What does internet consent look like in 2020? Here’s why an online human rights activist says it’s a “democratic issue”
Warning: This story discusses the topic of nonconsensual pornography and sexual assault.
Facebook has all our data, Russia might have our faces because of an app, and our phones are constantly eavesdropping on our conversations. So when it comes to the issue of our internet privacy, we might think, does it even matter? The answer is yes, it does (or at least, it should). But the conversation surrounding internet privacy shouldn’t just be about avoiding sketchy apps, creating strong passwords, or covering your webcam with a piece of tape. The conversation should also be about consent.
Emma Holten, a Danish online human rights activist, knows firsthand what it feels like to have her privacy and consent violated on the internet. One morning in 2011, she woke up and found herself locked out of her Gmail, Facebook, and other online accounts. She didn’t think much of it at first except, “I’m a scatterbrain, I forgot my passwords.” So she spent the next couple hours troubleshooting. But when she regained access, she found nude photos of herself leaked online and hundreds of messages from strangers in her inbox.
“I felt very much the same way that a person who had a break-in in their own home would feel, like people had been going through my stuff,” Holten says.
The nude photos, along with identifying information stolen from her hacked accounts, were placed in a folder on anonymous websites. Her folder, she says, was just one of thousands like it filled with photos and information from non-consenting women. For Holten, this violation happened quite literally overnight, and she recalls being stunned at the tremendous labor these internet strangers had dedicated to compile her information and make her “easy to search.”
“It just struck me as so systematized,” she says. “And this was just not a part of the internet that I had ever encountered.”
Before this happened, Holten considered the Internet a safe space, for people like her, anyways. Paris Hilton’s and Kim Kardashian’s sex tapes were leaked in the early 2000s, and at the time, the news was approached with a tone of celebrity gossip and scandal—not one of a crime with a perpetrator and a victim. Today still, Kim K’s leaked sex tape is often referred to as her golden ticket to fame, rather than a violation of consent. To Holten, this all felt separate from her world. “I definitely felt that, you know, as a completely regular, boring old person, things that were in my email would not be something that had any value to anybody,” she says.
But now, as Holten has grown in her activism, she understands that these violations have less to do with fame and more to do with the culture surrounding consent.
“We should also look at these crimes as revealing something about our society and about how we relate to young women and sexuality,” she says. “…For many people, [violations of consent] add a layer of excitement to a sexual situation and that should worry us tremendously.”
These concerns all became way more present to Holten after her consent was violated online. She says one of the biggest misunderstandings of her situation was that people assumed she was upset because she was naked in the photos. “That’s not it at all,” she says. It’s not as much about the content of the photos, but the context. “It’s about getting to decide the context and having control of the situation,” she says.
That’s exactly the idea behind Holten’s CONSENT project. If you’ve heard of the Danish activist before, this would be why. In 2014, she worked with a photographer to release a series of topless photos of herself on her own terms, within her own context. Since then, she’s been dedicated to shaping the conversation around online consent and getting others to care along with her.
With Holten’s help, we broke down what our right to consent looks like in an increasingly digital world, who’s most affected by consent violations, and the ways we can work to make the internet a safer place.
What is online consent?
Consent on the internet holds the same idea as consent anywhere else. It’s about permission, decision, and choice. So a right to online consent means you should be able to decide what you share about yourself online, as well as how much you share, and in what context you share it. So taking a photo of someone, whether sexual or not, and then sharing it online without their permission can be considered a violation of consent.
Consent doesn’t fit very easily into the current culture of social media and viral content. Paparazzi photos, secretly filmed videos, and memes probably wouldn’t get as many hits if everyone involved had given permission. But, as Holten says, “If every meme was your best friend, you’d think about it differently.”
Holten isn’t naive; she knows that the conversation of online consent can be a killjoy, especially amongst friends in the context of an all-in-good fun setting. However, she still believes it’s important to establish your boundaries and make decisions about what you want on the internet about yourself, and give others space to do the same.
“If you don’t respect a person’s ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Holten says. “You’re fundamentally saying that you don’t respect that person.”
How is our right to consent protected on the internet?
Holten was a victim of nonconsensual pornography, also referred to as “revenge porn,” and by Danish law, it’s illegal. (In America, there’s no federal law regarding nonconsensual pornography, but 38 states criminalize the issue.) Even still, her experience was similar to that of many victims of sexual violations on and offline: The police didn’t take her case seriously. As Holten explained, if her house had been broken into, and her things had been stolen, things would have been different.
In 2020, with so much of our lives taking place online, there shouldn’t be so much disparity between the rules of the “real world” and the rules of the Internet, but the cyber space is often regarded as a grey area. “If we actually apply the full weight of the law to the Internet, we would be in a completely different situation right now,” she says.
Since Facebook’s data breach in 2018, which affected at least 50 million users, people have been more eager to join in on the conversation surrounding internet privacy, what it means, and what rights we have. A 2019 poll of registered voters found that 79% of Americans believe that Congress should enact privacy legislation and 65% of voters said data privacy is “one of the biggest issues our society faces.”
To understand why online privacy and consent issues matter, Holten encourages people to think of the full consequences of giving up or not caring about these rights.
“If [we say] that what’s digital can never be private, we’d have to completely reconfigure the entire structure of our society as it looks right now,” Holten says.
Instead, Holten has been fighting for a right to digital consent and privacy, and encouraging others to takes these rights seriously because she believes, “It’s a huge, huge, huge democratic issue.”
Who is most impacted by violations of internet consent?
Holten says she found it rather “interesting” how much people started paying attention when Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon (and notably, a rich, white man) was threatened with a nude leak. There was a different tone of importance around Bezos’ situation, with many headlines calling it “extortion” and “blackmail.” In reality, however, Bezos isn’t the typical victim of these crimes.
Holten explains that those who are already members of marginalized groups can become more at risk of consent and privacy violations online, a space that is especially unregulated.
“People who are not cis, white, or straight become incredibly vulnerable because if the checks we have set in place for your right to privacy don’t function, it hits the most vulnerable people first,” Holten says.
Another group that’s often hit with these violations? High schoolers. A lot of Holten’s activism work involves speaking at high schools, sharing her story, and educating her audience on the importance of online consent and privacy. And almost every time, she says her story hits home.
“When I do my talk, four or five [people in the audience] will be crying and I can only assume what has happened to them,” Holten says. “So this is an incredibly common crime. But then again, so is sexual assault.”
However, Holten holds onto hope that if we address the culture surrounding consent, continue a conversation around our right to consent on the internet, and push for a more rigorous laws regarding the issue, we can make the internet a safer place for everyone on it.
Activism organizations you can join or support
Though the United States doesn’t have comprehensive laws in place to fully protect violations of online consent, there are activist organizations working to involve citizens in decisions regarding our right to internet privacy and the way the internet is governed overall.
If you are a victim of nonconsensual pornography (NCP), recorded sexual assault (RSA), or sextortion online, you can call the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative Crisis Helpline at 844-878-2274. They can offer guidance, emotional support, and referrals to legal support.