Geek Speak: Laura Track, author of West Coast LEAF’s #CyberMisogyny report

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Vancouver lawyer Laura Track says women in Canada don’t have adequate legal means to fight back against today’s online onslaught of sexist harassment and abuse. Track is the legal director of West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that works to achieve equality.

This week, West Coast LEAF released #CyberMisogyny: Using and Strengthening Canadian Legal Responses to Gendered Hate and Harassment Online, a 86-page report authored by Track. The report looks at the following problems: revenge porn, nonconsensual sharing of intimate images among youth, child sexual exploitation, cyberstalking, and gender-based hate speech online.

The #CyberMisogyny report offers 35 recommendations. One of them calls for the creation of a federal children’s commissioner. Another suggests federal legislation banning the marketing and sale of “stalking apps”. The report also urges the B.C. government to grant victims of sexualized cybermisogyny access to legal aid so they can sue the perpetrators for defamation and invasion of privacy.

The Georgia Straight reached Track by phone at West Coast LEAF’s office in Vancouver.

What makes cybermisogyny different than plain-old misogyny?

Cybermisogyny involves things like revenge porn, hate speech against women and girls, threats of sexual violence online. These are behaviours that often get lumped into the catch-all term cyberbullying, but cybermisogyny describes their gendered nature and acknowledges the disproportionate impact on women and girls.

Could you elaborate on why the popular term cyberbullying is somewhat problematic?

I think cyberbullying is very much part of the national conversation in light of the suicide deaths of young women like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, who were tormented by their classmates and communities after nude images were circulated of them. But what the term cyberbullying tends to erase is the fact that harassment and abuse online disproportionately target women, girls, LGBTQ communities, and people of colour, so the term cyberbullying obscures the sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia that often underlie the bullying behaviours.

How do existing laws deal with abuse and harassment of women and girls online?

What we found is that there are significant gaps in the law that mean victims of cybermisogyny don’t have access to recourse under the law. There are some laws that can and have been applied in cases of abuse and harassment happening online.

Criminal harassment is a law that deals with stalking behaviour and has been applied to cases of cyberstalking. But for criminal harassment charges to apply, the victim has to have fear. They have to fear for their physical or psychological safety. And often the goal of cybermisogyny is shaming, humiliating, rather than instilling fear.

Other legal options for victims of cybermisogyny include civil suits for defamation or invasion of privacy, for example. But, of course, suing someone in civil court is a very expensive, time consuming, and complicated process. When the abuse is happening online, there are additional challenges of trying to figure out who the perpetrator is, and so bringing a civil suit for cybermisogyny cases is a very difficult thing to do.

What’s one key recommendation in your report?

One key recommendation in the report is to criminalize the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images. That’s a huge gap in Canadian law.

As we describe in the report, just a couple of weeks ago, there was a case in Saskatchewan where the accused had posted naked images of his ex-girlfriend on the Internet, and he was acquitted of the theft and mischief charges laid against him. While the judge found that his behaviour was egregious and offensive, the judge felt he had to be acquitted because there simply was no law that applied to what he had done.

That’s obviously devastating for victims to know that someone who invades their privacy and seeks to humiliate them in this way can get off scot-free.

In preparing this #CyberMisogyny report, did anything surprise you?

One of the things I found most inspiring were the stories of women who refused to be silenced by the hate speech and the misogynist vitriol directed against them online. For many women, it is simply too much to bear. We heard stories of women shutting down their blogs, leaving online spaces where they had been contributors and participants in conversation, because dealing with the constant rape threats and the constant hatred directed at them was simply too much.

But what was inspiring were the women who refused to be cowed in that way and stood up to their abusers and took action to shut down, for example, revenge porn websites in the United States. We tell one story in the report of a woman who went on an incredible crusade against the owner of a notorious revenge porn website called Is Anyone Up? in the United States and was successful in having its owner arrested earlier this year and charged with a number of criminal offences.

What’s your take-home message for the public?

The law is struggling to keep up with changing technologies, and there are significant gaps in the legal responses available to victims of cybermisogyny. Provincial and federal governments need to take action to address these gaps and ensure that victims have options in the law to hold offenders accountable for hate and harassment that’s perpetrated online.

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