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Lawmakers Aim To Limit ‘Revenge Porn’ Postings

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(credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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textalerts180 Lawmakers Aim To Limit Revenge Porn Postings

SACRAMENTO (AP) — State lawmakers are attempting to limit a distressing social media phenomenon known as “revenge porn,” where spurned suitors post intimate photos of their ex-lovers on the Internet for all to see.

The Assembly is set to debate a bill that would make such conduct punishable by up to a year in jail, while Gov. Jerry Brown is considering separate legislation that would make it a crime to impersonate or bully a domestic violence victim online.

The measures are forcing lawmakers to consider where to draw the line between unfettered free speech and privacy rights.

“Right now law enforcement has no tools to combat revenge porn or cyber-revenge,” said Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Republican from Ceres who proposed one of the bills. “Unfortunately it is a growing trend and there are a lot of victims out there, a lot more than I ever imagined. … It’s destroying people’s lives.”

Under his SB255, perpetrators who post identifiable nude pictures of someone else online without their permission with the intent of causing serious emotional distress or humiliation could be charged with a misdemeanor. They could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for a first offense, with a year in jail and a $2,000 fine for repeat violations.

Current California law allows victims to sue their virtual assailants in civil court, but it is an expensive and time-consuming option that does not seem to be much of a deterrent, he said.

That was the experience of Holly Jacobs, who sent intimate photos to her boyfriend during their 3½-year long-distance relationship.

In January 2009, a month after they broke up, a friend informed her that a nude photo was posted on her Facebook profile. By November 2011, a collage of photos of her went viral on more than 200 websites, accompanied by an explicit video from a web chat that she says was secretly recorded. The posts included her full name, email address and the name of the Florida university where she worked, forcing her to tell her parents and university officials. She began getting emails from strangers attempting to set up liaisons.

“Emotionally, the situation put me through hell and back,” Jacobs said in a telephone interview. “I just felt so alone and you blame yourself. You have a lot of people in your life that judge you and say this was your fault. … It took me a long time to realize I was the victim in this.”

She said she equates the judgmental reaction she received to the blame-the-victim attitude that rape victims often confront: “You shouldn’t have been wearing that outfit, you shouldn’t have been drinking, you shouldn’t have been walking alone.”

After spending months trying to get the photos removed, repeatedly changing her phone number and quitting a university job she loved, Jacobs eventually legally changed her name. In her darkest moments, she considered suicide.

Then she got mad and she got even, creating endrevengeporn.org a year ago, which sometimes records 1,200 hits in a single day. Jacobs said she has been contacted by women in similar circumstances around the world.

From her home in Miami, she now lobbies for states to adopt laws to criminally punish revenge porn.

Aside from Cannella’s bill awaiting action in the Assembly, lawmakers already sent the governor AB157 by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, which would outlaw stealing the online identity of domestic violence victims. It lets judges issue protective orders barring abusers from impersonating a victim online, and came in response to the concerns of judges who worried that doing so would violate free speech rights.

Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, who carried AB157 in the Senate, said state law has not kept pace with technology.

“Advances in technology and the increased communication on social networking websites have enabled abusers to get around restraining orders,” she said.

The Legislature has attacked the problem piecemeal as loopholes have been discovered in the state’s original 2006 cyberbullying laws.

A 2010 law made it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone on the Internet to intimidate, threaten or defraud them. Campos authored a law last year that lets schools suspend or expel students who harass their classmates on social networking sites, as well as a 2011 law targeting bullying on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Her bill this year was approved with no dissenting votes, while Cannella’s legislation had just one opponent in the Senate — Democratic Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco. He and the American Civil Liberties Union fear the bill could interfere with free speech rights.

“For me it was more an issue of the definition being overly broad. We just really have to be careful of that slippery slope,” said Yee. He said a better approach would be to educate Internet users, particularly children, about the irreversible harm that can be done online.

Florida’s legislature rejected a similar bill this year after First Amendment concerns surfaced there, while Missouri’s supreme court last year cited concerns about free speech in striking down part of a 2008 law enacted after a teenager who was teased online committed suicide.

Cannella believes that’s not an issue with his bill.

“This is intimidation, this is harassment, this is bullying,” he said. “This goes way beyond free speech.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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