Q&A: Report seeks to make victim shaming a punishable offence

Cormac O’Keeffe takes a closer look at a report conducted by the Law Reform Commission into online abuse.

What’s this report about?

It’s a report, conducted by the Law Reform Commission, into online abuse, from trolling, to cyberbullying, to posting up sexual imagery of people without their consent, and what should be done about it.

Is it about the likes of that image of a girl performing a sex act at a festival?

Yes. That image captured what the report calls an “intimate” act, where the person involved was visible. It was put online and spread like wildfire, attracting mainstream media publicity and causing the girl significant harm and distress.

And, is it when a boyfriend puts up sexually explicit images of his girlfriend after they’ve broken up?

Yes. It’s known as revenge porn. They are intimate images distributed without the consent of the other person — causing serious harm to that person.

So where does trolling and cyberbullying come in?

A lot of this is anonymous and can include name- calling, abuse, harassment, sharing of photos and personal images, humiliation, and stalking. It can be done on forums and websites that are themselves anonymous, such as ask.fm. It can be once-off but can still have a huge impact.

Haven’t there been tragedies as a result?

Yes. There was a one-month period in 2012 when two girls, Ciara Pugsley, aged 15, from Leitrim, and Erin Gallagher, 13, from Donegal, took their own lives after being subjected to anonymous cyberbullying by teens using ask.fm.

And what’s catfishing?

Catfishing is stealing someone’s identity by creating a fake social media profile. This is then used to lure someone into a relationship, ask people to post nude photos of themselves, to bully people, get people into trouble, and start fights.

What’s the report recommending?

It wants two new offences. The most serious one is intentional victim shaming, involving the posting of intimate images without consent (revenge porn), punishable by up to seven years in prison. A lesser offence, posting intimate images of photos (such as “upskirting” or “downblousing”), without intent to cause harm, should be punishable by up to six months in prison. Three other offences should be amended. One expands the definition of harassment to include online activity. The second makes stalking a separate offence. The third expands the existing offence of sending threatening or intimidating messages to include online tools.

Anything else?

Yes, the LRC proposes a digital safety commissioner — basically a watchdog. It would oversee a new statutory code of conduct for the industry, part of which would be a legally binding “takedown” procedure for harmful material. If companies don’t comply, the commissioner could go to the courts and seek an enforcement order. Failure to comply with that would be contempt of court.

What happens now?

It’s up to the Government. The report includes a draft bill that is ready to go. The Department of Justice yesterday said Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald thought the report highlighted “potential gaps” in the law and that she and her colleagues would draft legislation based on it.

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