#Gamergate, Roast Busters and Revenge Porn – The limits of the law in combatting sexual violence on the internet

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By Vita Bryant (Fightback Wellington).

My knowledge of, and interest in video games is practically non-existent, but when I saw #gamergate trending on my social media newsfeeds, I was intrigued – was the community finally having a discussion on the role of women in gamer culture that went beyond token sterotypes of “cool girls” and “booth babes”?  If it something sounds too good to be true it often is – it turns out #gamergate was not a social movement but a bizarre case of cyber-harassment gone viral.  Eron Gjoni, a disgruntled ex-boyfriend of independent game developer Zoe Quinn posted a series of rants on a number of internet gaming forums detailing the breakdown of their relationship.  Included in this treatise was the allegation that during their relationship, Quinn cheated on him with a number of people, including a journalist and reviewer for a well-known gaming website.  Eventually, enough people (perhaps with limited experience of interpersonal relationships) read these posts and decided that the fact that a consensual sexual relationship between a game developer and a game reviewer had not received any coverage by the mainstream gaming press must be symptomatic of a mass conspiracy of a press collusion with game developers and producers.

If this sounds like a ridiculous “storm in a teacup” to you, that’s because it is – and yet the explicit death and sexual violence threats levelled against Quinn and her supporters were enough to make Quinn leave her home and go into hiding and others to leave the gaming industry altogether.  What’s perhaps the most shocking is that despite these threats being made in very public forums, at the time of writing no criminal charges have been laid as a result of #gamergate.

Meanwhile in California, the state legislature has amended SB 255, its “revenge porn” law, to include “selfies” distributed without the subject’s permission, following a 2013 study by internet security company McAfee which found that about 10% of ex-partners had threatened to expose intimate photos of their ex online, with about 60% following through on those threats.  So far California is the only state that specifically makes the non-consensual distribution of “selfies” a criminal offense.  Similarly in UK, the House of Lords have unanimously agreed that the proposed Criminal Justice and Courts Bill should include provisions criminalising revenge porn, after the eight police forces in England and Wales who kept data on the issue received 149 complaints from victims of revenge porn in the past two and a half years, most of whom had to rely on copyright/civil law (and thus access to a lawyer and the court system) in order to have the pictures removed. 

Finally in Aotearoa, after a year-long investigation into the so-called “Roast Busters” group, police have stated that none of the perpetrators will be prosecuted due to a lack of admissible evidence – despite the fact that the offenders maintained a Facebook group dedicated to bragging about their crimes.  All of these incidences highlight both an inability and an unwillingness of criminal legislation and the police and prosecutors who enforce it to adequately deal with sexual violence. Relegating the distribution of intimate images to the realm of copyright infringement and civil law creates a two-tier system where only survivors with access to lawyers will be able to take measures to reclaim their images.  If perpetrators can brag about their offenses on social media, and those social media posts do not hold sufficient evidentiary value to initiate sanctions against the offenders, those rules of evidence are failing survivors. 

The failure of criminal justice systems to address the needs of victims of sexual violence is both global and systematic.  It is born from legislatures that prioritise defence budgets over responding to technological developments in gender violence, and perpetuated by police forces with a limited understanding of the effects of all kinds of sexual violence on survivors. Without a complete overhaul of the way we make and uphold laws, survivor-centred criminological research and education of law-makers and law-enforcers, sexual violence will continue to be perpetrated, both online and in the “real” world, with no access to justice for its victims.    

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