California passed a law last month to prevent a form of online harassment known as “revenge porn”—explicit images almost exclusively of women posted online by their former partners. The victims of revenge porn are often left without recourse, ignored or extorted by website hosts, and discounted by local authorities who either lack awareness of federal cyber stalking and harassment laws or see little point in pressing charges. Frustrated by lack of recourse, campaigns such as End Revenge Porn have started fighting for state legislation to criminalize the practice. Until the passage of California’s law, New Jersey was the only state that had criminalized revenge porn, and a New York legislator just announced his plan to propose similar legislation last week.
Revenge porn is only one form of online harassment that disproportionately affects women and often goes unreported. The attacks can range from threatening and degrading messages to the posting of personal information like home addresses and Social Security numbers.
Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, has written extensively on the way online harassment affects women and sexual, racial, and religious minorities, and our need to adopt a cyber civil-rights agenda. Her book Cyber Civil Rights: Combating Hate in the Digital Age is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.
What kind of impact do you think the California law will have on how society views revenge porn and online harassment?
It has brought important light to the aspect of online harassment that can be really devastating for victims. So in that regard, it's created an important conversation that states are now having. It sounds like Maryland, Wisconsin, Washington state, Florida, other states are considering [legislation].
The downside of that legislation is that I think it clearly needs to be amended.
The California law wouldn't cover images that are consensually shared with another person in a trusting relationship where there's an expectation of confidentiality. And I think that's a shame, because we sort of overlook what is, no doubt, really harmful, economically and socially.
What are some other forms of online harassment that take place?
Revenge porn is just one tool in a harasser's toolbox. Often you see victims being threatened with sexual violence, or with any kind of physical violence. The abuse can take forms of threats of violence, privacy invasions, naked pictures and doctored photographs, revelations of someone's home address. It can be lies that suggest someone's interested in anonymous sex. Individuals set up whole sites devoted to other individuals, to basically burning their reputation and ensuring they basically have no chance of getting employed.
So when the first ten pages of a Google search for your name are about how you’re a bitch, have herpes, shouldn't be trusted or are financially irresponsible, it's not that employers believe the information, it's that you don't want to hire someone who could put your own reputation at risk.
In your work, you’ve pushed for a cyber civil-rights agenda. What does that entail?
I think of this as a civil-rights problem for two reasons: the identity of the victims and the messages the abuse sends. Statistically, 70 percent or more of victims are female. There's also a high percentage of individuals who are sexual minorities, who face this kind of abuse. And it's not that men aren't harassed—they are. But what's really fascinating is that the kind of abuse they face is very similar to the sort of demeaning messages that female victims face: They're accused of being child rapists, of being sexual predators, of being gay, even if they're not; impersonated, and suggested that they're interested in anal sex. It sort of turns the narrative upside-down. They're shamed for their sexuality.
You think of it as discrimination or a civil-rights problem because of the demeaning messages it’s sending. The abuse is sexualized, it’s humiliating, it’s sexually threatening, it’s taking stereotypes and humiliating people based on characteristics they can't change about themselves.
It's like we went back 30 years, and the response that we see to online harassment is so similar to the ways society used to trivialize and write off sexual harassment in the workplace and domestic violence. “Yeah, turn your computer off, boys will be boys, it’s no big deal.” Same way with sexual harassment in the workplace, it was, “Yeah, it’s just a perk for men to enjoy.” As much as we made some progress with sexual harassment in the workplace and changing social attitudes, we have a long way to go about online harassment.
You mentioned in one of your papers about the cyber civil-rights agenda that there are many of laws already on the books that make this behavior illegal, but often times victims are turned away by law enforcement. What changes do you think need to be made to specifically combat online harassment?
Criminal harassment and stalking laws are on the book and can be enforced, but they’re under-enforced. There's a huge gap in our understanding of the application of civil-rights laws. Anti-discrimination laws [such as] Title 7 [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] are just applied to the workplace and for employers. The kind of abuse that you see [online] has economic effects, but the perpetrators have no responsibility. They're not an employer, though they’re having a devastating impact on someone's career. We have civil-rights laws on the books that cover threats but only for racial minorities. We should expand it to gender, because that's so often targeted with online threats that cause economic disadvantage. There are a number of possibilities, but I think a truly robust cyber civil-rights initiative would inevitably not only cover the enforcement of existing laws but the adoption of ones that don't cover areas where people are really left unprotected.
How does the First Amendment end up interacting with these laws? I know that's been a big concern in getting these laws passed and considered.
The First Amendment is often thought of as a conversation stopper. The Internet is depicted as the virtual town square where anyone can be a town crier and say anything they want. In fact, First Amendment doctrine in the court does not protect threats, intentional infliction of emotional distress, purely private matters of private individuals, defamation when it doesn't involve a public figure, solicitation, [or] criminal harassment.
We think of free speech, and what it’s all about is we want to prevent the law from chilling important discussions about public or even cultural affairs. But these kinds of targeted campaigns against individuals don’t send a message that we have a legitimate interest in talking about. They’re efforts to silence individuals, to terrorize them, intimidate them, and ensure that they have no employment. I think it’s worth an important and hard conversation. It’s not easy, the First Amendment, but I think in balancing the interests at stake for the victims, we can weigh them on the scale and say we’re not chilling speech that's ultimately valuable for speakers and listeners.
As a high-profile woman very much in favor of Internet regulation, have you been subject to the online harassment that you’re battling?
It's interesting because as I've been writing about it, I got interested in it because of the attacks on the Yale law students, and I have a close relationship with one of the targeted victims and then got to know Kathy Sierra [a former technology blogger who was a victim of online harassment], and that was in 2007 when I started being interested in this. And as I've gone on, I have received e-mails threatening sexual violence, but they have not been persistent, and it's not often. But all of my friends say, you know, you're next, kid. I have received some online abuse, but I've been lucky in the way that Holly [Jacobs, founder of the End Revenge Porn campaign] and Kathy and all of those individuals I talked to [weren't]—so far so good.”