Category Archives: Digital Rights

[rape, sexual assault] ioerror, TOR, and encouraging victims to report rape to law enforcement

[TW: This post discusses rape and sexual assault in some detail. In addition, several of the links lead to graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault by survivors.]

First of all, all my thoughts are with the people who were finally able to speak out loud enough to be heard in the face of power. I hope they get whatever measure of justice, or closure, or healing they can and want from this. I also find it tentatively encouraging that, after some prodding, the TOR Project has chosen to deal with this publicly to an extent. The digital rights community has a long way to go, but I guess the reactions we’re seeing this week, and the voices we’re hearing, are better than those back in 2010.

There’s one thing that really struck me in TOR’s second statement though, which in some ways illustrates the depth, complexity and extent of the issues we as a digital rights community still need to get our collective heads around to make this a safe space:

People who believe they may have been victims of criminal behavior are advised to contact law enforcement. We recognize that many people in the information security and Internet freedom communities don’t necessarily trust law enforcement. We encourage those people to seek advice from people they trust, and to do what they believe is best for them.

Allow me to digress for a moment to another high-profile rape case that’s been in the media this week: the Brock Allen Turner one. This is pretty close to a classic “stranger rape” case, where there were two witnesses and a rape kit. This is one of the vanishingly small percentage of rape cases that not only got reported, and got to court, it led to a conviction. It is also the case where the rapist was sentenced to six months’ jail time because anything longer would have a “severe impact” on him. This is how law enforcement treats rape if you are lucky.

Here’s something else for you to consider before encouraging those Appelbaum attacked to go to law enforcement. This is a quote from River’s account over on

I didn’t know until very recently that nonconsensual sex, by a friend, is rape.

This is not unusual among those who have experienced rape and sexual assault. Our society constructs sexual violence as “just sex” in a number of toxic and insidious ways. So if a survivor doesn’t know that what happened to them was rape, guess who else doesn’t know it: law enforcement. Let me be clear: nonconsensual, coerced, unwanted sex is rape, even if the person doing it is a friend, a partner, a spouse. This is certainly the case morally, and it is the case legally in many – not all – jurisdictions. Unfortunately, it’s not how law enforcement actually operates.

From what I’ve seen so far, most of these cases are historical cases of acquaintance rape: more difficult to prove “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is the standard for criminal conviction in most jurisdictions. This is not an issue with the cases, or the victims, it’s a structural problem of the way Western criminal justice systems approach rape and sexual assault. The best you can hope for here is a protracted, painful and humiliating investigation that is eventually declared inconclusive.

Another consideration is that the digital rights community that Appelbaum exploited is by nature multinational and migratory. At least one of the assaults (Forest’s account) happened in Germany. Germany’s rape laws are notorious as a carte blanche for rapists. Even if that wasn’t the case, by asking the victim to contact law enforcement, you’re asking them to deal with a legal system that is unfamiliar to them, in a language they may not speak. Depending on whether they’re resident in that country or not, you’re potentially asking them to put that at risk too.

So here’s the thing, TOR: as a woman who is also a digital rights activist, my mistrust of law enforcement does not come from my involvement in digital rights activism. Yes, it’s exacerbated by that, and surveillance is something I have to think about on a daily basis. But in this very specific intersection of circumstances, my mistrust of law enforcement goes much deeper than that, and is much more visceral. You suggesting otherwise is insensitive at best, and shows a remarkable level of ignorance of the reality of the situation at worst.

At the same time we need to recognise that the fact that the people Appelbaum attacked are digital rights activists does make it even more difficult for them to seek justice through law enforcement. In this way we are a vulnerable, marginalised community, making it easier for predators like Appelbaum to operate with impunity. Saying victims should talk to people they trust and do what they believe is best for them is not enough. It’s not a how a community should operate. It undermines our work and our reputation on the issues we have come together to address.

We need to get better at this. We need to believe the first person that reports an assault, not wait until there are ten of them. We need to set up structures that allow us to deal with abusers in a timely and effective way. We need to support survivors. Your move, TOR.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

[Content note: white, Christian-heritage person discussing racism and Islamophobia. It’s not the job of Muslims or people of colour to educate me, but if you do want to call me out on something I’ve got wrong, I would welcome that.]

I’ve lost respect for a lot of people and organisations over the last week. Apparently we are all now Charlie, and also incapable of recognising irony or nuance, or understanding power.
Because this apparently needs saying, let me start with it: I support everyone’s right to free speech. This includes racist speech, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic speech, anti-immigrant speech, misogynistic speech. I believe you should have the right to say those things and to not be persecuted for them by the state. Frankly, I believe this largely for selfish reasons: because it is way too easy to ban radical left speech under the guise of banning radical right speech, and I find it easier to deal with individuals’ free speech than with a state apparatus aimed at silencing. I also believe in people’s right to life, and by extension that no one deserves to die as a consequence of their free speech.

Now, having stated the obvious, let’s move on to irony, and nuance, and power which have so eluded us over the last week. I’ll start with the irony, because that’s the easy one. “Let’s fight for free speech with more surveillance!” said the leaders of nations which routinely jail or assault journalists, send their secret services to destroy hard drives, or have blasphemy laws on the books. If you don’t see the irony in that, I’m not sure I can help you. But I promised nuance too, so let me ask you this: when the security services use Charlie Hebdo as a pretext to get their current wishlist of additional surveillance powers, whose free speech do you think will suffer most from that? Is it the Johns and Pauls and Marys of this world that they will go after, or the Ahmeds and Mohammeds and A’ishahs?

Heck, even if we somehow manage to stop new surveillance powers, the free speech impact on Muslims is already there: because every time a Muslim wants to raise issues of racism and Islamophobia, they have to go through a three-paragraph spiel about how Islam is the religion of peace and how they condemn any violence committed by any Muslim ever.
Dear fellow white people of Christian heritage: try that for a day. Try having to start every conversation with “I apologise for and condemn the crusades, and colonialism, and the homophobia and transphobia we exported to the rest of the world, and the fact that my religious heritage regards women as second-class citizens incapable making decisions about basic health care, and slavery, and genocide, and every war we’ve started in the last 300 years, and the fact that we continue to do these things today, with impunity.” Try that, and see how far you get with your free speech.

Here’s a bit more nuance for you: I can support your right to free speech, however obnoxious it is, but that doesn’t mean I have to give it a platform. Regardless of whether you buy into the terrorism story or are at least aware that, had these two young men been white, we would be talking of “confused and troubled individuals”, republishing the cartoons, marching on the streets and using #JeSuisCharlie all create a discourse that normalises the terrorism narrative as well as offending a lot of people and making them feel unsafe. Free speech has consequences, and when it is exercised by the powerful against the powerless, in the vast majority of cases it is not the speakers who suffer. With every republished Islamophobic cartoon you are causing pain. With every #JeSuisCharlie you are sending out a signal to Muslim people that they are not safe around you. And every individual joining a march is making someone wonder whether it’ll be their mosque shot up next. Exercising your free speech in a way that has these consequences, frankly, makes you a dick.

All of which rather neatly brings us to power. Charlie Hebdo is not racist or Islamophobic, we are told – those few of us who dare question it. You just don’t understand the French context. It is written for a French audience, we are told, where this kind of thing is not racist. Analysis about as incisive as “Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.”
Everyone – including Charlie Hebdo – operates in an existing context of power relations. Sometimes this context is so naturalised and normalised that we are not aware of it, no matter how good our intentions. If you’re telling me that a publication which routinely and deliberately publishes cartoons intended to mock Islam and offend Muslims is not racist or Islamophobic to a French audience, you are restating and reproducing those power relations. You are using your authority and power to define what a French audience looks like; and the French audience you’re describing – regardless of the number of caveats you include – is white and non-Muslim. If Charlie Hebdo is the best the radical left in France has to offer to Muslims and people of colour, and if the rest of white, Christian-heritage Europe gets behind that, our problems are a lot bigger than we thought.

By all means, defend free speech. Defend it from the state, and from private corporations, and from confused and misguided angry young men with guns. But defend it in a way that challenges and overthrows existing power structures, that makes people feel valued and safe, that reaches out rather than pushing away.

Surveillance costs lives

I gave a brief talk yesterday, followed by a Q&A, at the screening of CITIZENFOUR at the Cube cinema in Bristol. I was asked to talk about why I care about privacy, surveillance and digital rights. The reasons why I care and the particular aspects of digital rights that I am passionate about have changed significantly over the years, so in some ways this was a good opportunity to articulate that, and I thought I’d share with the class.

[Trigger warnings/content notes for discussion of domestic abuse, LGBT+ teen suicide, and institutional racism and ableism.]

One of the elements of my current PhD research involves looking into whether and how the internet facilitates political activism (in the widest possible sense of the term, because the personal is political), particularly for minorities and otherwise marginalised groups. Let me give you some examples.

One in four lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have no adult they can talk to about their sexuality, either at home or at school[1]. Many of them will therefore turn to the internet for information and support. For many LGBT+ kids today, the first space where they will feel safe being themselves will be online.

If you happen to be experiencing institutional racism from the police, or feel that you’re being treated unfairly by the JobCentre because of your disability, again, the internet is a likely place you will turn to for information, support, and to find other people with similar experiences.

Or, if you’re a woman experiencing street harassment on a daily basis, or in an abusive relationship, you may also seek help online.

There are many places on the internet that will provide you with practical advice or support: How do I come out to my Mum? How do I make a safety plan in case I need to leave my husband? What particular combination of forms and shibboleths might make the JobCentre treat me like a human being?

But there’s something else that happens too, something incredibly powerful, when you tell your story, and someone else stands up and says, “Me too.” Because suddenly, what you’re going through isn’t just a private, personal issue, something that is wrong with you and that you need to deal with on your own. You become aware that your issue affects many other people, that it is a social and political issue, and you can talk about it, and organise, and bring it into the public sphere.

Except, things work rather differently when you’re under surveillance.
Let’s go back to the queer kid, whose only access to the internet is at school. Half of it is filtered anyway, and the other half is monitored. Would you type “How do I know if I’m trans?” into Google if you knew that one of your teachers could see it an tell your Mum; if the horrendous possible consequences include being kicked out of home, or being subjected to serious physical violence?

How much more difficult is campaigning for justice if you’re the Lawrence family? If the police not only botched the investigation of your son’s murder but, to add insult to injury, put you under surveillance to make sure you weren’t rocking the boat too much?
And what of the woman in the abusive relationship, who knows that the police have access to data on how and when she used her phone, what she typed into Google; who knows that cops are two to four times more likely to be domestic abusers? Even if her partner isn’t a cop, she may rightly feel it’s too risky to seek help online.

The real problem here is that minorities and marginalised groups are disproportionately hit by surveillance. Partly this is a structural effect of the fact that we rely more than others on the internet as a place to meet and organise. But it’s also because some of these groups are specifically and systematically targeted for surveillance by the security services. If you happen to be a person of colour, or your name happens to me Ahmed or Muhammad, you bet that your data is subjected to much more scrutiny by the security services than if you’re a white, middle-class dude called John Smith. This is regardless of whether you have anything to hide.

But not only does surveillance have a chilling effect on the kinds of issues that can be discussed and brought to public attention; not only does it disproportionately hit minorities and marginalised groups; surveillance costs lives.

One in four LGB young people have attempted suicide, and nearly half of trans kids. Two women every week are killed by current or former intimate partners. And if surveillance plays even the slightest role in these people not being able to access help, or meet others with similar experiences, or organise and campaign, then surveillance is at least partially responsible for those deaths.

And that’s why I care.


I would also like to address one question that came up in the Q&A, which is “How can we find the right balance between privacy and security?” This is one of those tropes about privacy that just refuses to die: the notion that somehow there is a trade-off, and that if only we were willing to give up that little bit extra of our rights, we would somehow be magically safe from the big bad terrorists. If this is how you conceptualise your own privacy and security, I would really like you to question the implicit assumptions behind the privacy vs security dichotomy. I would particularly like you to ask yourself who you need to be safe from. And I would like to posit to you that if terrorism is genuinely the greatest threat to your existence, then you live an incredibly privileged life indeed. For most of us the threats come from elsewhere. With 45% of women experiencing domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking at some point in our lives, the existential threats we face come predominantly – and unfortunately – from men. And if you’re a protester in Ferguson, MO, tonight, then by far the single greatest existential threat for you comes from your own police force. These are not issues we will solve with more surveillance.

[1] These figures are from Stonewall. I am not aware of similar figures existing for trans youth, but suspect they are higher.

[Elsewhere] Just google it!

The fact that the company name has come to mean “search on the internet” can often make us forget about the range of other services Google provides and, in particular, how they make their money. While Google may have started as a search engine – a market where it still holds a 70% global share, Google’s empire has spread well beyond that.
Read more at ORGZine.

[Elsewhere] InRealLife – a review

Beeban Kidron’s documentary about young people’s relationship with the internet, InRealLife, begins and ends with teenagers having sex online. This is clearly an image that is both alien and deeply terrifying to baby boomers like Kidron and large parts of Generation X. In between these highly unsubtle bookends, InRealLife is a whistlestop tour of every trope about kids these days and this new-fangled technology that a good Daily Mail reader of a certain age takes as an article of faith: porn – check; gaming – check; sexting – check; cyberbullying – check.
Read more at ORGZine.

Open Letter to David Cameron on Web Filtering

Dear Prime Minister,
We are writing to you about your proposals for default filtering of the Internet.
You have promised parents ‘one click to protect the whole family’. This is a dangerous and misguided approach. Focusing on a default on filter ignores the importance of sex and relationship education and sexual health. Worse, you are giving parents the impression that if they install Internet filters they can consider their work is done.
We are individuals concerned about the development of healthy sex and relationship attitudes in young people and adults. We believe that the Internet is not simply a danger to children and young people. “Content meant for adults” is not something young people simply need shielding from. Rather, the Internet needs to be an environment in which young people feel safe to develop their opinions and attitudes to sex and gender, especially where they may not feel comfortable talking to authority figures.
So there is also a broader responsibility, faced by the Government and parents, to ensure children and young people are offered consent-based sex and relationship education.
Simply blocking adult material by default will have three negative consequences. First, it will most likely block too much, especially as the filters will cover far more than pornography. It is likely that the filters will unintentionally block important sites related to sexual health, LGBT issues, or sex and relationship education. This will be very damaging for LGBT young people, for example, or vulnerable adults who may be cut off from important support and advice, in particular those with abusive partners who are also the Internet account holder.
Second, it distracts attention away from the need for consent-focused sex and relationship education and support for young people struggling with challenging issues. Third ‘one click to protect the whole family’ offers a false sense of confidence and does nothing to combat the real harms that children face, such as stalking, bullying or grooming.
We were extremely concerned, for example, that the Government voted against compulsory sex and relationship education so recently. This would have done far more to improve young people’s ability to develop healthy relationships than your ineffective Internet filtering proposals.
We would like you to drop your proposals for default on filtering. We urge you instead to invest in a programme of sex and relationship education that empowers young people and to revisit the need for this topic to be mandatory in schools. Please drop shallow headline grabbing proposals and pursue serious and demonstrably effective policies to
tackle abuse of young people.
Brooke Magnanti
Laurie Penny
Zoe Margolis
Charles Stross
Jane Fae
Holly Combe
Jane Czyselska
Milena Popova
Also covered in the Independent.


Imagine that last week you’d read a blog post. It was post about porn blocking, and how there are other things we as a society should focus on if, say, we wanted to prevent child sexual abuse. It was a post about porn blocking from an abuse survivor.
One of the many people you follow on Twitter or are friends with on Facebook posted the link, and you followed it. You read the post, maybe you thought the author had made a good point or two, then you closed the tab, and that was that. Then a couple of days later you found yourself discussing porn blocking with a colleague, or a friend, and you thought, “Damn, I should link them to that post. Wonder how I find it again.”
It was a post about porn blocking from an abuse survivor. What search terms might you give Google to help you find it? The top ten search terms to hit my blog this month are (and they’re not pretty):

  • abuse porn
  • porn abuse
  • milena popova
  • survivor porn
  • abused porn
  • market failure examples 2011[1]
  • bi threesomes[2]
  • child sex porn
  • abuse porn.
  • milena porn

Now, something you might have missed what with the royal baby hype is that David Cameron’s speech actually proposed three completely unrelated measures, and that everyone has been conflating them ever since. They are

  • default-on filters at ISP level targeting pornography “and also perhaps self-harming sites”, where you would actively have to notify your ISP if you wanted the filter disabled;
  • getting the major search engines not to return any results for search terms associated with child sexual abuse;
  • and banning possession of pornography depicting simulated rape.

That’s right. Under that second proposal, nearly a quarter of people who googled for a specific post on my blog this month would have had no search results returned to them. Is there a chance that one or two of these people were actually searching for child abuse images? Yeah, perhaps. Were the vast majority of them genuinely looking for my blog post, using the search terms most likely to find it? Yep.
David Cameron’s proposals would silence me when I speak out about child abuse and porn blocking. They would silence many others, too. Next time someone tells you they spoke to the man from Google [~21mins in] and it’ll all be fine really, do remind them that they are conflating three separate measures, all of which are highly likely to be ineffective in actually protecting children, and some of which are indeed equivalent to censorship.
Oh and do sign the Open Rights Group petition against porn blocking.

[1] A variation on this seems to make the Top 10 every month. I’m guessing this post has somehow made it onto a first-year economics reading list.

[2] Remember, just because someone is bisexual doesn’t mean they want a threesome with you.

[TW: child sexual abuse] Porn blocking – a survivor’s perspective

I am a survivor: when I was a teenager, I was sexually abused by an uncle. So when David Cameron proposes a raft of measures which amount to censorship of the internet, all in the name of protecting “our children and their innocence”, I find that deeply offensive.
I am not going to tell you about the potential harmful side effects of these measures, or why none of them are actually going to work. Other people can do this far better than me.
Instead, I want to move on this debate. I want to tell you about some of the factors in my environment that made my abuse possible, because maybe that will give Mr Cameron some idea of the real issues he needs to tackle if he wants to protect children [1].
Like many kids today, I grew up in an environment where parents were deeply uncomfortable talking about bodies, or sex and sexuality. When I got my first period, my mother gave me the most boring textbook in the universe to read. It covered basic anatomy and mechanics of sex, but I must admit I didn’t get very far into it. A year or so later she arranged for me to have a chat with her gynaecologist, who was a friend of the family. What I would have learned from that chat, had I not had access to other materials on sex and relationships, was that oral sex is dirty and horrible and not something one should ever engage in. What I actually learned from the whole experience was that my parents were not willing to discuss issues of sex and sexuality with me. So when the abuse happened, when I would have needed to discuss those things with them and get help, I didn’t feel able to do so.
Now, I appreciate the argument that simply saying “leave child protection exclusively to parents” is middle class privilege. However many parents, middle class and otherwise, would greatly benefit from some help and advice on how to approach difficult issues like sex, sexuality and relationships with their children, and how to create a safe space where children can raise concerns and ask questions without fear of being judged or getting into trouble.
Like many girls today, I also grew up in an environment where a woman’s sense of self-worth was directly proportional to how liked she was by others, particularly men. That translated into being conditioned to be less confrontational, always having to be polite, being told I needed to keep the peace regardless of personal cost. This is not a great way to learn to establish and enforce personal boundaries. When the man who harassed me on the way to school told me it wasn’t very nice to tell him to fuck off, I felt guilty.
Here’s the thing: You know what the most insidious part of our culture is that sends precisely those hugely damaging messages to girls and women? No, it’s not porn. It’s romantic comedies. The idea that behaviour which amounts to stalking and sexual assault is romantic is deeply ingrained in the genre; and trust me – many more kids have access to romantic comedies from a much earlier age than they do to porn. If you want to talk about normalising the idea of violence against women, it’s there that I’d start, not at rape porn. Of course this doesn’t mean I want to ban romantic comedies. However, helping both parents at teachers look critically at the damaging parts of our mainstream culture and discuss them with children would protect many more children than filtering pornography.
Like many kids today, I received sex education that was patchy, focused on the mechanics and on avoiding pregnancy and STIs. Oh, and some of it was distinctly anti-abortion – talk about personal boundaries and bodily autonomy elsewhere. At no point was pleasure discussed. At no point did we ever talk about consent. At not point did a teacher make me feel like I could ask questions, express concerns or confide in them. I knew all about the mechanics of sex. I had a very good idea of what was happening to me when I was being abused. I had no idea how to stop it.
This is the biggest bone I have to pick with the government on this subject. David Cameron has the audacity to tell us that the solution to children viewing pornography is both “about access and (…) about education”. Yet the kind of education he means is not sex and relationships education – it’s education about “online safety”. At the same time his Education Secretary can’t even utter the words “sex and relationship education” without sniggering like a 12-year-old behind the bike sheds. His party (and the LibDems) almost unanimously voted against an amendment to the Children and Families Bill which would have created a statutory provision for sex and relationship education in the national curriculum.
Pornography (extreme or otherwise) and images of child sexual abuse (vile though they are) played absolutely no role in my abuse. I am not going to argue that they play no role at all in anyone’s abuse, or that without the proper context they can’t be damaging to children and young people. What David Cameron is doing, however, is lulling us all into a false sense of security while actively working against measures which would genuinely protect children and young people. This is not a man who is well-intentioned and ill-advised. This is a man who is deeply cynical and hypocritical; a man – and a government – incapable of doing the right thing, and only capable of doing the easy, wrong thing which will gain them votes. This is a man who should hang his head in shame.
As an abuse survivor, I find the measures outlined by the Prime Minister today objectionable, offensive and disgusting. As an abuse survivor, I demand that this government face the facts and either admit that they have no intention whatsoever of protecting children or actually put measures on the table which will do so. As an abuse survivor, I hold my head high today – but I don’t think David Cameron should.

[1] While I do believe children need protection from some things, I find the talk of protecting their “innocence” deeply squicky and disturbing. Kids do not become guilty once they find out about sex.

[Elsewhere] Monetise This: The World of Kindle

So Amazon has decided to boldly go where… quite a few people have tried to go before actually, in its recent move to try to monetise the creative talent (or otherwise) of the fanfiction community. If you hang around fandom long enough, you realise that roughly every seven years someone pops up who thinks there’s a pot of gold at the end of the fandom rainbow, with this most recent effort very likely prompted by the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy which started life as a piece of Twilight fanfiction.
Read more at ORGZine.