The ban on sexual content that is posted online without consent – to be implemented by Reddit and Google in March – is an admirable effort, experts say, but they also paint a fairly bleak picture about its likely success at preventing further damage.
The ban by Google’s Blogger service and social-networking and news site Reddit takes aim at leaked or stolen nude photos and so-called revenge pornography — the posting of explicit images of former lovers.
Beginning March 10, anyone who wants a Reddit image or video of themselves removed from Reddit can email the site and they will take it down (email@example.com), but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.
Effective March 23, Blogger will no longer allow most nude photos to be posted on anything other than a private site.
"The internet has no delete button," said Carmi Levy, a technology analyst with voices.com, a tech company in London, Ont. "So once something goes online chances are it's going to pop up elsewhere. It is very much like a game of whack-a-mole – trying to find out where else it popped up and trying to get ahead of it."
No permanent eraser
While a successful copyright complaint or email to Reddit could scrub images from one site forever, victims have to remain vigilant and continue filing takedown notices elsewhere on the web.
"If you are a victim of having something posted about you against your will, there really isn’t a whole lot you can do," Levy said. "You can’t simply go online and look for photos of yourself. Unless it’s properly tagged, you might never even know. It’s a very frightening place to be."
Until now, Reddit has had a hands-off approach to privacy, largely allowing its 160 million users to police their own forums within certain guidelines such as no child pornography or spam. The change comes about six months after hackers obtained nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities and posted them to social media sites, including Reddit.
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Reddit was initially criticized for leaving the images up and for its hands-off policy. The site also came under fire when Wired reported that Reddit made enough money off the stolen celebrity photos to keep its servers running for almost a month.
The company was applauded over Tuesday's announcement for taking a stand against revenge porn and the posting of nude photos without consent, which Jennifer Lawrence called a "sex crime."
Levy said, "It’s an admirable effort by both Reddit and Google to get ahead of a problem that has become very significant in recent years. Unfortunately, because of the way the internet is structured, it really is little more than wrapping paper."
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Reddit called the move "one more step in the right direction," saying it would share how often these takedowns occur in its yearly privacy report.
"You shouldn't do it because it's good PR, you should be liable for the damages the victims will suffer," Dr. Avner Levin said. Levin is an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and chair of the law and business department.
"That is what we have in terms of intellectual property. We should have a legal structure like that for people's private images."
Legislation passed by Parliament in October makes it illegal in Canada to circulate an intimate image without the subject’s consent, but critics warn the law is too broad and vague.
"The big challenge is that with the provision of the intimate image there is a defence of whether the person being photographed had a reasonable expectation of privacy," Levin said. "What is the context of the photo taking? What was the expectation when the photo was taken and has it been breached?"
Victims can still sue for defamation, breach of privacy and copyright law violation, but "the internet is the technological equivalent of the Wild West," Levy says. "By the time this works its way through the legal system, years will have gone by and your bank account will have been depleted."
"The legal system simply cannot keep up with technology."
The only real solution for the time being, Levy says, is to not take those kinds of photos in the first place.
"It might sound overly simplistic," he said. "But when relationships end these photos now become weapons used by one party against another and that happens time and again."
However, that seems unlikely.
Millennials who grew up in the digital age of cell phones and selfies have ushered in a shift in the culture of documenting our daily lives.
"I think it's really common," says Michelle Drouin, a developmental psychologist who specializes in social media and the growing use of sexting. "Sexting has become so integrated with sexuality. This is a part of becoming a sexual person in this decade."
Drouin says she is discouraged by how little people can do to protect their privacy and private images.
"I think we need a really aggressive campaign telling young people that these photos are forever," she said. "Teenagers are so vulnerable. They don't know yet if these photos will haunt them in the future."
"It’s human nature to take photos. The education there will fail," he said. "And people go on Reddit because they want to socialize. You're not going to change the way human beings behave. You want to find a way for them to get recourse and a legal system that helps them do that. We are missing that."