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Revenge porn could soon become a federal crime in the United States

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Vava Vladimir Jovanovic/Shutterstock
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on April 8, 2016, to remove the name of a party involved in a revenge-porn lawsuit.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s campaign has finally paid off. On Thursday, Rep. Speier announced a highly anticipated federal bill that aims to make revenge porn illegal. This marks the first time that victims of such non-consensual posting of content will be protected by national legislation, and the distribution of these kinds of images or videos punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison.

Updated on 7-15-2016: Rep. Speier unveils a federal bill to outlaw revenge porn

Back in 2015, Rep. Speier noted that, “it’s possible to ruin someone’s life with the click of a button, by publishing another person’s private images without their consent. Our laws haven’t yet caught up with this crime.” But hopefully, this is now about to change.

“The damage caused by these attacks can crush careers, tear apart families, and, in the worst cases, has led to suicide,” Speier said in a statement on Thursday. “What makes these acts even more despicable is that many predators have gleefully acknowledged that the vast majority of their victims have no way to fight back.”

As with all federal laws, Speier’s national revenge porn bill is designed to deter people from committing the crime, by making revenge porn a federal offense. Not only would individuals who upload and share content without someone else’s consent be liable, but so would people who run revenge-porn sites. These criminal penalties will be doled out depending on the severity of the offense, in recognition that there is no one punishment that would fit every criminal violation of the proposed law.

“Celebrities and other high-profile victims might be able take on these predators in civil courts, but the average person can’t afford that option,” Speier added. “Even more disturbing is the number of victims who have mustered the courage and strength to pursue criminal charges, only to learn there is no law that protects them. My bill will fix that appalling legal failure.”

There will be no minimum penalty for revenge porn, though the bill does set a maximum penalty that includes jail sentences.

Ultimately, the bill is designed to help those who don’t have the means to defend themselves. “If you’re Jennifer Lawrence, you can pay a high-priced lawyer to demand that websites take your picture down, but for an average person, the current system offers almost no recourse,” said Rep. Speier.

Issues and the push for help

There are a few concerns about the extent to which the law might criminalize “the sharing of nude images that people lawfully own.” The ACLU has noted that the legislation ought to make clear that intent to harm is key.

Even so, the push for revenge porn laws has been loud and clear. Back in December of last year, Noe Iniguez was the first person to be sentenced under California’s revenge porn law for publishing naked images of his ex-girlfriend on her employer’s Facebook page. Last August, a woman sued Facebook and a man named Adeel Shah Khan after Khan posted manufactured, sexually explicit images of her — and Facebook did not react in a timely manner. Earlier this month, 28-year-old Kevin Bollaert became the first person convicted in the U.S. under state law for running a revenge-porn site, while also running another revenge-porn site that would charge victims $350 to have nude pictures of them taken down.

Currently, 34 states have passed legislation, effectively banning revenge porn. Reddit recently issued a ban to nude images and videos on its site, unless the content has the consent of the people in the footage. Google, meanwhile, will block any sort of sexually explicit content, regardless of whether the people in the videos expressed their consent or not.

With a national standard in place, however, the U.S. would be able to establish a sense of uniformity in terms of what is and isn’t permissible, and will also help law enforcement pursue charges unimpeded by questions of state jurisdiction (which is particularly important in cases concerning the web).

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