What a landmark jail sentence means for the future of revenge porn

The ugly spectre that is revenge porn may soon loom less large over the Internet.

In an historic ruling, former revenge porn operator Kevin Bollaert of San Diego, Calif., was sentenced to 18 years in prison last Friday. Bollaert ran several sites that hosted anonymously posted photos of nude women; to get them taken down, Bollaert would then charge the victims hundreds of dollars. Reports indicate that Bollaert raked in around $900 a month in ad revenue from his site, UGotPosted, and earned about $30,000 from ChangeMyReputation, a separate site that allowed women to apply to remove their photos. The scheme reportedly affected women’s personal lives, with some losing their jobs; in at least one instance, the victim attempted suicide.

California recently passed their law against revenge porn in October 2013, but according to victims’ rights advocates, that was only a step, and a flawed one at that. As University of Miami Law School professor Mary Anne Franks reminded Crimesider, California’s “statute does not cover photographs initially taken by the victim” and “wouldn’t apply send an intimate photo of themselves to someone who then disseminates that image without their permission.”

However, the real significance of this ruling may not be what it says about past statutes but about potential improvements in the fight against revenge porn going forward. Best case scenario: Bollaert’s case could establish a legal precedent for all revenge porn cases.

The tide has been turning against revenge porn over the past few years. In a recent ruling in Colorado Springs, Colo., the FTC reinforced the need for consent before nude photos can be posted online. And while a judge in Manhattan tossed out the State of New York’s first prosecution against revenge porn last year, the act in question (wherein a man posted a nude photo of his ex on Twitter and also sent it to several people close to him) has led to calls for consent to be established in the distribution of naked photos as well.

While a mandate at a federal level remains absent, it’s clear that U.S. courts are starting to take notice. As various organizations continue to call for further action, Congress’ interest appears to have at least been piqued. In the wake of the Bollaert ruling, Al Franken, the senior Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, has urged the FBI to get more serious on the matter. It’s slight, non-specific declaration, but it’s an important one.

But the most serious actions against revenge porn yet may be coming out of Europe. Based on the European Court of Justice’s “right to be forgotten” statute, Google has worked to take down links to revenge porn upon request. 

More serious still, England’s Criminal Justice and Courts Bill was approved to become a law in February. The amendment focuses on social media and texting specifically, stipulating that “photographs or films which show people engaged in sexual activity or depicted in a sexual way or with their genitals exposed” may not be shared online or offline without the subject’s consent, thereby covering both digital and physical distribution. Offenders could face up to two years in prison. In the same region, Scotland and Ireland are reviewing similar laws.

What makes the Kevin Bollaert development so noteworthy, though, is that it’s the first major example of a case like this where a perpetrator got real jail time. Enacting laws is one thing, but sending a message that these kind of heinous actions will not be tolerated under any circumstances has evaded the legal system up till this point. If other states use this ruling as the standard, it’s likely that we’ll see a lot more convictions in the future. 

Famous revenge porn troll Hunter Moore currently faces two years behind bars. While his fate once looked uncertain, the scales are tipping toward his conviction. 

There’s an profound cultural shift happening on the Internet, one that’s slowly beginning to push the world of revenge porn toward the outermost edges of the web. Though it took a bunch of famous people for us to care, last year’s Celebgate scandal went a long way to making people realize that these actions constitute sex crimes, rather than being a mere fringe segment of the larger porn landscape. Even Reddit is starting to crack down. The truth is out: No matter who’s involved, revenge porn is wrong and evil and should be illegal.

However, there is a long way to go before revenge porn disappears from the Internet altogether. With the increasing proliferation of social media technologies, as well as the sheer scope of the Web, fighting revenge porn continues to be an endless game of digital Whac-A-Mole. And as long as California’s revenge porn laws delineate which kinds of violations “count” under its purview, the legal road to justice will need better pavement.

But what’s really pushed cases like Bollaert’s and Moore’s over the edge is the extortion and hacking charges. Trying to prosecute revenge porn often leads to a debate over whether such restrictions conflict with the idea of an open Internet. In an article for VICE, Mary Emily O’Hara (who is also a contributor at the Daily Dot) spoke to an ACLU representative, Christopher Soghoian, who argued against revenge porn prosecutions.

“If you want Google and Twitter to police what people are posting, you’re creating the infrastructure for a surveillance state,” Soghoian said. “Once Google has the ability to recognize and remove any image on the internet, these are not the only requests that they receive. You’re going to have the government coming along and saying that they want something removed.”

This is also in part why the California law is so limited in scope. “The problem of revenge porn is embedded within a larger context of violence against women and the stigmatization of the naked body, which means the issue can be tackled from many other directions,” Wired’s Sarah Jeong argues. “We do not need to choose between the Internet and women, or between free speech and feminism.”

However, Soghoian’s argument about free speech and the slippery slope of the surveillance state is nonetheless ridiculous. Free speech stops being free speech as soon as it becomes harassment, which is why women Anita Sarkessian, Brianna Wu, and Zoe Quinn have worked to raise awareness of the numerous women targeted by the Gamergate movement. While it might seem like an open-and-shut case of free speech violation for those who advocate for an open Internet, the issue looks very different when you can’t go home because you fear being murdered.

Eighteen years is a lot of time. But while Bollaert’s case was particularly heinous, the ideal precedent here would establish that no matter whether the sentence is 20 years, two years, or six months, punishment (in the form of fines or jail time) should be a legal reality. That’s the most important message to send when it comes to revenge porn: Frowning upon it on a case by case basis isn’t going to cut it anymore. Massive, comprehensive action is essential. 

Photo via David Locke1/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.