Thank you very much for inviting me to be here.
My remarks are going to focus on cyberviolence against girls and young women, although, as will become obvious as I proceed, in the seamlessly integrated online/offline world that is inhabited by young people today, distinctions between cyberspace and real space are virtually meaningless. As we know, the consequence of so-called online behaviour can be very real.
My remarks are grounded in the work that I've been doing for 15 years on the intersections of law, technology, and equality, and in particular the eGirls Project, which I co-led with Valerie Steeves until 2014, and the work of the eQuality Project, which I currently co-lead with Dr. Steeves, and for which we're proud to have MediaSmarts as a partner organization.
I'm also a member of the national steering committee of the National Association of Women and the Law.
The eGirls Project itself focused on girls' and women's experiences with online social media. In it, we interviewed girls aged 15 to 17 and 18 to 22 to ask them how their perceptions of their online lives lined up with policy-makers' solutions for online issues for children and to find out what they would want policy-makers to know about what life was like for a girl online.
Of course, technologically facilitated harassment and violence surfaced in those conversations, but so too did their concerns around mediatized stereotyping; privacy; the intense scrutiny girls find themselves under online; and corporate policies, practices, and structures that compromise their capacity to participate as equals online and off. It's this latter issue that's led us to the eQuality Project.
The eQuality Project is focused on the way that online behavioural targeting actually shapes the online environment that young people inhabit and the degree to which it sets young people up for conflict and harassment, particularly youth from diverse and intersecting equality-seeking communities. One of our current initiatives is to review and assess the efficacy of criminal law responses by looking at Canadian case law on technologically facilitated violence against women and girls.
I had originally intended to talk about three things, but I'm only going to talk about two. The first is a pet peeve of mine: why the term “cyberbullying” has to be treated with caution. The second is what needs to be done based on lessons learned from the eGirls Project participants.
The term “cyberbullying” has to be treated with caution because its generic nature just too easily whitewashes issues of discrimination and violence, which require tailored responses beyond punishing individual children or even teaching them how to properly use technology.
Research shows that young people who are perceived as different, whether because of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived disability or disability, are at greater risk of being bullied and cyberbullied. Similarly, as we've heard, girls and young women are more likely to be targeted by technologically facilitated sexual violence. In a sexist society, one form of that, the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, leaves women and girls open to humiliation, embarrassment, and reputational ruin for expressing their sexuality, for exposing their bodies, or even for others' decisions to expose their bodies, which is perhaps the most troubling of all, despite superficially conflicting messages that tell girls and women that social success depends upon emulating a stereotypical, heteronormative version of “sexy”. I put “sexy” in quotes. I call that flip-top sexuality. I don't think it has anything to do with sex whatsoever.
To the extent that cyberbullying, then, as a term, suggests somehow random targeting or random effects, I think the term has to be approached with caution, in particular when we're talking about women and girls. Otherwise we're going to miss root causes, such as misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and racism, that actually demand redress. We can't fix the problem by treating the symptoms.
The second point I want to talk about is what needs to be done. What did we learn from the eGirls' eQuality project participants?
First, consult directly with diverse groups of girls and young women and recognize the expertise of community organizations working against violence against women and in support of survivors. We cannot assume that adults' perceptions of the problems of girls and young women mesh with their own perceptions and experiences.
For example, Canadian federal public policy dialogue around children and technology has placed significant emphasis on the risk of unknown sexual predators online. The eGirls project participants indicated some concern about unknown sexual predators online, especially with respect to their younger siblings and relations; however, they demonstrated far more concern about the impact of the widespread availability and scrutiny of data relating to them and the ways in which the online environment exposed them to what they perceived as the risk of reputational ruin at the age of 12. Girls and young women may be equally at risk—if not more—of technologically facilitated violence by those they know than by strangers. For anyone working in the violence-against-women community, we've known this for a long time about sexual violence in general.
Second, recognize technologically facilitated violence against women and girls as an equality-based human rights issue and proactively address root causes rather than focusing solely on criminal law responses.
I'm a lawyer. I'm the first person to say that individual perpetrators should be held responsible for their actions, and I part company with any suggestion that an individual's unilateral decision to display his girlfriend's naked picture on a pornography site is an expression of sexuality that we ought to be giving much merit to or concern for, or that a charge in that case is necessarily wrong in those kinds of circumstances. Individual perpetrators do have to be held responsible for their actions, particularly where they're taken unilaterally.
Meaningfully addressing the disproportionate targeting of girls and young women for sexualized cyberviolence, though, requires nothing short of social transformation. That's what it's about. As a friend of mine said, “Yes, you're talking about ending the patriarchy, so good luck.” That's okay. That's what we're talking about: ending the patriarchy.
We have to address misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other intersecting oppressions that have been used as tools to keep women down, to silence them, and to keep them out of the public sphere. In the online context, they are preventing girls and young women from participating as equals. Some eGirls project participants felt it would be particularly important to address discrimination and prejudice through educational measures to combat these forms of oppression, as well as to address heterosexist stereotyping that privileges thin, white representations of femininity and sexuality that were a prominent part of the advertising they were targeted with in online social spaces.
Third, focus on the role that corporations play in structuring online interactions to compel data disclosure and make privacy protection difficult, instead of focusing on telling girls and young women what not to do. Too often, policy approaches focus on reactive responses that result in blaming those attacked for having disclosed too much and that subject girls and young women who have been targeted to further monitoring and surveillance by parents and other adults. The eGirls project participants felt that policy-makers should give girls in particular a break. That's a quote. “Give girls a break,” they said, and pay more attention to corporate practices and policies that compromise their ability to negotiate privacy in networked spaces.
Fourth, provide more support for girls and young women who have been targeted by technologically facilitated violence. The eGirls project participants felt there was too little focus on providing support and encouragement for targets of online abuse. Policy-makers need to make sure that community organizations working to combat violence against women and girls and to support survivors and schools dealing with these issues have adequate funding to meaningfully address these needs.
Fifthand last is again another pet peeve of mine: do not make unnecessary expansion of police power the price of addressing technologically facilitated violence against women and girls.
One of our project participants lamented that protections from online predation for girls and women were too often associated with unnecessary expansion of police surveillance powers. Once again we saw with the passage of Bill C-13 that the censure of non-consensual distribution of intimate images came at the cost of expanded police powers that were in absolutely no way limited to addressing violence against women and girls.
In conclusion, it's time for adults to take responsibility for economic and social policy decisions that have resulted in the seamlessly integrated online/offline world our children now inhabit.
I'm happy to summarize that in the answer period, if I can.