Digital Victimization

The Impact of Sexual Violence in the Digital Age

Jennifer McArdle

In early September a group called hackappcom posted a proof of concept script on the popular code repository Github, which allowed users to breach iCloud and access user accounts, including the accounts of various Hollywood starlets, such as Jennifer Lawrence. What followed was perhaps the largest celebrity nude photo leak in history, amounting to over 21,000 images targeting over 100 female celebrities. While the leak has garnered mass media attention and elicited an FBI response, Internet “sex crimes” against females continue to go unanswered. Sexual harassment and violence laws must be expanded to reflect the digital age.

There is no dearth of recent instances where females were unable to control the malicious manipulation of their image in the virtual domain. Indeed a quick scan of news sites relay countless incidences of digital harassment, bullying, and sexual and emotional violence. What follows below is a short glimpse into some of the devastation that have been wreaked in cyberspace:

In December 2012, an Icelandic woman named Thorlaug Agustsdottir discovered a page titled “Men are better than woman,” depicting mutilated and nude photos of woman. After publishing an outraged post about the page on her wall, Agustsdottir soon found a manipulated image of herself on the page, complete with slogans such as, “Women are like grass, they just need to be beaten/ cut regularly” and “You just need to be raped.” After reporting these disturbing images to Facebook, Facebook responded that the images did not violate Facebook’s standards on hate speech, and the images were filed under ‘Controversial Humor.’ It was only after Agustsdottir contacted the local press, and the story proliferated, that the image was removed.

In 2010, 12 year old Amanda Todd showed her chest to what she thought was a boy, but was in fact a pedophile. Amanda’s image and doctored images circulated around the Internet and was repeatedly posted on sexually explicit pages. One such post encouraged Amanda and similar girls to, “drink bleach and die.” In October 2012, Amanda committed suicide, posting a YouTube video, explaining her struggle with harassment and the subsequent decision. Amanda and her mother were unable to control the spread of her image.

Furthermore, shortly after Google’s announcement that it was removing celebrity images, revenge porn victim Holly Jacobs, tweeted this response:

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Jacobs has suffered years of Internet harassment after her ex allegedly posted intimate photos of her on the Internet without her consent. Jacob’s attempts at enlisting FBI assistance, an Internet specialist, and an attorney were all “dead ends.”

The thread that links all three stories—apart from these females being rendered digital victims—is that there was little to no legal mechanism to control the propagation of their image. As Kathy Sierra, one of the more outspoken victims of Internet harassment, noted in Wired last week, “You’re probably more likely to win the lottery than to get any law enforcement agency in the United States to take action when you are harassed online, no matter how viscously and explicitly.’’

While the leak of celebrity photos is shedding new light on Internet harassment and violence against women, more must be done to ensure that these problems are addressed equitably. Social media and Internet sites need to review their free speech protections in light of ongoing events in order to ensure that their platforms are not inadvertently promoting hate speech. Moreover, government, both national and state, have an important role to play. California recently expanded its state ban on revenge porn; other states (and perhaps the federal government) should follow suit.

It is time for companies and government to take a proactive rather than reactive response to online harassment and sexual and emotional violence. Current harassment and sexual violence laws must be expanded from the physical to the virtual domain.

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