LRC report offers hope in war on trolls

Hacker at computer
(Source: Stockfresh)

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27 September 2016 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitToday saw the release of a report from the Law Reform Commission on what it calls ‘harmful communications’. The comprehensive study lists 32 measures for dealing with many forms of digital abuse with a view to bringing standards of online behaviour into line with what is considered acceptable in real life (IRL, as the kids say).

Particular mention is given to victim shaming and voyeurism including ‘upskirting’, ‘downblousing’ and ‘revenge porn’ (the posting of nude images without the subject’s consent, usually by jilted former lovers).

A review of harassment laws to include cyberstalking and the sending of abusive messages could also be on the way along with a range of penalties, with top-line offenses carrying jail sentences of up to seven years and an unlimited fine.

Perhaps the most important recommendation in the report is for the appointment of a Digital Safety Commissioner – modelled on that in Australia – responsible for establishing and implementing a code of conduct for social media and ensuring that takedown notices abusive content are honoured in a timely manner and with a minimum of friction for the user.

The report has been welcomed by advocacy groups, albeit with a hint of relief that concerns like revenge porn were finally being taken seriously. Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, explained: “The most common form of digital abuse we hear about are damaging rumours being spread about women both personally and professionally and having sexually explicit images and posted online without consent. In other cases, abusive partners or ex-partners have advertised their partners on escort sites without their consent or knowledge.

“The impact of this type of insidious abuse cannot be underestimated. Women feel that their privacy has been invaded and that they have no control over their lives. Women experience anxiety and feel vulnerable and fearful. They also have difficulty in concentrating and sleeping. Women have to change their contact numbers and email addresses, close down social media accounts and in some cases, move out of their homes. Women have to try to repair damage done to their reputation with their family, friends, at work and with their online communities.”

Coming from a child protection standpoint, ISPCC chief executive Grainia Long noted the positive and negative aspects of technology in young people’s lives. “Cybersafety is the child protection issue of our time,” she said. “We are only beginning to understand the scale and nature of harm and criminal behaviour towards children online. However, we also appreciate the positive impact that technology has on the lives of young people but our work has informed us that our education system and society are failing to prepare children to identify and understand online risks.”

Response
At time of writing I have yet to see an official response from ISPs or social networks and I’m sure one will be forthcoming. Facebook, Twitter et al don’t like to talk about regulation, preferring to roll out new features such as making it easier to report trolls or controlling what information you share with the world. However while the networks can build better mousetraps they can’t account for weak passwords, unprincipled former partners, adolescent peer pressure or misogyny. Not all their problems are technical and that requires the kind of human input to manage that networks would much rather replace with an algorithm – if only they had one.

At over 200 pages, the LRC has clearly done a thorough job in examining the problem and looking at possible solutions and I look forward to seeing them work their way through the Dail with little pushback. One of the things that I think will play the state’s favour is our relative size – meaning social networks wouldn’t have to chase thousands of takedown requests per day – and also that Ireland has a history of successful forum moderation. I am, of course, referring to Boards.ie, one of the country’s most-visited websites.

Boards.ie is an example of the Internet done well. Its simple ‘don’t be a dick’ code of ethics is flexible enough for mods to crack down on trolls and gives users confidence that they won’t be subject to ad hominem attacks. People look after each other. It’s a simple principle and one that, at this nation’s scale, works well without millions and millions of euro.

Now all we need is a way to find out if you really are a dog on the Internet – one of the canine variety, that is.

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