Harassment against women goes online: the problem of revenge porn

Ann Olivarius - 1st December 2014

As the internet takes a more significant place in our culture, its flaws become more evident. While social media, blogs and forums provide a space for minority groups to find community and discussion, the same platforms can also breed bigotry and hatred. While each group faces its own challenges in the online space, the problem seems to be particularly acute for women: barely a week goes by without a new story of a woman discussing the abuse and threats she has encountered on social media. The journalist Amanda Hess struck a chord when she called the internet the “next civil rights frontier”.

Perhaps the most concerning part of this trend is the phenomenon of non-consensual pornography, or “revenge porn”, in which ex-partners (or hackers) post explicit photos or videos online without the consent of the person depicted, frequently including personal information such as their email address or telephone number. An offshoot of selfie culture, revenge porn was unforeseeable a generation ago. Now, according to the McAfee Love, Relationships and Technology Report, nearly 40 per cent of Americans send intimate content to their partner, and one in ten ex-partners have threatened to publish explicit photos or videos. It’s a strongly gendered form of abuse, with women making up 90 per cent of victims.

My law firm represents victims of revenge porn and other types of online harassment and abuse, so I know firsthand the damage that this can cause. Experiencing such a public violation of trust is traumatic, and often leads victims to depression and anxiety. Because the images or videos will often come up in a Google search of the victim’s name, they can lose their jobs or be shunned by judgemental friends and family. Most importantly, because of the tendency of the perpetrators to post personal details, it can put the victim in real danger: it is not uncommon for them to face threats or stalking after the publication of explicit material.

Existing laws are inadequate to regulate harmful behaviour on the internet, and revenge porn is no exception. Both civil and criminal causes of action in the UK, as they currently stand, are largely not fit for purpose. Defamation doesn’t apply, because unless the pictures are doctored, they are still substantially “true”. A prosecution under the Protection from Harassment Act can’t be pursued, because posting revenge porn doesn’t constitute a “continuing pattern”. A similar lack of recourse exists in the United States. As a result, the best option for many victims is copyright law, which they can use to help take the content down – but only if they took the pictures or video themselves and thus own the copyright. Otherwise, with few exceptions, they’re out of luck.

Thanks to the efforts of victim advocates and campaigners, things are slowly changing. Lawmakers around the world are realising that the laws must evolve to meet the needs of the internet age: thirteen US states have passed laws banning the practice, and federal legislation is in the works. The UK Government has recently committed to criminalise revenge porn with prison sentences of up to two years. Other countries, from Israel to Japan, have implemented or are considering criminal sanctions against the posters of offending content.

It’s encouraging to see that politicians are taking this issue seriously, but there is more to be done before we achieve justice for victims of revenge porn. For one, criminal sanctions focus on the perpetrator, but they do not address the damage done: the depression, the job loss, the humiliation. For this, we should be looking at civil remedies, so that victims can claim compensation for what has been taken away from them by the cruelty of the act.

We should also look beyond the individual perpetrator, to the structures that allow this content to flourish. There are a large number of dedicated revenge porn sites which actively solicit pictures and videos, and make a great deal of money, via advertising revenues, by hosting them. The revenge porn “mogul” Hunter Moore boasted that he was making as much as $30,000 per month from his revenge porn site isanyoneup.com. Moore was later indicted on federal charges – not for running the site itself, but for hacking and extortion. In addition to the specialist sites, there are general pornography websites that also host and make money from revenge porn videos. They are under no obligation to remove content

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even if the person depicted objects to its publication.

Right now these websites are protected by laws like the Communications Decency Act in the United States, which protects websites from liability for content posted by third parties. That makes sense for neutral websites like Twitter and Facebook, which have functioning complaints policies, and can’t be held responsible for the actions of hundreds of millions of users. But these laws don’t make sense for sites that brazenly promote the violation of women’s privacy and exist solely to make money off of it. Victims of revenge porn should be able to claim compensation from websites that profit from their humiliation.

The growing trend towards the criminalisation of revenge porn, then, is a positive one. It will demonstrate to potential perpetrators that our society takes the privacy of women seriously. I hope it will make some think twice before they put the photos and videos online. But from the victim’s perspective, criminal sanctions are not enough: sending the perpetrator to jail by itself doesn’t rebuild their lives. They deserve damages, even though those too cannot really make up for the harm caused. In the long run, the most important goal is to drain the swamp of a virtually lawless internet that permits this sad and vindictive subculture to fester.

Author profile

Ann Olivarius is Senior Partner of McAllister Olivarius, an international law firm based in London. She has managed complex legal matters for over 25 years, focusing on both civil rights and corporate law. Her groundbreaking work was recognized by the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund which presented her with the Martha Stewart Miller Legal Challenge Award in 1992.

Citations

Ann Olivarius, “Harassment against women goes online: the problem of revenge porn” (OxHRH, 1 December 2014) http://humanrights.dev3.oneltd.eu/?p=14725

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