Monday, 22 July 2013

At The Intersection of The Rehtaeh Parsons Case and Freedom of Expression


The Rehtaeh Parsons story took another turn last week with the release of a report by new Canadian Federal Justice Minister, Peter MacKay. The report calls for a new law and vague investigative powers to cover a 'gap' in the criminal code regarding the 'sharing of intimate images'. [CBC Article]

While this may sound good on the surface, what lurks beneath is a connection to the conflicting feelings of The Conservative Party in regards to privacy and freedom of expression. In case it needs repeating there are existing laws to cover this case: Child Pornography and sexual assault. Those laws may be inadequate and outdated, but they exist. So why create a new and tangentially related one?

The laws in Canada covering the recording of conversations and images are remarkably open when compared with American law. In the United States, I can't record a phone call without notifying the other party. In Canada it's a bit more complex, but a simple test determines if you can clandestinely record a conversation in video or audio.

Section 184(2)(a) of the Criminal Code of Canada covers the exceptions, and the first one is that if you are one of the intended recipients of a private communication, you may record it.

You can record any interaction you have -public or private- and publish it, without notifying the person you are recording. Permission is not required. The kicker is that you have to be an active participant in the event. So I can walk into a mechanics shop and record the conversation I have with the mechanic. However, if I leave the camera behind without permission to record them while they work -that constitutes spying- which we also have laws to cover. A more detailed explanation can be found here.

As an activist, this law has shielded me on numerous occasions. It affords Canadians an important tool when it comes to personal activism, journalism, and posting content to the web.

Following an article in the Chronicle Herald, Anonymous helped propel this story to international status. The nebulous collective of activists now notorious as 'Hacktivists' are the experts at getting attention. But in this case one of the few universal beliefs of Anonymous -Freedom of Expression- is about to collide head on with the pet cause of a large subset within itself: Rape Culture.

Anon in Uncomfortable Position

I reached out to a very active Anonymous activist intimately familiar with the Parsons case, and asked him a direct question: “Do you have any concerns that the proposed 'Intimate Images' law could impact freedom of expression in Canada?”

ANSWER: “I'm concerned it would be really broad. We have to think about the big picture though. I don't want to wade in on how various elements of Anon could clash over this, but censorship does have its place. We don't want to limit freedom of expression, but sexual pictures of thirteen year-olds should have no place on the internet.” - Anonymous

The Rob Ford Connection

But this law wouldn't only be for child pornography, it would cover consenting adults as well. This development leads to a dangerous question many of us have feared to ask ourselves: what if Rob Ford had been smoking a crack pipe while nude? 

Clear cut situations like a 15 year old Rehtaeh Parsons vomiting out of a window while being sexually assaulted should be relatively easy to cover. The problem is, it's also easy for a reactionary law to be used for unintended purposes. Unless it is incredibly well written and specific, such a law could have in theory protected the dear leader of Toronto in his video scandal. 

It also provides an easy sound-byte sized attack against anyone who opposes it. This proposed law is a conservative political strategist's dream. All they need do is tinker with a few words, and Prime Minister Harper will have a political weapon to fight his opponents with... if anyone dares to criticize it.

**TW; means trigger warning, to advise sexual assault survivors of potentially upsetting content.

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