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Privacy Perspectives | Revenge Porn: A Serious Issue Is Finally Being Taken Seriously Related reading: Revenge Porn, Public Shaming and Why It Needs To Stop

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The last few days have featured good news for those who've been fighting against "revenge porn," or nonconsensual pornography. The practice of posting naked photos, primarily of women, to the Internet without their consent and against their will is finally being taken seriously in the broader mainstream.

Yes, there are almost two dozen state laws already outlawing it. Yes, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken action against one specific website. Yes, some arrests against perpetrators have been made. And yes, online platforms such as reddit, Twitter and Facebook have all recently improved their cyber-harassment functions to stymie nonconsensual pornography.

But now, in the last week, the battle against it has become more pitched.

On Friday, Google announced it will honor takedown requests in Google Search related to nonconsensual pornography. Shortly after that, Rep. Jackie Speier's (D-CA) office announced that next month it will introduce federal legislation on revenge porn. And on Sunday night, HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" dedicated most of his episode to cyber-harassment and nonconsensual pornography.

This "has been a very good week for privacy," said University of Miami School of Law Prof. Mary Anne Franks in comments provided to Privacy Perspectives. Her work has been instrumental in bringing the topic to the tech industry, lawmakers and popular culture. She's also part of Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to fighting cyber-harassment. She said the CCRI "believes that the protection of sexual privacy is an issue that should be addressed on multiple fronts—technology, popular media and legislative reform—and we are seeing tremendous progress on all of these. It is very encouraging to see such dramatic and swift results from our work with tech industry leaders and legislators, and we hope that this momentum will continue until we finally achieve robust protections for personal privacy." She also wrote an incisive column on this issue for Huffington Post here.

In a blog post, Google Search Senior Vice President Amit Singhal said that "going forward, we'll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results," adding, "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 results."

Though Google won't necessarily remove the actual images, it will remove their appearance in a search.

The news is huge for the many victims and for the Internet itself. Google Search is the most common search engine in the world, and along with the other tech companies cited above, it's proof that companies are taking the issue seriously. Nonconsensual pornography is not some fringe problem outside the mainstream. This is part of a much bigger societal conversation about gender equality, free expression and the roles of online anonymity and accountability.

On the heels of the Google announcement, sources at Speier's office have said that she plans to introduce federal legislation next month. There are currently 21 state laws outlawing nonconsensual pornography but nothing at the federal level in the U.S. (In the UK, England and Wales both have laws on this.)

In an interview with the Daily Dot,  Franks said, "When you're at 21 states with revenge porn laws, what happens is you have 21 different definitions," adding, "Part of why we see the federal bill as the natural next step is because we want a concrete, clear definition of what nonconsensual pornography is."

The bill is the product of a year's worth of work between Speier, Franks and a host of others at the CCRI.

Speier explained that federal legislation is needed because not everyone can afford high-priced lawyers like celebrities can. For the "average person," she points out, "the current system offers almost no recourse." She also points out that the U.S. already has laws protecting against the unauthorized disclosure of medical records and financial information. "Why should personal images of one's naked body, given in confidence, be any different?"

Part of the year drafting the legislation was spent working with stakeholders, particularly tech companies that could be liable for illegal images posted on their platforms. Now, Google joins reddit, Twitter and Facebook with plans to help curb the issue.

Certainly, the seriousness of nonconsensual pornography is finding its way into popular culture. On Sunday night, the popular "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" dedicated a segment to online harassment and nonconsensual pornography. And though he backed federal legislation, he also said "the truth is, the law can only do so much. Companies need to be much more diligent about clamping down on this and they are slowly coming around."

Oliver also linked the phenomenon to bigger societal issues we all must face. "For the rest of us, it comes down to, to us, and to fundamentally changing the way we that we think about the Internet because too often you hear people play down the dangers of the Internet by saying, 'Well, relax. It's not real life.' But it is, and it always has been!"

This point is aptly borne out by Oxford University's Laura Hilly and Kira Allmann. They explain, in an excellent column in The Guardian, that nonconsensual pornography not only tries to shame women, it tries to silence them, too. They argue that the utopian view of the Internet, one in which "people can transcend their offline identities, where free movement of self and speech are potentially limitless," brings with it a "kind of gendered hate speech - designed to silence women and other gender, sexual and racial minorities."

As such, many in the media have resorted to victim blaming, by saying that women shouldn't take nude photos of themselves and share them online in the first place. But those who resort to victim blaming are completely missing the issue.

It's about user consent.

A recent example took place on an Australian morning show "Sunrise" when it posted on Facebook, "What's it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?"

Writer and activist Clementine Ford took exception to "Sunrise's" post by posting her own message on Facebook, calling it "Hey #Sunrise Get F***ed (without those little stars)," together with a semi-nude photo of herself. In the post, she explained that sometimes she takes nude photos of herself, but she does so out of her own choice, for her own reasons. "None of that means that I have asked for my privacy to be violated, my photos stolen and my very self made available for public humiliation and judgement," adding, "Consent is everything."

Her post was immediately swarmed by the dregs of society: misogynists, homophobes and online trolls purveying hate speech. Not to be silenced, Ford retweeted and reposted everything, leading, as Hilly and Allmann point out, ironically to the suspension of her Facebook account for breaching the company's community standards. 

Like perpetrators of domestic violence and human trafficking, revenge porn "is fundamentally used to shame, extort and harm women," Hilly and Allmann write, "to keep them captive, to keep them quiet." Cyberharrassment is an attempt to remove and control female and other opinion on the Internet.

Yet, with increased attention to nonconsensual pornography specifically, and gendered hate speech generally, moves by Google, Speier, the women at CCRI and media personalities like Oliver all help bring us one step closer to an Internet that reflects a more just society where women, minorities and others have a voice and a means to control what they present publicly and what they want to keep private.

Top photo: Image from June 21, 2015, episode of  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

1 Comment

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  • comment K • Jun 23, 2015
    this is great progress. Not enough, but enough is made one step at a time.