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Women Are Fighting Back Against "Revenge Porn" Exposure, But the Solutions Are Not Always Simple

Loopholes in new CA laws pose the question: Are criminal penalties the best response to addressing this increasing cyber problem?
 
 
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The technological phenomenon called ‘revenge porn’, typically characterized by disgruntled, ex-lovers posting explicit pictures online of their former partners without consent, is gaining increasing notoriety, particularly in the media.  While the coined term is no doubt attention-grabbing, it can be misleading in failing to connote those other scenarios that constitute non-consensual pornography such as where explicit images have been illicitly obtained and distributed by third parties.

Nonetheless, while it is generally not illegal per se, moves to criminalize this growing cyber threat are on the rise.  Last week, AlterNet reported on the new anti-revenge porn legislation signed into effect in California, which makes it a misdemeanor to post identifiable nude photographs of another person online without their permission.  Such behavior could now land you in jail and cost you a fine of up to $1000.

While this new bill has been commended by victims as a step in the right direction towards addressing the problem, the law has been criticized as being too lenient for a number of reasons.

First, it fails to offer legal protection to victims who took pictures of themselves ie. ‘selfies’ and shared those images with their prospective social media publisher.  In fact, under the California law, people can only be prosecuted for posting explicit images if they themselves ‘clicked’ the button in photographing that person.  In other words, if the victim took the picture him/herself, the law doesn’t apply.  Moreover, it makes no provision for third parties such as computer fraud, re-distributors or hackers who may have gained access to private images unlawfully before posting them online.

In this regard, the bill’s author Sen. Anthony Cannella, told the San Francisco Gate that while ‘selfies’ were considered early on in the legislative process, he excluded them due to concerns from other members that it could result in an increase in the already overcrowded prison population: “My bill would have died if we didn’t do that,” he said.

Many advocates consider this to be a major oversight in the legislation, particularly in light of a recent survey conducted by Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which found that 80 percent of pictures published in revenge porn situations were self-taken photographs. 

Nonetheless, Cannella contends that some compromises had to be made to get the ball rolling: “I can understand [victims'] concerns with the final bill, but at least we got people talking about it…Then we can do more in the future,” he said.

Furthermore, under the California law, the publisher must have posted the picture “ with the intent to cause serious emotional distress”, a subjective test, which makes it difficult for the victim to obtain justice since prosecutors will be faced with the onerous task of having to discount other reasons for intent that the defendant might cite such as financial motivations. 

New York attorney, Oscar Michelen, an advocate fighting for victims of revenge porn explains this emerging trend to AlterNet:

“Before the internet, revenge porn used to be something small that you talked about in small circles, at the school or supermarket.  But with the Internet, it’s a whole new world.  The most damaging thing is now your small circle is millions of people through social media who have the opportunity to join in on the conversation and spread material.  The punishment, shaming, humiliation and revenge goes on forever in the digital era, whereas with old media it had a limited duration,” he said.

Furthermore, what makes revenge porn particularly debilitating is the accompanying defamatory and identifying language published alongside the picture, which has long-lasting ramifications for the victim.  One need only visit revenge porn website, myex.com, to comprehend the full extent of the malicious intent that underpin these postings.  There, you will be greeted with an image of a fresh-faced blond girl in a compromising sexual position accompanied by her full name and the words “ 18, from Anderson, North Carolina.  This bitch love cum and is always down for a threesome”.  When clicking on the “ Remove my Name” link, the following page reads: “ Delete this record now! $499” What recourse is now left for that young woman? Should her entire reputation completely rest on the words of a bitter ex-boyfriend intent on fuelling misogyny, merely because she allowed herself to be photographed sexually by someone she trusted?  

 
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