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General Assembly Passes Legislation Prohibiting Revenge Porn and Sextortion

The Rhode Island General Assembly voted bills (H7537/S2540) in concurrence on Tuesday 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 measure now moves to the Governor's desk for consideration. Filed at the request of Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, the legislation is sponsored by Representative Robert E. Craven, Sr. (D., District 32 North Kingstown) and Senator Erin Lynch Prata (D-District 31, Warwick, Cranston).

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.

Passage of the Act would make Rhode Island the 35th state to have laws addressing the issue, and is supported by the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Day One, and the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting civil liberties online.

"This legislation protects victims who are being exploited, harassed, and stalked by individuals who willfully and intentionally post intimate photos and videos to exact revenge or cause humiliation," said Attorney General Kilmartin. "This is a real crime, and the legislation addresses this problem without infringing on anyone's first amendment rights. I applaud the General Assembly for recognizing the need to update our laws to reflect the changing nature of crime due to advances in technology."

"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."

"It is vitally important that we address this new kind of virtual assault, which disproportionately targets women, and I'm grateful to the Attorney General for helping develop and promote the bill. Once it is law, it is my hope that it will make those posting these kinds of images think twice before invading someone's privacy in such a degrading manner," said Senator Lynch Prata.

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 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.

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