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RI House of Representatives Passes Legislation Prohibiting Revenge Porn and Sextortion

The Rhode Island House of Representatives today passed legislation filed at the request of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin that would prohibit the posting of "revenge porn" without the consent of the individual in the images and create criminal penalties for those who engage in "sextortion." The legislation (H7537) is sponsored by Representative Robert E. Craven, Sr. (D., District 32 North Kingstown).

Revenge porn is sexually explicit media that is publicly shared online without the consent of the pictured individual. Revenge porn is uploaded by former lovers or hackers for the purpose of humiliation and exploitation. The images or videos are often accompanied by personal information, including the pictured individual's full name and links to their social media profiles.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have already enacted legislation addressing this issue. In addition, many other State Legislatures are considering similar legislation, including Massachusetts and New York.

The legislation would prohibit unauthorized distribution of private, sexually explicit photos and videos, and only applies to those who intentionally distribute those images that were created under circumstances intended to remain private and that were distributed for no legitimate purpose. A first offense is a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, subject to imprisonment of up to one year, a fine of $1,000, or both. Second and subsequent offenses are a felony and, upon conviction, subject to not more than three years imprisonment, a fine of not more than $3,000, or both.

The legislation explicitly exempts material that relates to a matter of public concern; it also explicitly exempts when dissemination of such serves a lawful purposes; when the dissemination is made in the course of a lawful public proceeding; when the dissemination involves voluntary nudity or sexual conduct in public or commercial settings or in a place where a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy; and when the dissemination is made in the public interest, including the reporting of unlawful conduct, or lawful and common practice of law enforcement, criminal reporting, corrections, legal proceedings, medical activities, scientific activities, or educational activities.

"The disclosure of sexually explicit images or video without consent and for no legitimate purpose causes immediate, devastating, and in many cases, irreversible harm. A vengeful ex-partner, opportunistic hacker, or rapist can upload an explicit image or video to a website where thousands of people can view it and share with others. In a matter of days, that image or video can dominate the first several pages of search engine results, and can be shared with the victim's family or employer. Victims are frequently threatened, stalked, harassed and even fired from their employment," said Attorney General Kilmartin. "This is a real crime, and the legislation addresses that problem without infringing on anyone's first amendment rights. Put simply, this legislation seeks to protect an individual's constitutional right to privacy."

"Revenge porn is nothing less than digital domestic assault and it has no place in our society to be tolerated," said Representative Craven. "Posting such material comes with a lifelong impact to the victim because nothing ever truly disappears once it goes online. Severe repercussions need to be in place for these digital abusers and this legislation establishes these long overdue punishments."

The legislation also creates criminal penalties for those who engage in "sextortion," a new cybercrime that occurs when offenders use personal images often stolen or obtained by hacking to force victims to engage in sending more sexually explicit photos or videos under threat the images will be made public. In addition, victims are often extorted into paying money or providing personal identifying information for the images to not be posted or revealed to others.

The Brookings Institute recently released a study on sextortion that found that 71 percent of cases involve victims under the age of 18, and that while nearly all adult victims are female, both minor girls and boys are targeted.

Under the legislation, those who threaten to disclose a visual image or make a threat to obtain a benefit in return for not disclosing a visual image would be, upon conviction, guilty of a felony and subject to a five-year sentence. Those convicted of demanding a payment for removing a visual image would be guilty of a felony and subject to up five years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.

"As reprehensible as it is to post private, very personal photos of someone out of revenge, extorting people primarily young adults into sending more inappropriate photos or demanding money to keep the photos out of the public realm takes depravity to a new low. Victims of sextortion need to know that they can turn to law enforcement to stop the perpetrators, and as prosecutors, we need the tools to hold these sexual predators accountable," added Kilmartin.

The bill enjoys the support of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Day One. Companion legislation, sponsored by Senator Erin Lynch Prata (D-District 31, Warwick, Cranston), passed the senate in May.

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