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Houlton police chief wants Maine to make revenge porn criminal

Posted Jan. 04, 2014, at 2:30 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 05, 2014, at 5:45 a.m.

It’s a story that’s been told way too often in other parts of the world. Recently, it hit home in Houlton.

The story was given a face nationwide by Holly Jacobs, a doctoral student in Florida. She had sent nude pictures of herself to a boyfriend in a long-distance relationship that later went sour. Holly says her ex posted the photos on one of a growing number of websites featuring “revenge porn,” images posted by ex-lovers or friends seeking to hold the pictured person up to ridicule.

She had no idea those photos were online until an anonymous email arrived. It said, “Someone is trying to make life very difficult for you.” The email included a link, and when she clicked it, Holly was redirected to a site showing those pictures.

After contacting the website hosts and demanding that the photos be taken down, the pictures went viral. Holly says they appeared on numerous sites, often with her email and workplace addresses included. Someone posed as Holly and posted a fake profile on a porn site. The hate mail and stalking became intense.

Holly has sued her ex, who says he did not post the pictures. He says his computer was hacked, the hacker was responsible for the unauthorized posting, and therefore he’s also a victim.

You might wonder, can’t laws against harassment be used against those who post revenge porn? If it’s a single posting, rather than repeated acts, the laws in most states say no. If you send the photo willingly — even with the expectation that it won’t be shared — that can be an “out” for the one who posts it. The federal Communications Decency Act shields website operators from legal action based on what others post.

Some sleazy operators demand money to have photos removed. Such ransom schemes only add injury to insult, with no guarantee the photos won’t appear on other websites.

Only New Jersey and California have laws on the books making revenge porn a crime. Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin have also considered criminalizing revenge porn, although none of those states has yet passed such a law.

In Houlton, police chief Butch Asselin is hoping Maine makes such acts criminal. “I think it’s a form of abuse,” Asselin told me last week. He thinks criminal rather than civil penalties will better deter revenge porn. “It’s a form of harassment. I think people are more likely to contact the police than contact an attorney to have this stopped.” Even though his review of one offending site showed photos of women “from all over” Maine, Asselin says he has not yet found much support among legislators for changes during the upcoming session.

Professor Danielle Citron, who studies privacy and cyber hate crimes, has written extensively on revenge porn. She’s calling for laws in all states to crack down on the practice while protecting the right to free speech. Citron wrote recently in Slate, “Certain categories of speech can be regulated because they bring about serious harm and make only the slightest contribution to free speech. Revenge porn comes under that exact heading.”

The takeaway for consumers is not to put potentially embarrassing pictures on the Internet; even if removed from the original posting, there’s no guarantee they won’t reappear somewhere else.

Getting embarrassing photos taken down from websites can be challenging. Help can be found at two websites we’re aware of, womenagainstrevengeporn.com and endrevengeporn.org.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

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