Non-consensual pornography, including “revenge porn,” has become one of the scariest and most common digital violations of personal privacy on the Internet. The practice involves posting nude photos or videos of a person online — a woman in 90 percent of cases — without their consent or knowledge, for the whole world to see.
It garners the most headlines when hackers do it to celebrities such asJennifer Lawrence and Leslie Jones, but also has occurred to potentially hundreds of thousands of American private citizens. There are numerous cases of an angry ex-boyfriend public posting a nude photo of his ex-girlfriend that was sent consensually at the time they were dating. More than half of victims have considered suicide.
But although 34 states ban the practice, the act is not classified as a federal crime. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA14) in July introduced the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, H.R. 5896, which would make nonconsensual pornography such as “revenge porn” a federal crime.
What the bill does
The bill, with the acronym IPPA, would make it illegal to “knowingly distribute sexually explicit material with reckless disregard for the victim’s lack of consent.” It would allow a maximum five-year sentence for the crime.
But the bill carves out protections for websites that accidentally play host to such illegal content, meaning for example that Reddit wouldn’t be prosecuted if a user posts a revenge porn photograph to their website, only the user who uploaded it would be. However, it would prosecute websites that “actively promote or solicit” non-consensual pornography.
What supporters say
Supporters say the bill is a long-overdue addition to the federal code, that in addition to rape and sexual assault being crimes, this law would reflect the growing threat of digital privacy violation of a sexual nature.
“What makes these acts even more despicable is that many predators have gleefully acknowledged that the vast majority of their victims have no way to fight back. Celebrities and other high profile victims might be able take on these predators in civil courts, but the average person can’t afford that option,” Rep. Speier said in a press release announcing the legislation. “Even more disturbing is the number of victims who have mustered the courage and strength to pursue criminal charges, only to learn there is no law that protects them. My bill will fix that appalling legal failure.”
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also spoke in favor of legislation that would make nonconsensual pornography a federal crime. “I will do everything I can as president to try and figure out how we can give victims like you the tools you need, and the rest of society should support, to be able to protect yourself and, by doing so, protect others,” Clinton said in an interview with YouTube star Chrissy Chambers. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has spoken about his plan to reduce sexual assault in the military, with a proposal to strengthen the existing system that some lawmakers say is failing. (Trump himself has also been accused of sexual assault numerous times.)
Facebook and Twitter, the two largest social networking sites in the U.S., have also signed on in support of the legislation.
What opponents say
Of course, no member of Congress or opinion columnist is on the record as_supporting_ revenge porn. But civil liberties advocates have argued that such laws can be overly broad, criminalizing baby bathtub pictures and wartime photos of naked people running for their lives. The MPAA opposed a similar state law in Minnesota by noting that photos of prisoners at Auschwitz and Abu Ghraib detention facilities were images depicting nudity which were widely shared without consent.
Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, warned in an interview with U.S. News and World Report that “the lack of required intent for offenders could ensnare someone who hypothetically shares an image of a person who has since died because they would not have provided their consent.”
The bill has attempted to solve some of those issues, with exceptions for photos taken in public, for commercial purposes, or that are “in the public interest.” (Although that hazy standard could be difficult to ascertain.)
Odds of passage
It has attracted six cosponsors, four Republicans and two Democrats. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. It has not yet received a vote.
With non-consensual pornography generally considered a women’s issue, because about 90 percent of victims are female, and since the bill would expand federal criminal law, the Republican-led Congress may be loathe to pass this legislation.