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Attorney General Peter Kilmartin Applauds House Approval of Revenge Porn and Sextortion Legislation

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin applauded the vote by the Rhode Island House of Representatives approving his bill to criminalize revenge porn and sextortion. The legislation (H 5304) 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.

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

"The recent scandal of United States Marines posting intimate photos and videos of female Marines for the sole purpose of harassment and embarrassment is the exact behavior this legislation would prohibit under Rhode Island law," said Attorney General Kilmartin. "While this scandal is getting all the headlines, there are countless women in Rhode Island who have been victimized in the same way by vengeful former partners, and law enforcement can do nothing to help those victims or hold the perpetrators responsible. We need this law to effectively prosecute those who engage in this deplorable and reprehensible behavior"

Kilmartin noted that the legislation as written - does not in any way infringe upon free speech or the First Amendment. "Special interests are misleading the public that this legislation would somehow limit the media's ability to report stories that in the public's interest, such as the actions by soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison, or limit what is considered art," he said. "That is simply not true, and they know it."

The statute only applies to those who knew that the image was created under circumstances where a reasonable person would know or understand that the image is to remain private and explicitly exempts material that "relates to a matter of public concern and dissemination serves a lawful purpose.

Examples cited by the opponents of this bills including concentration camps, prisons, and public streets are, first, not places that are generally considered private. Second, images of Holocaust victims, Abu Ghraib prisoners, or victims of war crimes plainly "relate to a matter of public concern and dissemination [of such images] serves a lawful purpose."

"Revenge porn is nothing less than digital domestic assault and it has no place in our society to be tolerated," said Rep. Robert E. Craven (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown). "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. This bill is constitutionally sound and will protect so many of our residents from becoming victims of this disgusting practice."

Dr. Mary Ann Franks, Professor of Law, University of Miami School of Law, and Legislative & Tech Policy Director for the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, added, "It is vitally important that laws prohibiting this conduct not be restricted to perpetrators who intend to harass their victims. Very often, perpetrators are indifferent to the impact that their actions have on their victims, from revenge porn site owners to Marines exposing private nude photos of their female comrades. Whether the motivation is greed, voyeurism, or vengeance, the unauthorized disclosure of private, intimate images causes grave and irreparable harm."

The legislation 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.

At least 11 states have enacted revenge porn laws that have the same or similar language as this bill, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Jersey.

The legislation also creates criminal penalties for those who engage in "sextortion," a relatively new and very disturbing 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 not to be posted or revealed to others.

According to a study by the Brookings Institute, 71 percent of sextortion cases involve victims under the age of 18, and that while nearly all adult victims are female, both minor girls and boys are targeted.

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