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Katie Hill Could Finally Bring Pending Revenge Porn Bill in Congress to a Vote

October 29, 2019, 4:17 PM UTC
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

Former freshman Representative Katie Hill (D-Cali.) announced in a video Monday that she would work to campaign for those affected by “revenge porn” after resigning Sunday from Congress amid a swirl of controversy around alleged inappropriate sexual relationships with two of her campaign staffers and leaked nude photos to various media outlets. 

Hill, in the middle of a caustic divorce with a man who she has called “abusive,” stepped down after nude photographs were published without her consent in RedState and on DailyMail.com. Hill alleges that her husband played a role in the photographs and allegations of relationships with staffers. 

“I will fight to ensure that no one else has to live through what I just experienced,” Hill, who admitted to having a relationship with a female staffer but denies a second allegation of a relationship with a male employee, said in the video Monday. “Some people call this electronic assault, digital exploitation. Others call it revenge porn. As a victim of it, I call it one of the worst things we can do to our sisters and our daughters.”

Hill is currently weighing her legal options against DailyMail.com. Revenge porn — the revealing of sexually explicit photos online without someone’s consent as a means of causing them harm or embarrassment — has been illegal in California since 2013. Nationally, however, there is a lack of cohesion on what constitutes revenge porn and the legality around posting compromising photos of other people online.  

In 2016, California senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-Cali.) fought to pass a bill that would make publishing revealing photos or videos a federal crime and would put the burden on the government to prove “that no reasonable person would consider the shared image to touch on a matter of public concern.” It did not pass. Harris, along with Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Cali) introduced a second attempt at the bill, entitled ENOUGH, in 2017 and most recently a third bill, the SHIELD Act, this May. The SHIELD Act is pending with the judiciary committee, and advocates hope Hill’s recent experience will prompt a vote.

“Members of Congress are hoping that Hill has brought a moment of attention to the bill and that it makes sense to finally vote on it. There will be a push by its sponsors this week,” said Dr. Mary Anne Franks, the president and legislative and tech policy director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative who has worked with Speier since 2013 on similar legislation. 

Harris, meanwhile, told Buzzfeed News that Hill was the victim of “cyber exploitation” and that the photos were released as part of a “campaign of harassment and intimidation” against the former congresswoman. Harris, who worked with tech companies as attorney general in California to prosecute perpetrators of revenge porn, said that she had spoken privately with Hill. 

“It was clearly meant to embarrass her,” Harris said of the photos. “There’s so much that people do about women and their sexuality that’s about shaming them. It just sends a signal to other women that’s discouraging them from running for office.”

A 2017 study found that one in eight American social media users had been the target of nonconsensual pornography, and that women were 1.7 times more likely to be the victims.

Without any federal legislation, it’s up to the states and territories to pass their own laws banning revenge porn, and legislation is often held up by influential tech lobbyists who argue that the courts can’t tell online platforms what content they can and can’t host. The bills have also been strongly opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that these revenge porn bills stifle First Amendment rights

Franks says she has worked with more than 40 states on their revenge porn laws but often has to compete with the ACLU for legislative favor.

“I’ll provide model legislation and then the ACLU shows up tells legislators that they have to add motive requirements, which is often a death knell to the law,” she said. 

This results in a variety of definitions and penalties by state.

“One state will say that posting non-consensual photos is uniformly illegal, and other states will say that perpetrators will need to have motives of revenge. That might sound sensible but in many cases people post these photos to achieve political gain or make money or to raise their profiles in certain online communities, and those motives often don’t count as revenge,” Franks said.

Another problem with state-by-state laws is jurisdictional confusion. States aren’t sure if they should base prosecution on where the photo was taken, where the victim or perpetrator lives or where the photo is originally posted from. 

A federal law would solve the bulk of that confusion, as the definition of interstate commerce covers almost anything that takes place on the internet.

Still, there are now laws against non-consensual pornography in 46 states and Washington D.C., and while they vary significantly in severity and in their definition of what constitutes abuse, the change has come quickly. Before 2013, only three states had rules about nonconsensual pornography. Now, the only states without legislation are Massachusetts, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Wyoming. 

“In the last few years we’ve seen a real revolution in the consciousness and awareness of nonconsensual pornography,” Franks said. 

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