Health

How To Turn The Tables On People Who Post Nude Photos For Revenge

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Texas legislators introduced a new revenge porn bill that would let victims sue anyone responsible for leaking or sharing intimate images online without consent.

State Democrats, Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Rep. Mary Gonzalez announced the joint legislative effort Wednesday with bills from both state houses, HB 496 and its sister SB 1135.

If passed, the legislation would open revenge porn websites to civil penalties while those who share the unauthorized images could face a Class A misdemeanor charge.

“In our country, individuals don’t have very much control of what’s on the internet, even if it’s images of themselves. It’s perpetual especially when it comes to things as salacious as revenge porn because it’s downloaded offline and shared. It’s like an infection, it can spread very easily. It does spread very easily,” Carrie Goldberg, a sexual privacy attorney in New York told ThinkProgress.

Sixteen states have revenge porn laws on the books, with 14 of them being active, Goldberg said. But the vast majority don’t offer civil penalties, which can be a real win for victims.

“If they pass this law, it would make Texas one of the only states with a civil path of action, so victims can sue in civil court and aren’t relying solely on the criminal system,” Goldberg said, who is also a board member for Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a policy advocacy group for victims of online harassment and abuse. “The criminal system works to punish perpetrators and civil system acts to restore the victim, and can empower them.”

Having both criminal and civil legal avenues is important in online privacy cases. The civil component of the Texas bill would put a restraining order on the revenge porn websites, banning any further distribution, Goldberg said. Victims would still be allowed to add proxy claims such as emotional distress to the civil suit, and the bill allows for victims to be reimbursed for their legal fees.

But civil suits, as well as criminal trials, are “incredibly burdensome on victims” financially and emotionally, Goldberg said. Those burdens are compounded if the law isn’t carefully written to give victims the necessary recourse to fight back.

Revenge porn has been a known problem since 2010, when a site called “Is Anyone Up?” published photos from spurned ex-boyfriends who still had explicit images of their former girlfriends. But the issue became notorious after several female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, had their Apple iCloud accounts hacked and nude photos posted on sites such as Reddit and 4chan.

The hack sparked a national debate on privacy, the proliferation of online harassment, and the legal challenges victims face.

One criticism of the Texas House bill is that is that it only considers intimate images online to be revenge porn if the victim was in a romantic relationship with the person who leaked the pictures.

“It takes revenge porn too literally,” Goldberg said, as it only in cases when the perpetrator and victim were married or in an intimate relationship.

Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami and tech policy director for the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative believes that, as written, the law doesn’t do much to protect all victims, even those that have been hacked.

“It would not apply to a very large category of situations: for example, images or video of people being sexually assaulted by someone other than a romantic partner; images or video obtained by hidden cameras by someone other than a romantic partner; or images or video obtained through hacking or theft. It would not apply to revenge porn site operators, who rarely even know their victims personally, to say nothing of being in an intimate relationship with them,” she said.

However, Texas’ Senate bill 1135 does fare better, according to Franks, because it focuses on whether the person in the images gave consent rather than the poster’s relationship or motive. There are concerns with the draft Senate bill’s requiring the victim show harm caused by the posted photos.

“Revenge porn is not something that’s only done by vengeful exes. It can be done by strangers online. Some people do it for fun, to brag, entertainment or no reason at all,” Goldberg said. “When we focus too much on the intent of the offender, we lose site to the harm to the victim.”