"Revenge porn" may be a larger problem than a proposed state law can solve | Pittsburgh City Paper

"Revenge porn" may be a larger problem than a proposed state law can solve

"If people understood how much damage this can do to someone's life, I think we'd be able to get much stronger protections."

Jennifer wasn't sure what to expect when she clicked the link emailed to her by the ex-boyfriend she'd dated for four years. He'd harassed her online in the past, she says, and had shown up at her job "trying to get me fired."

"He did everything he could to make my life miserable," she says. And as the Web page loaded, he finally succeeded. On the screen before her, Jennifer saw a half-dozen nude and sexually explicit photos she'd taken of herself with, and for, him.

"It took everything I had not to vomit," recalls the Fayette County resident, whose real name, when Googled, yields a link to the photos within the first two pages of search results. According to a counter on the page, the photos have been viewed nearly 9,000 times so far.

Jennifer says she believes the ex-boyfriend who sent her the link was also responsible for putting the photos online. He was the only person she'd sent them to, she says, and another of his ex-girlfriends told Jennifer that her own photos had also been posted.

They were just two of a growing legion of "revenge-porn" victims — those who've had intimate, and frequently explicit, photos and videos published online without permission. It's hard to gauge the number of victims precisely. But Holly Jacobs, a revenge-porn victim and founder of the organization End Revenge Porn, says there are more than 2,000 websites dedicated to posting such photos. And once the images are posted, they can spread even further, ending up on regular porn websites.

Victims have few options to prevent that fate. Jennifer had read a magazine article advising women to get copyrights for their pictures, and send takedown notices to the websites. But a lawyer she spoke with said that suing the site's owner would cost thousands of dollars — money Jennifer didn't have. She came up empty at the state-police barracks as well.

"I talked to a female trooper," Jennifer says. "But the trooper said, ‘Sorry, there's no law against that.'"

"It just doesn't make sense to me: How can this not be illegal?"

State Sen. Judy Schwank began asking the same question last year.

"As I looked into this, I realized there was nothing to protect women from this," says the Berks County Democrat. "I could not believe that you could do this to another person and get away with it. It's not right that someone who took some photos and shared them with a partner is now inadvertently a porn star on the Internet."

In December, Schwank unveiled Senate Bill 1167, the Intimate Partner Harassment Act. The measure criminalizes the posting of nude or sexually explicit imagery "for no legitimate purpose and with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm the person depicted."

SB1167 unanimously passed the Senate last month; it's currently in the House Judiciary Committee. If it passes, Pennsylvania will be one of just four states with revenge-porn statutes on the books. But anti-revenge-porn advocates say the measure — which originally made revenge porn a felony offense, but now treats it as a misdemeanor — doesn't go far enough. They cite an unlikely combination of hurdles: law-enforcement officials who can seem less-than-sympathetic to victims, and free-speech advocates whose sympathy is tempered by concerns for the First Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union has fought revenge-porn measures elsewhere, though it is neutral on Schwank's bill.

"Free speech is a fundamental American value, and we don't want to toss it aside when we are upset and angry over an action that someone has taken," says Andy Hoover, the legislative director for the ACLU's Pennsylvania chapter. "We want to make sure victims are protected while free speech is maintained, and I think it is possible to have both."

"Revenge porn" really entered the cultural lexicon in 2010, with the launch of the website IsAnyoneUp.com. Its owner, Hunter Moore, became what Rolling Stone called "the most hated man on the Internet," partly because the site encouraged users not only to upload nude and explicit imagery, but to provide personal information, like Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well.

IsAnyoneUp was later sold to a buyer who shut it down: The URL now links to an anti-bullying site. But Moore's legacy lives on in a plethora of websites — including MyEx.com, where Jennifer's photos are posted.

Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor and vice president of the board of directors of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, says MyEx.com is currently "one of the worst offenders out there when it comes to revenge porn." The site is among the few that still gets a front page hit on Google with the right search terms.

Finding some form of recourse once your photos have been posted, however, is much harder. There are no federal statutes against simply hosting a site on which revenge porn is posted. In fact, federal law offers protection to websites that host content posted by someone else: The Communications Decency Act largely shields websites from legal consequences stemming from material placed there by third parties. (Moore himself was indicted by a federal grand jury in January — but for allegedly conspiring with a third party to hack computers for nude images, rather than for posting images posted by others.)