My own representative in Congress, Jackie Speier, has apparently decided to introduce a federal "revenge porn" bill
, which is being drafted, in part, by Prof. Mary Anne Franks, who has flat out admitted that her goal is to undermine Section 230 protections
for websites (protecting them from liability of actions by third parties) to make them liable for others' actions. Now, I've never written about Franks before, but the last time
to a story about her in a different
post, she went ballistic on Twitter, attacking me
in all sorts of misleading ways. So, let me just be very clear about this. Here's what she has said
"The impact [of a federal law] for victims would be immediate," Franks said. "If it became a federal criminal law that you can't engage in this type of behavior, potentially Google, any website, Verizon, any of these entities might have to face liability for violations."
That makes it clear her intent is to undermine Section 230 and make third parties -- like "Google, any website, Verizon... face liability."
Now, her retort to all of this is likely that she's not seeking to undermine Section 230 in any way. Rather, she's attempting to do something of an end-run around it. Section 230 has never
protected sites from liability of federal crimes
-- just civil infractions and state crimes. So her goal is to make the amorphous concept of "revenge porn" a "federal crime" thereby suddenly making third-party websites liable. She will argue that does nothing to undermine Section 230. A more reasoned
look at the issue, however, shows how this effort is fraught with dangerous consequences and potential First Amendment problems.
Taking a step back, though, let's be clear: revenge porn -- the practice of posting naked pictures of someone (who likely took those photos for an individual or themselves, rather than the public) along with that person's identifying information -- is odious. Those who are involved in the practice are morally repugnant individuals. And yet, what we've seen is that there do appear to be ways to deal with them. One of the most well-known creators of revenge porn, Hunter Moore, was recently arrested
on charges that he conspired with another person to hack into email accounts to get more photos. Often, those engaged in revenge porn are also engaged in extortion over those images or other crimes on which they can be charged. Some revenge porn sites have been hit with lawsuits for copyright infringement
-- though that creates a whole different set of problems
Meanwhile, amazing folks like Adam Steinbaugh have been diligently tracking down
and exposing the details of people who operate revenge porn sites
, which can sometimes be an effective (if slightly ironic) way to get them to go away. But that's an example where more speech is often a better result than censoring speech by increasing liability.
Still, you can see why there's a temptation to create a new anti-revenge porn statute. The whole concept of revenge porn is itself repugnant, so it's tempting (especially as a lawmaker) to pull out that old hammer and create some regulations. But the dangers of regulating based on reacting to the odiousness of those sites may obscure the way such laws will inevitably -- as Prof. Franks herself admits -- impact companies that are clearly not engaged in revenge porn.
In the article about the legislation, EFF's Matt Zimmerman (who, actually, just left EFF) points out that using criminal law here is "dangerous" because it would likely lead lots of companies to reflexively delete all sorts of content, including plenty of perfectly legal and legitimate content, to avoid the sort of liability Franks describes. And that's the huge problem here. By spreading liability, you guarantee over-censorship. It's easy for people who are narrowly focused on a single issue to not recognize the wider impact that issue may have. Trying to accurately describe what "revenge porn" is for the sake of criminalizing
its posting, will almost certainly have chilling effects on third parties and undermine the very intent of the CDA's Section 230.
People who don't think through the details seem to assume that it must be easy to define what is "revenge porn," but the deeper you go, the more difficult it becomes to define -- and the more risks there are of both over-criminalizing and
creating serious First Amendment issues. For example, you could say that sites should be forced to take down photos of individuals where those individuals insist that the photos are problematic. But then you'd have to deal with situations, like with Ranaan Katz
, where he went after a blogger and
Google (using civil copyright law) for posting an "unflattering" photo. Do we really want to bring criminal
law into that arena?
And the First Amendment issue is not easy to get around. At all. As lawyer Mark Bennett discussed
in trying to create a First Amendment-compliant anti-revenge-porn statute, it's not an easy challenge:
The First Amendment problem we face is that “posting nude or explicit images of former lovers online” is speech; a statute focused on such posting is a content-based regulation of speech; content-based regulations of speech are presumed to be invalid (that is, speech is presumed to be protected); and the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Stevens expressly rejected a balancing test for content-based criminal laws, instead applying a categorical test.
At best, Bennett tries, as an exercise, to see if it would be possible to extend obscenity laws to cover "revenge porn," but that would massively expand obscenity laws, again in potentially dangerous ways. The problem here is that pretty much everyone agrees that revenge porn is a really horrible thing -- but any attempt to criminalize it will have serious implications way beyond the targeted issue.
Instead of following Franks down that dangerous road, it would be wise to focus on ways to use existing laws to go after those who are clearly engaged in related questionable behaviors. Changing the laws to put the burden on third parties is only going to create significant new problems. I'm disappointed that my own Representative in Congress, Jackie Speier, appears to not realize this, and I will be contacting her office to express my concerns about the bill.