California criminalizes cyber revenge

by Mike Heral

Inspired by a teenage suicide, the California State Legislature passed a “cyber revenge” bill on Sept. 11. If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate Bill 255 will make it illegal to transmit compromising photos taken of another person without his or her consent. The bill’s inspiration, 15-year-old Audrie Pott, committed suicide upon her discovery that photos of her being allegedly gang raped were circulating throughout her high school. Brown should immediately sign SB 255 to honor Pott’s memory.

But that’s not all. There are at least two more things that must happen for Californians to protect themselves against cyber perversion.

First, there’s a major flaw in the bill that must be fixed—a flaw that leaves future Audrie Potts vulnerable to “cyber revenge.” As written, the law only protects victims if the photo was taken by someone else. It doesn’t cover “selfies.” For those readers not up to speed on today’s vernacular, a “selfie” is a self-taken photo. That person then either embeds the photo on a social media site, or they email or text the photo to someone else. State Sen. Anthony Cannella, the bill’s author, will reportedly try to include “selfies” in an amended “cyber revenge” law. He must do so as soon as lawmakers reconvene next January.

The governor has a history of vetoing flawed bills, and it’s admirable to have only one law covering any given policy. Anyone who’s worked within a bureaucracy understands it’s frustrating to have to research all the possible permutations of a law, especially when crafting an interpretation for law enforcement agencies. But in this case, sending the flawed bill back to a legislature in recess for the next three months leaves women, such as Pott, at the mercy of creeps until the bill meets Brown’s demands. That’s not acceptable.

Second—and this one pains me to say—individuals must examine if it’s wise to transmit potentially embarrassing photos of themselves to people they may not know that well. I, like every man in my circle, enjoy receiving sexually suggestive photos. Still, I must note that men can also be victims of “cyber revenge.” This is especially true for male members of the LGBT community who may not feel ready to publicly declare their sexual preference. Still, women comprise the majority of publicized “cyber revenge” victims. While it seems harmless for a woman to text a nude photograph to a romantic partner, she needlessly places herself at her lover’s mercy. The harm comes from not knowing what the recipient will do at the relationship’s end.

A woman sometimes mistakenly believes today’s crush will be tomorrow’s husband. Any San Diego State female student reading this column will do well to remember that the current personification of her dreams stands a better chance of being the jerk she never wants to remember than he does of being the one she exchanges solemn vows with. Therefore, the photos she sent while in love’s swoon could later become the method her ex uses to harass her in his jilted rage.

Critics charge that “selfies” don’t need to be included in SB 255 because the sender voluntary transmits the photo. However, the sender selects a private transmission method—that is, sending the photo as a direct message to one person instead of publishing it to his or her entire list of Twitter followers—and thus the sender has a reasonable expectation the photo will be kept private. When a person disrobes, he or she usually isn’t disrobing to the world. The same philosophy must apply to narrowly transmitted “selfies.”

At the risk of being the fun police, though, it’s wiser to keep what happens in the bedroom in the bedroom. This is true whether the relationship spans one day or 1,000 days. It’s impossible for a “selfie” to haunt the sender if the sexually suggestive photo doesn’t exist. It needs to be said that it doesn’t matter if the “selfie” was sent using a feature such as Snapchat, which is a photo sharing service boasting that photos shared by its users “self-destruct” reminiscent of a “Mission: Impossible” communique. A simple search engine query quickly reveals procedures for the recipient to turn those fun and temporary “selfies” into permanent blackmail weapons. This brings us back to the tenet that the safest sexually suggestive “selfie” is a “selfie” not taken, and definitely not shared.

Other critics have asked why SB 255 is necessary and if limited law enforcement budgets wouldn’t be better served pursuing “real” crimes. But until we no longer have to guard against predators and those easily ensnared by them, bills legislating morality remain necessary.

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