Outlawing Revenge Porn: How Congress Can Protect Privacy and Reduce Online Harassment

EST
Friday, September 30, 2016 - 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM
421 Cannon House Office Building
27 Independence Avenue SE
Washington, DC 20003

Abuse exists in many forms on the Internet. While many malicious online activities are considered crimes, the distribution of sexually explicit images without the subjects' consent—commonly referred to as “revenge porn”—continues to exist in a legal gray area throughout much of the United States. Although 35 states have passed some form of legislation criminalizing these acts, 15 states have yet to take any action against such abuse. Revenge porn can have dramatic consequences for victims, damaging their reputations and job prospects, subjecting them to threats, and intimidating them into silence. Because there is no national legal recourse, victims are often unable to stop the spread of images or take action against the perpetrator. 

ITIF held a panel discussion about how policymakers can criminalize revenge porn, while protecting free speech on the Internet. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who introduced the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, began the event with the reminder that “the Internet is not the same place for everyone.” In her opening remarks, she noted that despite the high profiles of some victims—such as actor Leslie Jones, whose recent online abuse ranged from verbal attacks to the nonconsensual posting of private, sexual images—more needs to be done to promote awareness of this pernicious problem. As she reminded those present, “the same technology that gives us numerous ways to improve our lives also gives us numerous ways to destroy it.” One such sobering fact is that more than half of victims of nonconsensual pornography report having suicidal thoughts, and too many do take their own lives. After two years of tireless work on the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, Rep. Speier believes that the bipartisan bill will withstand congressional scrutiny, and that it can both protect peoples’ privacy while also protecting free speech. 

The panelists widely agreed that the current state patchwork of legislation does not provide sufficient protection for the victims of nonconsensual pornography and that a federal law is the best way to help victims see their attackers punished, deter future abusers, more effectively remove these images from the Internet, and make both victims and bystanders feel safe to express themselves freely. Josh Connolly, Rep. Speier’s chief of staff, said that they wanted to make sure their bill “had teeth” and would serve as an effective deterrent. The president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O’Neill, stated that having the full force of the federal government supporting victims of these attacks will be important to both see justice done and to prevent future cases.

Mark Eichorn, assistant director at the Federal Trade Commission, said that one of the biggest problems with this issue is that there are many misperceptions concerning how these pictures or videos come to exist in the first place, with many people incorrectly assuming the images were taken consensually. Instead, in many cases, hackers secretly gain access to supposedly private cameras or camera feeds. The variety of motives and methods for sharing these images adds to the difficulty in crafting legislation to criminalize these actions, but ultimately having federal legislation in place will allow more people to feel safe to speak and act freely. 

There is no longer a genuine separation between peoples’ online and offline lives, agreed Antigone Davis, the head of global safety at Facebook, and she pointed out that feeling safe to share things on the Internet is vital for ensuring free speech overall. 

Although people often mischaracterize this bill as pitting privacy against free speech, these values are not diametrically opposed, said Carrie Goldberg, founder of a law firm dedicated to fighting on behalf of the victims of nonconsensual pornography and related cases. O’Neill explained that not only does the bill increase the ability of the victims to use their right to free speech, but it will also help to spread awareness to law enforcement throughout the country that these acts are undoubtedly criminal. Victims are often blamed either implicitly or explicitly, and better educating both law enforcement and the public in general is vital for effectively litigating these cases.

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Speakers: 
Jackie Speier
Representative (D-CA)
U.S. Congress
Speaker
Daniel Castro
Vice President
Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
Moderator
Josh Connolly
Chief of Staff
Rep. Jackie Speier
Panelist
Antigone Davis
Head of Global Safety
Facebook
Panelist
Mark Eichorn
Assistant Director
Federal Trade Commission
Panelist
Carrie Goldberg
Founder
C.A. Goldberg
Panelist
Terry O'Neill
President
National Organization for Women (NOW)
Panelist