Last week, New York City unanimously voted to classify revenge porn as a misdemeanor crime. The legislation, introduced last year, states those who share revenge porn can now be required to pay a $1,000 fine or serve up to one year of jail time.
As Gizmodo reports, prior to New York, 38 states and Washington D.C. had passed laws against revenge porn. While New York’s criminalization of revenge porn is promising, the bill itself is not without holes, most of which stem from its language. For example, to be found guilty, the offender must show “intent to cause economic, physical or substantial emotional harm,” which is incredibly difficult to prove in court.
Revenge porn is a massive problem, and it’s one that keeps growing. Research suggests nearly 10 million Americans have been affected by revenge porn. These figures have recently incited action from Facebook, which recently announced a new initiative to combat the vengeful leaking of nude images on its platforms.
BuzzFeed first explained how the effort works: Users send a nude image through Facebook Messenger where Facebook uses “image matching technology” to determine if someone has posted the photo elsewhere on the site. Then, Facebook transforms the photo into a series of numbers which block future attempts to upload the image to its platforms. When the scanning process is complete, users delete the photo. Teen Voguespoke to a Facebook representative who insists the company does not show the scanned photos users send. Instead, they store the “hash” (the numeric data mentioned earlier) that was generated by the image.
While a hash may offer victims comfort, Daily Beast reports that an employee—not an algorithm—must first review any uploaded photos to determine if it classifies as revenge porn in the first place. The details regarding Facebook’s algorithm are suspiciously scarce, but the tech company insists there is no such algorithm that can scan the images without a human at the helm. Once images have been scanned, Facebook keeps them for a short period, though they are blurred and only viewable to a few employees. Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told Daily Beast it is “absolutely necessary” for images to be reviewed by a human, “otherwise it would be trivial for someone to abuse this process to censor images.” Facebook plans to test their initiative in Australia, followed by the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Internet and privacy lawyer David Fraser of McInnes Cooper tells Playboy that because the legal system is not generally hospitable to victims of revenge porn, Facebook’s program could help victims handle their cases outside of court. “It’s getting better, but many women are concerned about re-victimization through the system,” Fraser says. However, by taking revenge porn cases to court, a judge or others involved in the case may share the image in question. This alone is enough to discourage people from taking legal steps.
But questions linger about whether intentionally sending your nudes to a giant media platform like Facebook is the right solution. “It’s totally sketchy,” one woman tweeted. “It’s not a fix to the real problem of Facebook needing to police their sites (especially Instagram) and acknowledge legal accountability for the people who share/post revenge porn. Why trust Facebook employees who are complete strangers when you can’t even trust the partner you sent them to?“
One thing’s for sure: the attempt to negate revenge porn is well intentioned, but Facebook’s remedy of asking users to commit the act of sending nude images againseems counterintuitive. “I don’t think Facebook’s proposal is going to end the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, but I expect it will be a useful tool for some people,” Fraser says. “There is always a risk when a person sends an image like this anywhere, and there’s always a risk when these images exist at all.”
Fraser acknowledges it may be uncomfortable for the victim to even think of a stranger at Facebook looking at the photo, let alone the fact that the person must trust that Facebook will delete the images after they’re fingerprinted. “But if the alternative is that someone will spread a hurtful image to friends, family and employers, this may be a sensible risk to take,” says Fraser.
The problem with this solution is that it requires users put a lot of trust on Facebook, a company that may or may not have aided Russia in tampering with the 2016 election. Not to mention, the process only protects against distribution on Facebook’s portfolio. “I hope that Facebook will license their technology to other companies so that responsible companies can proactively prevent this sort of abuse,” Fraser says. “Which has very real consequences for the individuals involved.”
Still, making revenge porn a crime seems like a way to not only thwart it but also protect the victim from having to endure revictimization. As evidenced by Facebook and New York City’s recent announcements, changes regarding revenge porn are beginning to happen in all levels of government and tech. And it’s about time.