Two decades ago, the back of the toilet door was the main forum for students to scribble comments that could leave the reader slightly queasy
In the college I attended, one of the toilets hosted what was known colloquially as the ‘Fla Wall’. Making it onto the ‘Fla Wall’ was a double-edged sword. It meant you were hot enough to have been clocked by the lads, but perhaps also just slutty enough — or at least that was the rumour put out by jealous rivals.
The thing about the toilet door or the ‘Fla Wall’ was that all it took was a quick lick of paint to erase the cause of umbrage.
Twenty years on, and with digital technology firmly embedded in everyday living, things have changed utterly. You can’t sneeze without the risk of going viral. Even for those exercising absolute caution online, accepting only friends that they recognise and activating all known privacy settings, there are no guarantees that what you post won’t end up going global, with, more often than not, little recourse available.
Stories currently circulating in the media about what can happen to supposedly private images are particularly ominous for women. You have the ostensibly dire situation at University College Dublin (UCD) where, it is alleged, a Facebook group involving up to male 200 students has been sharing and rating nude photos of female students on campus.
The university is taking the allegations — first published in the College Tribune under the headline “UCD Facebook Chat Rating and Sharing Photos of Girls they have Slept with Highlights ‘Toxic’ Lad Culture” — very seriously. An investigation is ongoing.
In an email to students and staff, UCD deputy president and registrar Mark Rogers said the university’s “primary concern was to support any vulnerable student victimised by this alleged activity”, and that any breaches of the student code identified “may result in sanctions up to and including expulsion from the university”.
Prof Rogers said that the allegations brought into “stark focus the prevalence in society of postings and comments online which can cause offence and victimisation including: Bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination”.
UCD Students Union said yesterday that it has met UCD president Andrew Deeks and expects the university to begin consent classes from September — a development the union says has been a goal since the instigation of its ‘Not Asking For It’ campaign in October.
Women’s Aid weighed in on the controversy yesterday. At the launch of its 2in2u National Public Awareness Campaign on dating abuse, Women’s Aid director Margaret Martin spoke of hearing more and more from women about various forms of digital abuse and stalking where technology is being used by abusive boyfriends and ex- boyfriends to monitor and control them, particularly younger women.
In addition, they were hearing from women “who had been photographed and filmed without their consent, sometimes having sex, and having the images uploaded to the internet or being used to blackmail them”.
Commonly known as ‘revenge porn’, this was a growing problem for young Irish women, Ms Martin said.
“It’s not revenge, it’s not porn. It is abuse and this type of abuse is one of the deepest betrayals of trust by a boyfriend or ex,” she said. “Recent events in a large Dublin third-level institution highlights that this type of behaviour is something that young women are facing. What we are hearing is only the tip of a very large iceberg.”
Mary Smith*is one of the many young women who now finds herself a victim of online harassment, albeit not from an ex-boyfriend. A tech-savvy 23-year-old, who never posted lewd pictures online and with no link to porn sites, discovered to her horror that photos from her Facebook page had been lifted and posted on a website I shall refer to only as ‘CPP’ on the advice of Paul Durrant, chief executive of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI), who worries that to give it its full domain address would result in “undeserved publicity”.
Since April 2015, this ‘CPP’ website has been reported 24 times to Hotline.ie, an anonymous reporting service operated by the ISPAI for members of the public who accidentally uncover illegal content on the internet, particularly child sexual abuse material or activities relating to the sexual exploitation of children.
Mary’s experience is not unlike that reported by Kate Kirwan, 19, who went public last month after she learned that her images were posted on the CPP forum. Both women are from Cork and their pictures appeared on a thread dedicated to Cork girls and women. Last November, a close friend of Mary’s started receiving emails and Facebook messages of a sexually aggressive nature. They came from a fake Facebook account under the name ‘Tom Rooney’. Friends of Mary's had accepted Tom’s request to be friends. When Mary uncovered the fake account, she added ‘Tom Rooney’ as a friend to try find out more about the individual behind it. However, her plan backfired.
“He got access to my pictures because once I saw the Tom Rooney’’ account was sending threats to friends of mine, I added it as a friend,” says Mary. “In the space of an hour or so when I was friends with this fake account, he managed to harvest the majority of my Facebook photos.”
Of equal concern to her is the fact that ‘Tom Rooney’ also has pictures of her that he could only have found in her friends’ photo albums.
In December, Mary’s friend and the initial ‘Tom Rooney’ target within her circle received a screenshot of her picture on the ‘CPP’ website with perverse comments posted beneath. Mary did a bit of digital detective work and is convinced the person who posted the picture, using, inter alia, the handle ‘horneymachine’, is in fact the same person posing as “Tom Rooney”. In fact, she is reasonably confident she knows who the person is — and indeed if it is who she thinks, she knows them personally — and has provided this information to gardaí. Mary also discovered to her dismay that she, too, featured on the CPP website.
“There are pictures of me on that website from age 15 up to age 21,” she says. “All are of my face and none are explicit but the comments are threatening and aggressive. One person asked where I worked. Another said: ‘She needs to get raped.’ The thing that frightened me was the combination of people threatening violence and people asking where I worked,” she says.
What is driving her crazy, she says, is “essentially what they are doing is advertising me to be raped”.
The last garda Mary spoke to “seemed to fully understand the situation”, she says. “She told me that there is currently a large ongoing garda investigation into this case,” Mary says. However, Mary believes Irish law has a long way to go to catch up with online harassment.
“A solicitor I spoke to said Irish law has not figured out how to deal with technology,” she says.
Mary has done all she can to deal with the harassment. She contacted the Data Protection Commission but all they had to offer was that it was “not clear if the website in question is based in this jurisdiction” and therefore the office would have no way of enforcing a request to take it down.
She contacted Hotline.ie, as did the Irish Examiner. Mr Durrant said Hotline.ie can only ensure images which are illegal under Irish law are taken down if they are hosted in the Irish jurisdiction.
“The ‘CPP’ website is hosted in the Netherlands by Ecatel also known as Quasi Networks LTD (IBC), i.e. the site content is therefore governed by Dutch law,” Mr Durrant said.
However, where online comments constituted a definite threat of violence against the person, the subject of the threat or their parents/guardians should bring the matter to An Garda Síochána regardless of whether or not the related image is illegal.
Mary has also sent a DMCA ‘takedown’ request to the ‘CPP’ website through three different channels.This uses stipulations laid out in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which allow the copyright owner to write to the online service provider claiming copyright infringement and requesting that the material be taken down. Her requests have so far been ignored.
Her biggest bugbear, however, is with Irish law.
“The reality is you have to wait for the guy to take the next step,” she says. “The way Irish law is, it seems nothing will happen until someone is actually attacked. My fear is that one of the girls on this website will be attacked and we will all know why and nothing will have been done.
“I can’t get my head around the attitude of blaming girls for this problem arising in the first place, for posting innocent pictures that can be turned by perverts into material to masturbate on. It goes back to the old argument: ‘What was she wearing? She was asking for it.’
“If you walk down a street in a public area, you are not asking to be raped. The same is true about the internet. It is a public place and surely we can expect people to exercise the same sense of morality. Because in a way, you can do as much damage on internet as the real world, particularly to someone’s reputation.”