Revenge Porn: California Legislators Go After Troubling New Trend

Jun 05, 2013 | Updated Jun 05, 2013

A lawmaker in California has introduced legislation intended to crack down on "revenge porn," the practice of posting graphic images or video of a former romantic partner online without the subject's consent.

The bill, which was written by California State Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Modesto), would make electronically distributing sexual pictures or video without the subject's consent a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or up to a month in jail.

"People who post or text pictures that are meant to be private as a way to seek revenge are reprehensible. Right now, there is no tool for law enforcement to protect the victims," said Cannella in a statement. "Too many have had their lives upended because of an action of another that they trusted. This is a common sense bill that clamps down on those who exploit intimacy and trust for revenge or personal gain."

The bill was inspired by the death of Audrie Pott, a 15-year old student from Saratoga, Calif. who committed suicide after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a trio of teenage boys while passed out a party. Before Pott's tragic death, graphic photos of the incident were circulated around her high school.

With the rise of websites like the now-shuttered "Is Anyone Up?," revenge porn has become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon across the internet. While the practice is nothing new, the most recent wave of revenge porn is especially troubling, as the explicit content is often partnered with links to the subject's social media profiles, opening the door to extensive harassment.

There have also been claims that some revenge porn sites have attempted to extort money from people hoping to get pictures of themselves taken down.

As such, a key component of what defines revenge porn in Cannella's bill is the inclusion of information that could personally identify the subject.

"As we shine a greater light on this program, more people understand laws need to be changed to keep up with this technology," Cannella's spokesman Jeff Macadeo told NBC Los Angeles. "Technology has moved quicker and we're playing catch up."

There are a number of civil statutes that victims of revenge porn can utilize to protect themselves; however, those avenues can be expensive and slow-moving.

"Even if people aren't afraid of being sued because they have nothing to lose, they are afraid of being convicted of a crime because that shows up on their record forever," Eric Johnstone of the anti-online harassment nonprofit group Without My Consent explained to Salon. "A lot of times it’s the police and district attorneys that really have the leverage to stop this kind of behavior."

Even so, some civil libertarians have expressed concerns about the law on First Amendment grounds. The American Civil Liberties Union is opposing the bill, arguing that such material is protected by the Constitution.

While agreeing that revenge porn is a serious issue worthy of legislative action, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Nate Cardozo worried that the bill, "also criminalizes the victimless instances. And that's a problem with the First Amendment. Whenever you try and criminalize speech, you have to do so in the most narrowly tailored way possible."

A similar anti-revenge porn bill in Florida, which would have made the practice a felony, was introduced into the state legislature earlier this year, but failed to make it into law.

Cannella's legislation passed the State Senate's Public Safety Committee at a hearing earlier this week, and every member in attendance asked to be included as a cosponsor on the bill. It is expected to be heard before the Appropriations Committee sometime in the near future.

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