Criminalising revenge porn in the UK: a good step, but just the first

As the internet becomes an ever more significant institution in our culture, its flaws have become more apparent. One that is now a well-documented epidemic is the In particular, the internet has enabled the abuse of women by men - the frequency and terror of cyberbullying and threats against women has been well documented. The UK and US justice systems, and those of other countries around the world, have struggled to contend with this problem: existing laws are woefully inadequate, and police forces and prosecutors have not been willing to pursue the perpetrators.

The British government is taking a huge step towards fighting one aspect of this pernicious problem.  A law now before Parliament is set to make publishing revenge porn a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison. The legislation will cover any private sexual image of someone that is circulated without their consent, intended to cause distress, either on or off line. It has received the support of the Justice Minister, Chris Grayling, who said that “We want those who fall victim to this type of disgusting behaviour to know that we are on their side and will do everything we can to bring offenders to justice.”

This new legislation is really significant. It puts those who spread revenge porn (also called “non-consensual pornography”) on notice that what they are doing is not a spiteful joke, but a serious crime with serious repercussions, worthy of imprisonment. From our work with clients who are victims of revenge porn, we know the damage it can cause: loss of employment, harassment by strangers, humiliation, anxiety and = depression, to name a few. To turn something intimate into a weapon is simply wrong – and the internet allows the perpetrator to send his weapon around the world in an instant. The terrible consequences, as well as the premeditation required to behave that way, makes the level of punishment appropriate. I applaud the MPs, like Julian Huppert, who have advanced the cause.

In October 2014, about 100 celebrities had their phones hacked and naked pictures posted online without their consent. This caused an uproar, as well as a welcome shift in public conversation away from blaming the women who made or agreed to make the intimate images for their private use, and squarely onto those who spread them to cause shame and harm. But Kate Upton and Jennifer Lawrence are just two famous faces of a problem that has affected millions of less famous women across the world. As McAfee’s 2013 “Love, Relationships, and Technology” survey shows, one tenth of ex-partners have threatened to post naked images of their exes online. About 60 percent of that group have actually done it. While this practice is occasionally inflicted on men, research by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative suggests that as many as 90 percent of revenge porn victims are women. Often, the posts include private information including the victim’s name, links to social media profiles, employers, telephone numbers, and address.

Until now, these offences have rarely been dealt with by police, in any country. According to the eight police forces in England and Wales that have collected data on it, there were only 149 allegations of crimes involving revenge porn (the vast majority brought by women). Only 6 of the 149 allegations resulted in any sort of police caution or charge. Even when they are reported, police so far haven’t had the resources or inclination to investigate. Indeed, up to this point, even if prosecutors wanted to convict a perpetrator, they would have to strain to find a law that would clearly apply. The law is notoriously bad at regulating the online world, and revenge porn is no exception.

I also hope these changes in criminal law will be accompanied by new civil remedies, allowing victims to reclaim money damages. Money cannot fix everything, but it can go a long way towards defraying the costs associated with getting victims’ lives back on track. The damage from revenge porn is not just emotional, although the trauma can be substantial. The pictures often come up in a Google search of the victim’s name and severely affect their entire career. If their name and contact details are included, it can put them in physical danger.  Victims of revenge porn deserve to be compensated for these harms.

But the biggest change must be structural: we need to hold to account not just spiteful exes and hackers, but also big powerful pornography companies like MindGeek—a multi-million dollar operation based in Luxembourg—accountable for their role in spreading revenge porn and profiting from it.  These sites often host revenge porn, and play a large part in the perpetration of the abuse, but they are under no legal obligation to monitor of remove content, unless it is child pornography. As I have discussed before, these massive, lucrative sites have every incentive not to remove any content. Every video uploaded by some random guy makes them money through advertisements and click-throughs, whether or not it is legal. The more content, the more money. And they make a lot of money: about $3,000 per second.  They are benefiting financially from the misery of the victims of women, and they should be made to pay for it.

Parliament’s explicit criminalization of revenge porn will be a great victory – it is a malicious act worthy of a prison sentence.  Britain is one of a few countries leading the charge on this issue. But victims need recourse, too. They should be able to sue individuals, as well as large websites, which have benefited from exploiting them. As is so often the case, nothing substantive will change unless those who do harm are held financially and criminally accountable.