Sax (the only song capable of truly capturing the spirit of his mayoralty).

Popcorn lets you grab bits of video, sound, images, and other web content to create a layered timeline (with due cred to the original creator). Since I screencapped all the headlines I used, I made sure to capture the source, date and author (where applicable) directly in the image. Try using Popcorn to make your own round-up of times that a terrible politician has embarrassed their constituents, evaded accountability, or pushed through decisions harmful to residents.

Mozilla helps me re-imagine “REAL Women of Canada”

REAL Women of Canada's website
REAL Women of Canada’s website
REAL Women of Canada website w/ LGBTQ2SGQ* couples
What REAL Women of Canada’s website would look like if I had my way

I’m excited to announce that I’m working with amazing open-web organization Mozilla to user-test some of their webmaking tools. A big part of Mozilla’s mandate is to give web users to the tools to not just consume web content, but create it themselves. They have a whole suite of tools you can use to create and remix content on the web, and today I took my first crack at it with X-Ray Goggles. X-Ray Goggles is essentially a browser plug-in that lets you see and fiddle around with the source code for any website you visit. You can apply any changes you want to the source code of an existing website, and publish your finished product. The tool doesn’t actually hack the website itself, but produces a duplicate of it on a Mozilla server with whatever changes you apply.

My shit-disturbing tendencies led me to instantly imagine how I could use X-Ray Goggles to stick it to bigoted organizations, using their websites as my canvas. The first one that came to mind was thinly-veiled hate group REAL Women of Canada, which advocates for a Canada where only straight, cis people have rights, where the only “real” families are heteronormative ones, where abortion is not legally accessible, you get my drift. The kind of organization that relentlessly wields the phrase “family values” as a weapon to oppress others. To give you a sense of how extreme REAL Women of Canada’s view are, they recently spoke out against Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird’s condemnation of anti-gay laws and practices in Russia (here’s a quick primer).

News coverage of their jaw-dropping position on this issue kept referring to REAL Women of Canada as a “women’s organization”, which I suppose is technically true in the sense that the organization is made up of (a narrow subset of) women. However, the designation “women’s organization” kind of glosses over their atrocious support of practices that fly in the face of basic human rights and freedoms. So I used X-Ray Goggles to fill their website with images of LGBTQ2SGQ* couples and families, and replace their ridiculous bigot links with links to news stories and organizations that highlight the importance of human rights for ALL Canadians (and all people). Take a peek at my handiwork! You can compare it to their real website here, but don’t give them too many clicks, ‘kay? And why not try your own X-Ray Goggle project to tackle an issue that matters to you?

Today is the International Day of Protest for LGBTQ rights. If you’re in Toronto, bring your voice to the movement by attending tonight’s #TOwithRussia rally!

On comedy and learning how to be an ally

People love to say that feminists and humour are like oil and water. Any feminist knows this is bullshit – in fact, as of late humour has become a key element of how many feminists aim to get their messages across. However, it’s important that we keep in mind our subjective position with relation to the topic when making or engaging with a joke. We need to be careful when creating humour that involves perspectives and life experiences we don’t share. I recently learned this the hard way, and wanted to share my experience with you.

Way back in September 2012, a friendly acquaintance asked me to act in a series of clips for his satirical web series, Propagator. As this acquaintance had done favours for me in the past, I agreed to participate. The first episode in which I appear lampoons the odious “ex-gay” movement and presents a gay-positive message – a message that, as a straight woman who tries to be an ally to the LGBTQ communities, I am more than happy to stand behind. I felt that participating in this effort would be a good way to show my support as an ally.

My clips (which will appear one-by-one over the course of three episodes – check out the first one) are parodies of pharmaceutical ads wherein I talk to the camera about a sense that something is not quite right in my idyllic-seeming life with a husband and children. I then take a drug that reduces repression and “psychotic denial”. Once the drug eliminates these factors, my character has the revelation that she is a lesbian. The message is ultimately an indictment of our society and the pressure it places on people to conform to heteronormative sexuality. It also bears noting that the production team has a number of queer people (all of them men, however).

At the time we shot it, I was comfortable with my involvement because I was comfortable with the overall message. However, in the eight months that have passed since the shoot, I have learned more (and continue to learn) about what it means to be an ally to a group of which I am not part. As a straight woman I have never gone through the experience of coming out and/or coming to terms with the fact that my sexuality does not conform to societal expectations. Had I done so, it’s possible I might take issue with the clip’s satirical representation of this experience. The idea, for example, that coming to terms with one’s sexuality is as easy as taking a pill, or the characterization of previous denial as “psychotic”.

On the other hand, were I a queer woman I might not take issue with any of it – who’s to say? But the bottom line is that I am not a queer woman. As a straight woman, I do not have the life experience necessary to judge the clip in context. I do not wish to condemn the clip outright (I don’t have the perspective to do so), but simply to express that I was not well-positioned to play that character. If I could go back in time, I would have chosen not to participate and instead recommended they get a queer woman to play the character.

I can’t go back in time, though. The first episode is slated for release on Wednesday, June 4th to align with the upcoming Pride festival. At this point in the game I felt it would be unfair to request that the producers remove my clips – after all, they may have developed other content for the episode that makes reference to the clips. There is also no way that we could adjust the content to make me more comfortable, because at the end of the day, we cannot change my sexual orientation, and changing the character’s would have a radical impact on the plot.

I did not want to upend the episode and greatly inconvenience the producers. So I simply requested that I not be credited, as I did not feel comfortable putting my name on the product. I made an effort to express to the producers that I did not wish to insult their work, and that many queer women may indeed have no problem with the clip, but that as a straight woman I didn’t feel equipped to make determinations about it.

My acquaintance was deeply insulted by my concerns and my request to not be credited. In turn he insulted me, called me a coward, accused me of turning my back on the queer community (which really confused me), and suggested that I feel I am “too famous” to work with the production team to adjust the content to my comfort level (which, as previously stated, would be impossible). He trotted out the fact that their production team includes queer people who took no issue with the clip (I repeat, however, that none of those team members are queer women). And finally, he said in a threatening tone that they had no intention of removing my name from the credits or promotional strategy for the episode: “Everyone will know the extent of your involvement.” He has already begun to tag me in promotions on social media.

That’s okay. I am willing to take responsibility for the fact that I shot these clips. I am willing to stand behind the fact that the ultimate message is positive, while acknowledging that the nuances of how that message was conveyed may have problems for some viewers. On a personal note, I apologize to anyone who felt that the clip belittled their experience. And if you’re a queer woman and had absolutely no problem with it? That’s awesome – there are a whole range of ways that we can interpret satire, and everyone’s experiences will position them differently in relation to it.

What I learned between the shoot and the impending release is that being an ally means more than supporting material with a positive intended message. In the future, I will not take part in any comedic efforts that depict a character whose life experiences are not represented in the production team. When engaging with subject matter that affects those who are oppressed in ways I am not, I will take a supportive role and cede to those who have experienced it directly. This is kind of “Ally 101” or even “Remedial Ally 101”. It’s one of those things I thought I already knew. But knowing something and really feeling its importance are two different things. I’m glad I had a chance to learn this lesson in practice, but more importantly, I apologize if I caused anyone pain in the process.

Taking the Rape out of Culture

On Thursday, May 23 2013, I hosted an event at Academy of the Impossible called “Taking the Rape out of Culture”. It was an open group brainstorm (with some breakout discussions as well) to map the component parts of rape culture – what does it look like in practice? What are the sub-concepts (or as I dubbed them, “subgenres”) under the big umbrella of rape culture?

I was thrilled at the quality of discussion and the diverse range of participants we had. Participants included: people who work in violence prevention, anti-racism organizers, parents, journalists, new Canadians, trans* participants, volunteers at crisis centres. We came at the topic from a variety of perspectives and we really dove into the subject matter.

One of these days I’m going to have to get a WordPress plugin that allows me to embed a Storify, but today is not that day. I do urge you to read my Storify of tweets from the evening, which captures some of the ground we covered and provides detail on many of the “subgenres” of rape culture we discussed. We’ll likely be holding another session in the future to discuss methods of intervening and challenging the many component parts of rape culture, so stay tuned.

Sort-Of App Review: r/ally

Like previous “sort-of reviews” on this blog, this is more a description of what I enjoy, find useful, and might change if I could about the mobile app r/ally (@RallyYourGoals on Twitter), currently in beta mode. I’m not an industry expert and my intent is not to provide an exhaustive, authoritative account, just a user reflection.

r/ally recently approached me on Twitter and asked me to beta test the app. The tweet was non-spammy and when I visited their feed, it wasn’t filled with identical tweets to other accounts (which is, for me, typically a dealbreaker). And most importantly, the app concept seemed uniquely designed for me and my interests, which was a dealMAKER.

r/ally is an app for women to collaborate and support each other in pursuing their goals: professional, personal, and anything in between. As a woman who is constantly creating new goals and seeking like-minded collaborators for grassroots projects, the idea appealed to me. One app store reviewer wrote “this is what LinkedIn has been missing,” and I’m inclined to agree.

Not only can people see what projects you’re working on, they can reach out to help even if you don’t know one another. Users have the option to accept or decline offers of support on a goal from other users, and once an offer of support has been accepted, the two users can share private messages to spitball ideas, exchange contact information, and anything else to move toward the goal in question.

The app is currently not location-specific, but I’ve come across users in Toronto and Vancouver so far. Like many products and services that cater to women in a career context, the users at this early stage seem to be primarily middle-class, white, urban and highly educated. A more diverse user base would make for a more interesting and inclusive user experience, and I’m hoping they will get there.

Like any social app, it needs a critical mass of active users in order to be worth checking regularly. I don’t think they’re quite there yet but I definitely see the potential! I seem to share interests with a lot of the users who are there, which has led to a few new connections. The app notifies you of other users’ goals you may wish to support, and so far I’ve found the algorithm produces users and goals relevant to my interests.

As this app amasses more users, I am confident that it’ll be interesting and busy enough to come back to regularly. One thing I think might be a barrier to frequent use, though, is that users appear to be capped at three active goals at a time. For me, this limits the app’s usefulness because I’d like to be using it as a sort of long-term social to-do list, and I typically have more than three long-term goals on the go at a given time. If they removed the goal cap, I’d have a lot more to do on r/ally.

r/ally is a brilliant concept with a well-designed interface and algorithms that drive user engagement. If it gets more uptake, especially among more diverse communities of women, it has a lot of potential to be a go-to app for ambitious women.

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!