June is turning out to be an extraordinary month for cyber civil rights. Not only did Google just announce a new protection policy (following Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and Periscope last spring), but John Oliver, comedian host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, gave a scathing monologue Sunday night addressing online attacks and abuse of women. And the big get, representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY) are drafting the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, a federal bill that is rumored to be introduced in the near future. Finally real action is happening to hold cybercriminals accountable instead of brushing the issue off by blaming the victims!
Imagine being at work when your boss whispers to you that he didn’t know how to tell you, but your nude image was anonymously posted on his Facebook page. He is placing you on leave until an investigation can be completed. You immediately Google yourself and are horrified to find that not only has somebody posted your nude image on the social media profiles of several colleagues and family members, but your image, tagged with your name, address, social media links, and workplace is uploaded to a revenge porn website. Perhaps you took the photo for your intimate partner, or it was taken without your knowledge in the locker room of the gym, or maybe your face was digitally placed on another person’s body? Maybe you know the perpertrator or maybe not. Either way, everybody you think may help laments there is nothing you can do to remove the image, not do you legal rights against the dirtbag who posted it. What if you feel so helpless, humiliated, and scared by this horrifying ordeal that you get deeply depressed or suicidal?
This very thing has happened to thousands of (mostly) women all over the world, each facing the grim reality that their father, colleagues, or children may view this most intimate moment. Revenge porn is the act of posting nude or sexually explicit images, video, or private information of another person online, without their consent, in an effort to humiliate, harass, or extort them. Perpetrators are typically ex-lovers or hackers seeking notoriety, and victims are typically women. Consider for a moment the irreversible harm that has resulted from these brutal acts to ruin a victim, including damaged relationships, loss of community, lost jobs, expulsions from school, harassment, stalking, sexual assaults, extortion, anxiety and depression, PTSD, and suicide.
Mind-blowingly, revenge porn is legal in most states and countries, leaving victims with little recourse for protection. In response to increasing pressure by advocacy groups such as the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and Without My Consent, 23 states have enacted revenge porn initiatives (with 17 more in the works), as well as many countries including Israel, France, Germany, Japan, and Brazil. Unfortunately, however, state laws vary in regard to protection. For example, many consider revenge porn acts harassment rather than violation of privacy, while others require that the perpetrator be shown to have “intent to harm or harass” without a reasonable doubt. California’s revenge porn law only applies if the perpetrator was also the photographer. Such discrepant standards often leave victims helpless to protect themselves or seek justice.
Despite recent prosecutions against revenge porn under invasion of privacy, extortion, identify theft, copyright, anti-hacking statutes, and conspiracy, thousands of revenge porn websites still exist. Free speech advocates argue that legislation risks going too far and may violate the First Amendment. In other words, we have a way to go to combat viciously destructive scumbaggery online.
Google’s announcement on June 15, 2015 reads, “We’ll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results. This is a narrow and limited policy, similar to how we treat removal requests for other highly sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers and signatures, that may surface in our search results.” If the complaint is verified, the content will reportedly be hidden from public view and the offender’s account will be locked until he/she agrees to remove the content or the offender’s account may be suspended. This is the biggest tech industry move to date, particularly considering Google’s tradition of hard line First Amendment issues.
As a clinical psychologist I see first-hand how devastating online cyberbully, harassment, and revenge porn can be on its victim. Mental health responses are similar to what clinical psychologists see with sexual molestation and rape. And to make it even more frightening, it’s not just adults that are having their worlds turned upside down by cruel online attacks. Children and teens are regularly being pummeled with piercing attacks at their vulnerable developing self-identities. Has it really come to people writing up prenuptual agreements to protect themselves against revenge porn? It has…
I’ve been calling for a GetKidsInternetSafe revolution to help to parents teach morality, values, and kindness as well as digital citizenship, encouraging boys and girls to develop a healthy online reputation from the very start. To get loads of free tips and information to prepare for regular cyber issue teaching moments in your family, please join me at GetKidsInternetSafe.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
Bravo John Oliver! (bad language alert)