The aftermath of Ireland’s explicit photo leak: technology, equality, and the law

, by Elsie Haldane

The aftermath of Ireland's explicit photo leak: technology, equality, and the law

At the end of November, thousands of explicit images of women in Ireland were leaked and shared on different online forums. As a result, Irish law has changed to prohibit the sharing of explicit images without consent, but what about the situation in the rest of Europe? What can this incident teach us about our own laws, cultural attitudes, and power imbalance in society?

The situation in Ireland

It is believed that many of the photos constitute ‘revenge porn’, meaning sexually explicit images shared without the consent of the victim, often with the direct intention of causing distress. Some are also believed to be of minors. Victim’s Alliance, a group representing victims of crime, discovered the leak, finding an enormous file containing 11,000 images of “mostly Irish women’’. A further search found that over 140,000 images were shared on different websites. It is understood that some of them were shared on social media without the victim’s consent, and some were taken in the first place without the victim’s knowledge.

When the incident occurred last month, Ireland had no law in place against sharing ‘revenge porn’. Linda Hayden, the founder of Victim Alliance, said at the time of the leak: “We believe that Irish women were targeted because the perpetrators know there is no law against sharing intimate images without consent” As a result of the incident, this month Ireland has approved the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill, criminalising the sharing of images without consent, with perpetrators facing a fine and up to seven years in prison. The bill is to be called “Coco’s law” in the memory of a 21-year-old woman from Dublin who committed suicide in 2018 after years of online harassment.

Difficulties in ending revenge porn

Although changing the law is an important milestone in reducing the incidences of these crimes, it is more difficult to change normative behaviour in society. During the incident in Ireland many blamed the victims for sending photos in the first place, and it was also reported that many of the women who tried to remove the pictures received death threats. Similarly to cases of domestic violence, rape, and assault, the victim is often more blamed than the perpetrator. It can be argued that this emerges from a societal tendency to blame women, or victims in general, since it may seem easier to blame the victim than to address and tackle the systemic issue of violence against women. This reaction from public opinion, contributes to the shaping of social taboos, as victims feel societal shaming and lack of support. This results in our inadvertent protection of perpetrators as a society: for many, it is easier to brush these incidents away as less serious than they really are. Speaking in the Dáil (Irish lower chamber), Social Democrat TD (parliamentarian) Holly Cairns expressed that “as a nation we also need to have an incredibly serious and difficult conversation about this”, urging men who see explicit images shared amongst their friends or online to call them out.

Revenge porn and the law across Europe

Other countries such as Scotland, England and Wales, and France have specifically criminalised the sharing of intimate pictures without consent. While no EU law specifies revenge porn or the sharing of explicit images without consent (except for child pornography), it is arguable that it breaks Article 8 in the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to respect for family and private life. Many EU countries have not banned it in their legislation but will hopefully follow the examples of those that have sooner rather than later.

Of course, part of the reason that these issues are only being criminalised now, is that we are still getting used to the potential risks of social media and rapidly developing technology. Unfortunately, in many cases such as Ireland’s case, technology can have the effect of exacerbating society’s power imbalance, disempowering the most vulnerable while giving perpetrators even more ways to marginalise others. Legislation is an important tool for enacting real change, and it is important for protective laws to be extensive, comprehensive, and to keep up with technology’s advancements to anticipate any potential danger. For permanent change and suppression of inequality, however, our laws cannot be the only things that change. Societal attitudes and victim-blaming culture must also come to an end, but these are very different beasts to try and tackle and it will be a slow process. We can hope that while we continue to fight dangerous societal norms, improved legislation will serve as a catalyst for change, and set the protection of victims as a priority.

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