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Calif. Bans Jilted Lovers From Posting 'Revenge Porn' Online

Originally published on Thu October 3, 2013 12:08 pm

After a breakup, raw feelings can set off a desire for revenge. Some jilted lovers have taken to posting intimate pictures of a former partner on the Internet. It's a phenomenon known as "revenge porn," and on Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making it a crime.

The new law is a victory to Holly Jacobs, who was a victim of revenge porn. Jacobs went through what sounds like a typical boy-meets-girl story of falling in and out of love. The first year of the relationship, Jacobs and her partner lived in the same city, but she left to go to graduate school in Miami.

Jacobs says they tried to keep the relationship going. "We exchanged intimate photos and had webcam sessions," she says, "just to keep the passion in our relationship alive."

Unfortunately, the distance proved to be too difficult on the couple.

"We were fighting a lot and we would break up and we would get back together," she says. "Eventually it just came to the point where we realized that neither one of us were really happy and we would be better going our separate ways."

Jacobs thought that was it, but she says that about a month after the breakup, she got word that her profile picture on Facebook had been switched to one of her nude. She says it didn't stop there.

"Every six months after that, nude photos of me would pop up on porn sites," she says.

Nude photos of her also showed up on something called revenge porn websites — a growing phenomenon. Basically the sites are where a jilted lover can post nude photos and personal information about an ex.

Jacobs says her ex posted where she worked, her boss's name and email address, and information about her co-workers. Eventually Jacobs left her job because she was afraid of being physically stalked.

Jacobs says the worst part was telling her parents. She did try to get help from the police and says she went to two stations in Miami.

"Both of them turned me down on account that I was over 18 when the pictures were taken or I had given him the pictures," she says. "So technically they were his property and he could do whatever he wants with them."

Jacobs actually changed her name so that the pictures didn't pop up when someone searched for her online. Eventually she received legal help after a visit to a U.S. senator's office. In her case, her ex had been involved in so much activity targeted at her that he is being prosecuted under a cyberstalking law.

Jacobs has gone on to found an organization to help victims of revenge porn, and she's heard from thousands of women.

"Some of these perpetrators just post a picture once and that's all it takes," Jacobs says. "All the users all across the world can download that photo and share it."

Jacobs and her organization — The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative — have found sympathy among some lawmakers. This week, California became the first state to pass a law directly targeted at revenge porn.

Law Not Without Critics

The California law makes it illegal to distribute private images with the intent to harass or annoy. But First Amendment advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard, think the law could clamp down on speech the public needs to know.

Hermes points to the case of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who denied sharing more lewd pictures of himself when he ran for New York City mayor. But he was lying.

"The person who leaks information that the public needs to know about may have a malicious intent," Hermes says, "but it doesn't change the public's interest."

The California law also has critics among advocates for victims of revenge porn, such as Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

"The first problem is that the way that it's written suggests that people who take pictures of themselves would not be protected by this law, only people who have other people take pictures of them," Franks says.

For example, in the case of Jacobs, she took many of the pictures herself. Franks thinks a New Jersey law that wasn't targeted specifically at revenge porn might make a better model than California's new law. In New Jersey, it's illegal to distribute graphic images of someone without his or her consent.

Anthony Cannella, the California state senator who authored the new law, is open to improving it. "I think this is a great first step," he says. "But we need to do more."

Cannella would like to see Congress take up the issue.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

A not-so-funny thing sometimes happens to people after a romantic relationship falls apart. Raw feelings and resentment can set off a desire for revenge. In a cyber-age twist, some jilted lovers have taken to posting intimate pictures of their former partners on the Internet. It's a phenomenon known as revenge porn. And yesterday, California's Governor Jerry Brown signed a law making it a crime. NPR's Laura Sydell has more.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Boy met girl and fell in love. That's how it went for Holly Jacobs. But about a year into the relationship, Jacobs moved to Miami for graduate school. She says she and her partner did what they could to keep the relationship going.

HOLLY JACOBS: We exchanged intimate photos and had webcam sessions just to keep the passion in our relationship alive.

SYDELL: Unfortunately, the distance proved to be too hard.

JACOBS: We were fighting a lot. And we would break up, and we would get back together. And eventually, it just came to the point where we realized that neither one of us were really happy, and we would be better going our separate ways.

SYDELL: About a month after the breakup...

JACOBS: I got word that my profile picture on Facebook had been switched to a nude photo of me. Then every six months after that, nude photos of me would pop up on porn sites.

SYDELL: And on something called revenge porn sites, a growing phenomenon, basically sites where jilted lovers post nude photos of their exes and personal information about them.

JACOBS: Where I worked and my boss's name and email address, my co-workers' name and email address. And I eventually felt like I had to leave my job because I felt like I was going to get physically stalked.

SYDELL: She says the worst part was telling her parents. Jacobs did try to get help from the police.

JACOBS: I went to two stations in Miami and both of them turned me down on account that I was over 18 when the pictures were taken, or I had given him the pictures, so technically they were his property and he could do whatever he wants with them.

SYDELL: Jacobs actually changed her name so that the pictures didn't pop up when someone searched for her online. She eventually did get legal help but only after a visit to a U.S. senator's office. In her case, her ex had been involved in so much activity targeted at her that they were able to prosecute him using a cyberstalking law. Jacobs has gone on to found an organization to help victims of revenge porn and advocate for laws to protect them. She's heard from thousands of women. From them, she learned that stalking laws don't always work.

JACOBS: Some of these perpetrators just post a picture once, and that's all it takes. All the users all across the world can download that photo and share it.

SYDELL: Jacobs and her organization, called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, have found sympathy among some lawmakers. This week, California became the first state to pass a law directly targeted at what's come to be called revenge porn. The law makes it illegal to distribute private images with the intent to harass or annoy. But First Amendment advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard, think the law could clamp down on speech the public needs to know.

He says take the case of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who denied sharing more lewd pictures of himself when he ran for New York City mayor, but he was lying.

JEFF HERMES: The person who leaks information that the public needs to know about may have a malicious intent, they may not have a malicious intent, but it doesn't change the public's interest.

SYDELL: The California law also has critics among advocates for victims of revenge porn. Mary Anne Franks is a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

MARY ANNE FRANKS: The first problem is that the way that it's written suggests that people who take pictures of themselves, that those people would not be protected by this law, only people who have other people take pictures of them.

SYDELL: For example, in the case of Holly Jacobs, she took many of the pictures herself. Professor Franks thinks a New Jersey law that wasn't targeted specifically at revenge porn might be a better model than California's new law. In New Jersey, it's illegal to distribute graphic images of someone without their consent. Anthony Cannella, the California state senator who authored the new law, is open to improving it.

STATE SENATOR ANTHONY CANNELLA: I think this is a great first step, but we need to do more.

SYDELL: Cannella would like to see the U.S. Congress take up the issue when they've got more time. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.