Opinion

Revenge porn targeted by new laws

In an era when sharing photos is the new social norm, we need updated laws with measures to protect people before an intimate image can go viral, says technology columnist Ramona Pringle.

German court sets new precedent on control over intimate photos, videos

While other countries, including Canada, have laws in place that give victims of leaked photos legal recourse, Germany is the first country to allow the subject of a photo to actually revoke the recipient's possession of the photos at any time. (Igor Stevanovic/Shutterstock)

In an era when sharing status updates and photos is the new social norm, figuring out who actually owns the images we post online or send to each other is a topic of ongoing debate.

Currently, in most countries — including Canada — the person who takes an image is its lawful owner, not the person featured in the image.

Privacy advocates like Danielle Citron at the University of Maryland have pushed for new laws to protect the rights of not only the owners of those images, but those who are actually in the photos themselves.

Now, Germany has made steps toward giving increased consent to the people in the images, allowing them to revoke ownership rights or access to the photos.

And one Canadian province is also taking steps to address the issue of "revenge porn," where jilted exes post intimate images of their former partners online.

New Manitoba law targets non-consensual photo distribution

Manitoba justice minister Gord Mackintosh announced earlier in January new legislation which aims to stop the non-consensual distribution of intimate photos. (CBC/Erin Brohman)
In Manitoba, a new law aims to stop the non-consensual distribution of intimate photos.

Under the new legislation, Manitobans will be able to sue perpetrators in civil court if they share, or threaten to share, intimate images without consent.

Manitoba's justice minister, Gord Mackintosh, says the province is the first in Canada to enact legislation addressing revenge porn and the non-consensual distribution of sexual imagery and video.

Late last year, Nova Scotia's Cyber-Safety Act — which attempted to protect victims of online harassment — was struck down by the province's Supreme Court as a "colossal failure" that infringed on Charter rights.

And while Manitoba's law may be a step in the right direction, for the victims, the legal recourse often comes only after the damage has been done.

German court rules subjects of photos can revoke consent

The real struggle is in trying to prevent these devastating situations in the first place. Last month, Germany's highest court ruled that consent over an intimate image can be revoked at any time by the person in the image.

In that case, as reported by the BBC, the court required the photographer to delete intimate images of his ex-partner, stating that his mere possession of the photographs violated her right to privacy. In a sense, it's "the right to be forgotten."

While other countries, including Canada, have laws in place that give victims of leaked photos legal recourse, Germany is the first country to allow the subject of a photo to actually revoke the recipient's possession of the photos at any time.

Protection needed before images go viral

This is an important distinction, because although there are laws in place for legal response, in the case of revenge porn, once the photo is spread, the damage has been done. 

Following the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia teen who took her own life in 2013 after a picture of her being raped was circulated on the internet, it is now an offence under Canadian criminal law to disseminate a photo taken with an expectation that it would be kept intimate.

Unfortunately, due to how quickly viral images can spread online, by the time legal action can be taken, the damage is often irreversible.​

In a world where we are constantly connected, it is simply not sufficient to tell people not to take or share intimate photos.

Humans are complicated, and as we've seen time and again, people make mistakes, especially in the context of relationships.

That means that we need updated laws that reflect the way we live and the world we're living in and preventative measures to protect people before an intimate image can go viral.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in the RTA School of Media and director of the Transmedia Zone at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.

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