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Facebook introduces new tools to combat ‘revenge porn’

WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a smartphone in New York.
WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a smartphone in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

Facebook says it has improved its methods for combating the rise of “revenge porn.” As of today, when users flag an image they suspect was posted without consent, Facebook will take action to prevent the images from being duplicated and re-posted.

Revenge porn is the act of posting intimate or sexual images without the subject’s consent through any online medium. Through several new tools, Facebook can prevent these images from being shared on its primary site, as well as on Messenger and Instagram.

“This is obviously a challenge that’s much bigger than Facebook, or any one particular company or platform. It is obviously something that individuals have done and we know that they do. There are many terrible cases and there are many more cases that people don’t hear about,” said Kevin Chan, the head of public policy at Facebook Canada.

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READ MORE: 1 in 25 people are victims of ‘revenge porn’ new study says

“What we want to do in the space where we can affect change is make sure that it’s much harder for these things to pop up. We have 22 million Canadians on our service, and globally, we have almost 1.9 billion people on Facebook,” he continued.

While users can already report images to Facebook that they suspect to have been shared without permission, doing so will now alert Facebook to begin using photo-matching technologies to prevent an image from being shared again or copied to another account.

“This is something that people have asked for. It is, as you can imagine, technically challenging to do because what we’re not enabling is not just letting people report things like they always have,” Chan explains.

“What we’re doing now with the technology is basically being able to find all these images that have been reported to us across our platforms, and that is Facebook, Messenger and Instagram, and be able to remove this content irrespective whether or not new versions or new copies of the images have been reported to us.”

Chan explains that the updated features are something that users of the platform have repeatedly requested as instances of revenge porn became more prevalent on social media sites. Over the past few years, several Canadian jurisdictions have enacted legislation to deal with revenge porn.

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In January 2016, Manitoba introduced the Intimate Image Protection Act, which creates a “private right of action” in regards to intimate images. Nova Scotia enacted the Cyber-Safety Act in 2013, in response to cases of sexual humiliation and cyberbullying of a teenager. While Ontario has begun considering the issue, no definitive legislation exists.

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“Legislating in this area is tricky because such legislation is open to challenge under the Charter (chiefly that such violates the Charter right to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, and the Charter right to life, liberty and security of the person,” Cybersecurity and data lawyer Kirsten Thompson said in an email.

“Nova Scotia’s cyberbullying legislation fell victim to just this type of challenge. However, carefully drafted legislation may be able to withstand such challenge.”

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Thompson goes on to note that whether or not there are solid legal repercussions for sharing intimate images of someone without their consent, the emotional effects of doing so are real. Despite this, however, “hurt feelings” are difficult to evaluate from a legal standpoint, she says.

“Revenge porn and other similar privacy harms aren’t easily quantifiable – what is damage to reputation worth? How should it be evaluated?” Thompson continues.

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She does agree, however, that in order to combat revenge porn, social media platforms should develop codes of conduct, take-down processes and other mechanisms to respond to posting of or complaints of revenge porn.

READ MORE: Google will honour requests to remove revenge porn

Facebook partnered with the YWCA Canada to bring this initiative through. Raine Lilliefeldt, the director of member services and development at YWCA recalled how young women often share their experiences with this form of cyberbullying.

“Blocking users from sharing flagged or reported private material eliminates the possibility it will spread on their platform and reduces the threat to young women. It’s a vital step in protecting users and moving the needle on creating a safer digital world for young women,” Lilliefeldt said.

According to a 2016 study by the Data & Society Research Institute, one in 25 people have either been victims of revenge porn threats or posts, and 93 per cent of victims report significant emotional distress afterwards. Only recently has this conversation begun taking place on a national level.

These tools go live in Canada, along with several other countries on April 4.