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Gardaí looking into allegations that large number of images of women were shared online without their consent

An online messaging platform, Discord, deleted a server and banned users.

Image: Shutterstock/Dmytro Tyshchenko

GARDAÍ ARE INVESTIGATING the alleged uploading of images and videos of Irish women and girls, without their consent, to a number of online forums.

It is understood that there are fears some of the images and footage could be of minors. A number of TDs called for action on this issue in the Dáil today.

The Victims Alliance, an advocacy and lobbying group, claimed tens of thousands of images have been shared on various online platforms.

The group is working to identify the victims but said many of them are Irish.

Linda Hayden, who co-founded the Victims Alliance, said members of the group forwarded the files or folders marked as ‘minors’ to An Garda Síochána.

Many of the images have been shared in forums on Discord, an online messaging platform.

At least one forum on the website where users were sharing images has been removed, Hayden said. The forum in question had about 500 users, all of whom were banned from the website.

The first server was initially deleted by its owners, along with all the photos on it, once it started attracting attention online. A second server was then set up as a replacement for the original server.

A spokesperson for Discord told TheJournal.ie that as soon as the website “became aware of this server, we permanently deleted it” and “identified and banned the approximately 500 users involved”.

“We deleted it and banned its users before they could upload pictures again. We continue to monitor proactively for any new attempt to recreate a server.”

The spokesperson said the company “will cooperate on this matter with Irish authorities subject to applicable law”.

“No one should have to endure the pain of having private images posted online without their consent.

“Discord has a zero-tolerance approach to nonconsensual pornography and child sexual abuse material, and we work aggressively and proactively to keep it off of our service,” they added.

Conversations between users on Discord are private, but not end-to-end encrypted so administrators can view the content if inappropriate behaviour is reported.

Images of females have also been uploaded to pornography sites without their consent, according to Hayden who spoke to gardaí about the issue yesterday.

A Garda spokesperson confirmed to TheJournal.ie that AGS is “aware of the reports and Assistant Commissioner (Organised & Serious Crime) has commenced probative enquires into the matter”.

Hayden said some of the images and videos in question were taken by the victims and privately shared but were later publicly shared without their consent or knowledge.

Some images or footage were taken of people surreptitiously and without their knowledge, and others were taken from online platforms such as OnlyFans, Tinder, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Hayden said she is very worried about the mental health impact of the situation on the victims, and the group is providing support to those who need it.

Screenshot 2020-11-19 at 09.37.01 Comments on one of the forums

Screenshot 2020-11-19 at 12.21.03 Comments on one of the forums

The sharing of intimate or explicit images of a person without their consent is typically referred to as ‘revenge porn’, or image-based sexual abuse, and is usually done by an ex-partner. It is not currently an offence in Ireland.

Over 25,000 people have to date signed a petition calling for this type of abuse to be made a criminal offence.

Any images of, or depicting, a person under the age of 18 engaging in sexual activity is considered child sexual abuse material under the 1998 Child Trafficking and Pornography Act.

‘Pic-swapping culture’

Ciaran O’Connor, a researcher and investigator with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London, said there is a “pretty active ‘pic-swapping’ culture” in some online groups.

“Someone will download a cache of photos and then they’ll trade photos of person A in exchange for pics of person B that someone else says they have, and they build up repositories of photos.”

O’Connor explained that while the photos or videos are often of women or girls the posters know, sometimes they share images of celebrities or people who have a high-profile online.

“It’s pretty nasty and tough to tackle because these platforms are built around varying levels of anonymity for these users.”

Rape Crisis Network Ireland has condemned “in the strongest possible way” people who have shared or downloaded images of this nature without consent.

“If you have access to someone else’s image that has been shared online and you are concerned it has been shared without their consent, it is vital that you refer the matter to the gardaí and refrain from any further sharing or action around the image,” a spokesperson said.

‘Victim blaming’

Holly Cairns said Justice Minister Helen McEntee needs to bring forward legislation as a matter of urgency.

The Social Democrats TD is calling on McEntee to “move immediately to protect victims of what we all know is a crime but today is still not considered one”.

Cairns told TheJournal.ie any “victim blaming” in relation to the issue should not be tolerated.

“I want to send a clear message to anyone whose images have been shared without their consent.

It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re not to blame. Unfortunately, the law isn’t protecting you and it’s not your fault, and that has to change.

Cairns said people in Ireland “need to have an incredibly serious and difficult national conversation on this and related issues”.

“Thousands of Irish men are sharing images of women and girls without their consent, there are horrific levels of sexual violence in our colleges, we all know victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault.”

Cairns added that any men who “see or receive an image being circulated without consent, to call it out”.

“You should speak up, in WhatsApp groups, in conversation, in any given situation – you need to call it out. If you don’t you are complicit.”

Cairns was among those to raise the issue in the Dáil today.

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‘The action of degenerates’

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond said sharing intimate images without consent is “absolutely abhorrent” and “needs to end”.

He told the Dáil men need to call out this type of behaviour. “You are sharing the personal, private details of a friend or someone’s sister or daughter.”

Labour’s Duncan Smith added: “If men think this acceptable, nothing could be further from the truth. It is the action of degenerates, it is scummy, it’s the most indecent act one human can inflict on another.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the use of sexual images “to get revenge on somebody is heinous and disgusting”. He said he would discuss the issue with McEntee.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has also called for urgent action on image-based sexual abuse.

The ICCL said it is “deeply troubled” by the fact tens of thousands of images and videos were published online without people’s consent.

“The creation and/or distribution of private sexual images without consent is not revenge porn, it’s image-based sexual abuse,” a spokesperson said.

“However, our laws need to be updated to ensure victims of such abuse can get justice.

“New legislation should ensure that victims’ experiences are taken into account and must encompass definitions of consent and intent that reflect the sexual nature of this crime.”

The issue is covered in the Harassment, Harmful Communications, and Related Offences Bill. The legislation was first proposed by Labour in May 2017, but it was not passed prior to the dissolution of the last government.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice for comment said the Bill “is being progressed as a priority”.

“Harassment and abuse in any form, whether online or otherwise, is utterly unacceptable and has no place in Irish society,” McEntee said in a statement.

“The standards of what is unacceptable in an online setting must be consistent with those in traditional settings, and cross government initiatives are underway to address this.”

The minister added that she is committed to seeing the legislation “enacted as quickly as possible”.

The Bill will be brought before the Justice Committee on 1 December. After the Bill is debated in the Dáil, it will go before the Seanad.

The legislation, if passed, could see offenders sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

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Screenshot 2020-11-19 at 11.57.10

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Órla Ryan

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