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Crime, Law and Justice

'Revenge Porn' Specifically Outlawed Under Proposed State Laws

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Stephan Röhl
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File photo

Sometimes it's a vengeful ex-lover; sometimes a thief or a hacker is behind it. Either way, explicit, private photos of people keep getting out on the Internet.

A woman from Seattle said she was mortified just over a year ago to discover naked pictures of herself posted to a "revenge porn" website. Kim asked that her last name not be used during testimony to a Washington state Senate committee Monday.

"There was a tremendous amount of shame and broken relationships,” she said.

Among other things, Kim said she and her grandmother stopped talking for eleven months. Kim said she received anonymous threatening phone calls at home after the intimate pictures showed up online.

"When I called the police, the response was pretty unremarkable,” she said. “The response was, 'Well, this is probably just an ex-boyfriend or something. Really, these threats rarely lead to anything. I wouldn't really worry about it.'"

Even though the naked photos appeared on website called myex.com, there was no jilted lover involved. Turns out a computer repair tech who briefly worked on Kim's computer was behind it. He's in jail now, convicted for cyberstalking and illegally copying the pictures.

He was not charged with distributing the naked photos on the internet. That's what victims call a "legal grey area" they want to fix.

Now Democrats and Republicans in Olympia have introduced four separate bills to specifically penalize revenge porn to various degrees. In Oregon, state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is pushing to make it a misdemeanor.

In Kim's case, she persisted in complaining to the police and eventually a detective opened an investigation. King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Gary Ernsdorff said they identified three other victims, all tied to the same freelance computer technician in Seattle.

In December, a King County judge sentenced Jeremy Scott Walkers to one year in jail.

Ernsdorff said the other victims had not come forward on their own. "In fact, we found them," he said. "They felt powerless because there were no laws, no statutes that they felt could protect them."

Speaking to the state Senate Law & Justice Committee in Olympia, Ernsdorff urged the Senators to seek tougher remedies than creating a new cause of action for a civil lawsuit against a perpetrator. Criminalizing revenge porn and making it a felony would "send a stronger message to the people of Washington," he said.

Separate bills in the state House would make revenge porn either a felony or a misdemeanor on the first offense.

Victims' advocates and a lobbyist for the newspaper industry agreed it is necessary to carefully craft the bill language in order to comport with the First Amendment and not penalize artistic or newsworthy publication of nude images.

The proposed laws do not apply to the website operators where private photos may appear, because websites have limited immunity under federal law for user-submitted material.

California was the first state to expressly target revenge porn with a law that took effect in 2013. Last year, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill to make it a felony to deliberately disseminate intimate, private images of another person without their consent.

The Utah and Arizona legislatures also passed similar bills to criminalize revenge porn last year. Arizona's law is currently on hold and being re-worked after a federal judge ruled it was overly broad and could criminalize speech that is protected by the U.S. Constitution.