Google like other tech companies, including Twitter and Reddit, have taken a stand against the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, otherwise known as “revenge porn”. These companies are honouring requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent.
While the policy will not remove the images themselves from the internet, it will go a long way towards mitigating the devastating damage that such images can wreak on victims. The policy is reflective of a growing awareness that revenge pornography is a serious social wrong that must be addressed. In fact, laws prohibiting revenge porn are already on the books in England and Wales, parts of Australia and 23 US States to date.
For many, revenge pornography is deeply linked to broader issues of gender inequality and misogyny online. Predictably, however, there are concerns about what effect these new user policies might have on the sacred zeitgeist of the internet age – freedom of speech.
Despite evidence to the contrary, we’re sold a utopian view of the internet that heralds the digital age as one in which new spaces allow people to transcend their offline identities, where free movement of self and speech are potentially limitless. But importantly, the internet is a social product, grounded in societies that exist online and offline, and therefore replicates deep offline social inequalities, including the marginalisation of women.
In this environment, revenge pornography and other abusive behaviour, like trolling, constitute a kind of gendered hate speech – designed to silence women and other gender, sexual and racial minorities. Much of this hate occurs in a new digital commons, promising anonymity and “self-regulating” authority. But this promise is naive.
Taking exception to this victim blaming, the writer and activist Clementine Ford composed an impassioned Facebook statement accompanied by a semi-naked photograph with “Hey #Sunrise Get Fucked” written across her bare chest. In the post, she highlights the key distinction between consensual intimate photo-sharing and revenge pornography: Consent is what happens when you give permission. Theft and assault is what happens when people take it from you despite you saying no.
Much of the commentary that flourished around the post was not just negative, but hateful abuse – vile and graphic, misogynistic and homophobic. She tweeted that in the 48-hour period after the Facebook post, she received over 1,000 messages asking her for nudes or calling her a slut, a whore or a cunt.
Ford responded to the abuse by retweeting and reposting the attacks. This, ironically, resulted in a temporary suspension of Ford’s Facebook account for breaching Facebook’s community standards.
Revenge porn is fundamentally used to shame, extort and harm women. Perpetrators of domestic violence and trafficking employ it to control women, to keep them captive, to keep them quiet. Trolling tells women (and others) that the digital space, a communal space, is not for their voices. Gendered hate speech online actively restricts the free speech of women. It sends the message, as one of Ford’s trollers told her, to “get back in the kitchen then ya dumb slag”.
In a world where offline power-hierarchies infiltrate the online world, “instead of promoting free expression of ideas, we are seeing our open policies stifling free expression; people avoid participating for fear of their personal and family safety.’”
Not only does this silencing have profound democratic repercussions, but it brings the toxic challenge of workplace harassment into the online sphere, where many women are now making a living. Years ago, specific anti-discrimination laws were introduced to combat the prevalence of everyday abuse in the workplace precisely because we realised that without this protection, women’s full participation in the labour market would be illusory. In the digital age, to disregard the deleterious effects of harassment online is to deny women their right to speak in a venue that has become an indispensable political, social and economic arena.