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Politics

Legislators intend to outlaw 'revenge porn'

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Published:   |   Updated: April 17, 2013 at 02:32 PM

Jessica thought the man she met on a dating website was a decent guy.

He was a single parent of a young daughter, like her. She knew some of his friends. They got along well.

So even though they had been dating only about three weeks, the St. Petersburg resident didn't see a problem when he asked her to send some sexy pictures. She emailed him some topless photos of herself.

After that, their relationship changed, said Jessica, which is not her real name. They parted ways amicably, she thought.

What she didn't immediately realize was she was about to become a victim of what has come to be called “revenge porn.” Within 30 minutes of when she sent him the pictures, she says, her date sent them to a website.

About a month later, the site posted the photos, along with her name, phone number and a screen grab of her Facebook page, which gave information about her job.

That day, she says, “My phone blew up.” Out of nowhere, she was getting text messages and calls from men she didn't know saying crude things about her body.

When she arrived at her job at a supermarket, men were calling there, too, telling her co-workers about the photos.

She was humiliated and angry. Like most people, she had never even heard of revenge porn websites.

Experts say the trend is growing on the Internet. So far, victims have little legal recourse, but that might be about to change.

In Florida, where there is no law against posting intimate photographs without consent, lawmakers are considering legislation that would explicitly outlaw revenge porn and make it a felony to post nude adult photographs, along with identifying information, on websites or on social media without consent.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unanimously voted to approve the bill for a floor vote.

“There is no purpose, you have to understand, for anyone to do this, other than for harassment, hatred or to hurt people, and it has driven some people to suicide,” said bill sponsor Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville.

“Lives can be destroyed as a result of people doing things like this,” said state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, when presenting his bill before a Senate committee last month. “This bill goes a long way toward dealing with a very real problem that is only going to get worse.”

According to a recent survey by McAfee computer security, 1 in 10 ex-romantic partners have threatened to expose risqué photos of their former boyfriends or girlfriends online, and they have carried out the threats nearly 60 percent of the time. About a quarter of the population has, after a breakup, regretted sending intimate content.

University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks, who specializes in online harassment, said the proposed bills in Florida are flawed, allowing significant categories of revenge porn to go unpunished. For example, they would not make it illegal to send blast emails with intimate pictures and would require Internet posting of the images be done with the intent to harass.

Some of the revenge porn websites' expressed purpose is to post the images “for fun and amusement,” Franks said. That could mean those postings would not be outlawed.

Goodson said his bill may not be perfect, but, “You've got to start somewhere.” He gave the legislation a 50/50 chance of passage, noting it also received unanimous positive votes in two other House committees.

Franks said she met Tuesday with Goodson and other proponents, who assured her they could make changes next year to address her concerns. With that, she said, she supports passage of the legislation.

New Jersey has outlawed revenge porn, and Franks said the law there is “comprehensive and specific” and should be adopted by other states, including Florida. But Franks said the real solution would be a federal law.

Now, she said, there is little recourse for victims, who could try to sue but would have little chance at success and in the process would call even more attention to themselves.

“It's bad enough that we're looking at something that's an emerging new crime,” Franks said. “It's even worse that the mainstream response seems to be blaming the victim … . The desire to humiliate and punish these women is just shocking.”

Jessica said the experience has changed her image of herself and how she views others. “I feel kind of dirty, like I'm not worth as much anymore,” she said.

Jessica said she initially blamed herself. “First, I completely thought it was my fault,” she said. ”

But she later talked to another victim who reassured her, pointing out the hundreds and hundreds of other victims whose pictures are online.

The other victim, “Sarah,” told her, “You sent those pictures to that one person … . You did not send them to show to the whole world.”

Sarah, also a pseudonym, was so humiliated by her own experience she legally changed her name to avoid the harassment.

She said she had been in a long-term, long-distance relationship that ended badly. Her ex-boyfriend started sending pictures to traditional porn sites and then to revenge porn sites. Now, they're all over the Internet.

One site agreed to remove her picture only if she either sent a copy of her drivers license or a photograph of herself holding up a sign saying, “I was doxed,” using a slang word that refers to someone whose personal information was posted online.

This, she said, is “another way of shaming and victimizing a person that's already victimized … . It's cruel is what it is.”

Now, Sarah said she's in the early stages of creating an organization to prevent this from happening to others. The South Florida woman has started a website of her own, endrevengeporn.com.

Craig Brittain, the proprietor of one well-known revenge porn website, announced recently he had ended the site because he is lonely and his life is empty. But news outlets, including Betabeat, reported that the same day Brittain announced closing the site, he registered another Internet domain name and transferred all the content there.

In an interview with the CBS affiliate in Denver, Brittain noted his site was “very popular in Florida, particularly.” He claimed he had two reasons for running his site: to make money and to accomplish a social good.

“Our social goal is to de-stigmatize a lot of the discrimination that has gone on in the workplace,” he told the station.

Links on Brittain's site take viewers to a service that offers to remove images for a $250 fee. Although CBS accused him of being behind the service, Brittain insisted he is not involved and that the service is provided by a third party.

“It's very difficult for victims to get this stuff taken down,” said Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, who is researching a book about online harassment and stalking. She said revenge porn sites have been around for about three or four years and are protected from liability by federal law, which says websites are not responsible for most content posted by others.

Jessica thinks her perpetrator was hired by the website to con women into giving him intimate pictures.

Jessica said she repeatedly emailed Brittain's site in a fruitless effort to have her pictures removed but never got a response. She said she offered to pay more than $250 to no avail. She didn't use the provided link because that would have required her to email her credit card information, which she was not willing to do.

Revenge porn can dominate Internet search engine results when the victims' names are entered.

“It's so cheap and easy to do this for perpetrators and so costly for victims,” Citron said. “You can torture people and really ruin them, make them un-dateable and unemployable quite quickly.”

Jessica, who is attending school to become a teacher, is worried what will happen now to her ability to get a job in her chosen profession. She also is less interested in dating.

“I will never, ever, ever send a picture again,” she said. Ever. I don't care if I'm married to you. I will never send a picture.”


esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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