Imagine learning, after a difficult breakup, that your ex has posted sexual images of you, along with private information that makes them easy for friends, family members and co-workers to find just by Googling your name.
That’s what one Chicago woman said happened to her after she and her ex-husband separated in 2006, according to a lawsuit filed last month in Cook County.
The lawsuit, which comes as Illinois legislators grapple with Internet regulation, argues she is a victim of “revenge porn”—the practice in which malicious ex-lovers or friends distribute nude photos or videos obtained during a relationship to humiliate someone. Advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual harassment say revenge porn can cause severe emotional distress and sometimes cost people their jobs or the support of their families. Free speech advocates say this activity shouldn’t be criminalized.
As websites that allow users to anonymously upload pornographic photos and videos have proliferated, so too have reports of once-private photos found scattered across the Internet. The most notorious site, isanyoneup.com, was created in 2010 and shuttered two years later. Its founder, 28-year-old Hunter Moore, in February pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired to hack into victims’ accounts to obtain naked pictures for his site.
But prosecuting these offenses is not as straightforward as it might sound, and state lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would make revenge porn a criminal offense.
Officials around the country have begun cracking down on the practice, but they have been stymied in some cases by state laws that were written years ago and might not cover online behavior. Last month, a New York judge found that a man accused of producing and sharing revenge porn did not actually break any state laws—a conclusion that has led some advocates to suggest that New York legislators need to update their privacy and harassment laws.
“This is exactly the kind of case that shows there’s a gap in the criminal laws,” said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami.
Illinois is among more than a dozen states where lawmakers are grappling with the issue. But the American Civil Liberties Union has opposed some legislative attempts, arguing a broad law would violate First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
Last month the state Senate passed a bill that would make posting sexually explicit images of people without their consent a criminal offense. Sen. Michael Hastings (D-Orland Hills), the bill’s sponsor, said such activity is “the ultimate form of cyber bullying,” and that it is hard for people to protect themselves against through current legal channels.
“Our laws don’t normally catch up with technology, and we really haven’t caught up yet to how we can protect people on the Internet,” he said. “There is no more compromising position you could be in than having an explicit video of you online.”
The proposal would make producing Internet revenge porn a felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000.
Rep. Scott Drury (D-Highwood) said he will sponsor Hastings’ bill in the House, but he also has filed a broader version of the bill and would like to see the two bills combined before being signed into law. He expects his approach, which would prohibit the distribution of revenge porn off the Internet as well, will be supported by the House and Senate and approved by early May.
“Better to do this today than to wait until it’s a huge problem,” Drury said. “Once this image is out there, it can ruin your life in so many ways; you can be stalked, harassed, lose your job. And it’s going to get worse, because the technology is out there, and children are going to be more comfortable with it.”
The Illinois chapter of the ACLU opposes the bill, arguing that it would criminalize a behavior that can already be prosecuted through the civil justice system, and that its imprecise language would limit First Amendment rights.
“The Senate bill was written in a fashion that I would describe as overly broad,” said Ed Yohnka, the director of public policy and communications for the ACLU of Illinois. “Does that mean retweeting a particular Anthony Weiner picture or posting it to your Facebook page? Or if you’re on a weekend camping trip in high school and somebody moons a camera and you post that to your Instagram account? We would prefer a precise definition of the conducts that would lead to liability.”
Franks believes it is possible to effectively criminalize revenge porn practices, when it is clear the victim has not given consent to have their photos shared that way. She is working with lawmakers on anti-revenge porn legislation in California (which was the first state to specifically criminalize revenge porn last year), Illinois and New York, among others.
“If you’re on a ‘revenge porn’ site, you are quite aware that these women have not consented,” she said. “Think of this as a form of sexual abuse.”
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