September 22, 2014 12:36 pm
Updated: September 30, 2014 9:42 am

Anti-revenge porn pioneer finds Canada’s cyberbullying law ‘disturbing’

Justice Minister Peter MacKay has said provisions in Ottawa's "cyberbullying" bill giving police extra surveillance powers are necessary.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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Mary Anne Franks has made a name for herself fighting “revenge porn” – the dissemination of intimate photos of a woman (it’s almost always a woman) without her permission or knowledge – often by an estranged partner.

But she’d really rather you didn’t call it that.

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“Non-consensual pornography” is the law professor’s preferred term – one she thinks gets at the real problem, which is the lack of consent in these images’ dissemination.

It’s tough to stamp out, especially when these images are sometimes taken by, or given to, a woman’s partner consensually – but then shared in ways she’d never permit.

The consequences for a person’s life are myriad: In Canada, sharing such photos has put a judge’s job in jeopardy and caused unspeakable torment for a Nova Scotia teen who ultimately killed herself, and who claimed the widely distributed images were taken while she was being gang-raped.

Franks has helped craft anti-revenge porn bills for numerous U.S. states.

So you think she’d be thrilled Canada’s tackling the practice itself.

But Franks isn’t thrilled with the federal government’s “cyberbullying” bill, which Parliament’s set to debate this week.

“There’s a lot going on there that I think is disturbing,” she said of the bill, which she first took a look at several months ago while at a revenge porn conference in Canada.

Her first objection is to the name Ottawa’s given it.

“‘Cyberbullying,’ first of all, I don’t think is a good term to describe this,” she said.

“‘Bullying’ is an amorphous term that could mean anything from being mean to someone to terrorizing somebody so they commit suicide. I don’t like a word that can mean any of those things – that’s kind of useless. When these things happen using online resources, they’re still the same crime. So let’s call them what they are.”

But Franks’s more serious objections have to do with the bill’s contents.

“It seems like a way to get Canadians to accept a greater intrusion on the part of government and police into their personal lives and using revenge porn as a pretext for doing that, which is incredibly upsetting. …

“We don’t want to use a legitimate recognition of harmful behaviour as a pretext for violating people’s civil rights.”

Franks wouldn’t be the first to raise these concerns. Legal experts, civil liberties advocates and the federal privacy watchdog have all noted similarities between Bill C-13 and the short-lived “snoop-and-spy” bill backed by then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in 2012. At the time, the added ability the bill gave to law-enforcement to access Canadians’ personal information without a warrant sparked such a backlash the federal Tories promised to modify it before ultimately letting it die on the order paper.

But some of these same clauses are back in the “cyberbullying” bill.

Justice Minister Peter Mackay has defended these measures, arguing that without the ability to pre-emptively prevent online crime, “we will not be able to save the lives of people like Amanda Todd, and others.”

“Our Government takes the privacy of Canadians very seriously,” Mackay’s spokesperson Clarissa Lamb said in an email to Global News Monday.

“Bill C-13 aims to provide police with the necessary means to fight crime in today’s high-tech environment while maintaining the judicial checks and balances needed to protect Canadians’ privacy. As we have previously said, police will nonetheless have to comply with law, including getting judicial oversight when needed.”

Franks contests that assertion.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to work to try to protect privacy by invading privacy.”

That said, she notes, it’s encouraging for society to recognize the non-consensual sharing of intimate images as a crime.

All too often, Franks said, people blame women for having shared these photos, for having taken them in the first place – even for allowing themselves to be in a position where someone might film them surreptitiously.

“We see exactly where this logic is leading: Women are simply not allowed to live or to ever be naked or to have bodies, because the only way this logic is going to be able to resolve itself, there’s nothing a women can do with her own body that’s not going to be blamed.”

READ: Canada’s “cyberbullying” bill

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