Home Politics John Aronno: On Politics Alaska Ahead of the Curve on Sexual Privacy Laws

Alaska Ahead of the Curve on Sexual Privacy Laws

Photo credit: Yuri Samoilov, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo credit: Yuri Samoilov, Creative Commons Licensing.

At the beginning of the month, the Internet was taken by surprise when dozens of nude pictures of over 100 female celebrities were leaked online. All of a sudden, hackers offered much more intimate glimpses of the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, and Kate Upton, than the stars would have preferred.

This wasn’t the result of leaked text messages or tweets. The photos were not mistakenly sent to the wrong user, or misplaced in the hands of a jilted lover. The private images were stored in password protected personal accounts, most notably Apple’s iCloud system. The photos were stolen and published without consent — and the denizens of the Internet then shared them ad infinitum. According to The Daily Dot, in the few days the photos were available online, their spread had become an economic opportunity for the hacker community; anonymous leakers released additional hacked photos in exchange for Bitcoin donations.

The incident is now the subject of an FBI investigation.

While the targets of this particular theft were celebrities, the crime should cause great concern for the general public, who more and more entrusts personal information to cloud-based technologies. The act of stealing sexually explicit photos — often called “revenge porn” — has been steadily on the rise over the past decade, and is far from limited to the ranks of celebrities. Numerous websites exist solely as bulletin boards for people to post non-consensual, sexually explicit photos.

Such sites operate within a loophole in the federal law aimed at regulating pornographic material online, the Communications Decency Act, which holds that websites can’t be held liable for content submitted by third parties.

Writing for the Brookings Institute last week, Miami School of Law Professor Mary Anne Franks called for state and federal legislation to beef up sexual privacy laws, noting the shortcomings of federal regulations:

[P]eople gleefully sharing these images have little reason to restrain themselves, despite the fact that every disclosure of these images harms the victims. It also means that online sites and forums can openly dedicate themselves to the solicitation and celebration of non-consensual pornography, turning sexual humiliation into an industry. Every state criminalizes individual acts of voyeurism, and yet crowdsourced voyeurism is beyond the law. This must change.

Surprisingly, Alaska is ahead of the curve. In 2003, State Senator Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage) sponsored a bill to make the publication or distribution of electronic or printed photographs, pictures, or films that show nudity and/or include sexual acts a class B misdemeanor, subjecting offenders to a maximum jail time of 90 days. If the crime involves a minor, the charge is bumped up to a class A misdemeanor, with a one year maximum prison sentence. The measure was passed unanimously in both houses and signed into law by Governor Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Alaska was one of only three states (along with Texas and New Jersey) to have such a law on the books before 2013. Since then, thirteen additional states have signed on.

This past session, Meyer added further protections with Senate Bill 128. The new law targets “cyberbullying” of minors, allowing online harassment to be prosecuted outside of the school system as a class B misdemeanor.

The National Crime Victimization Survey of 2011 found that nine percent of students nationwide report being cyber-bullied (up from 6.2 percent in 2009), putting them at increased risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and poor school adjustment. Victims of bullying also are between two and nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to a Yale University study.

“These instances included using email, text, and social media sites to humiliate, intimidate, and harass a child to the point of severe emotional and mental despair,” Meyer told me via email. “I wanted Alaska to be proactive in passing laws to allow punishment of this type of behavior before it lead to a tragic event here in the state.”

Meyer said that he recognized the challenge the legislature faced when considering the measure; that often bills regulating internet activity can be season as “over-criminalizing.” That sentiment is precisely what led to the loophole in federal law; the American Civil Liberties Union fought an effort to remove the protections for third parties by arguing that if the law “is stripped of its protections, it wouldn’t take long for the vibrant culture of free speech to disappear from the web.”

The “vibrant culture,” in this case, being the legality of a private citizen to post naked pictures of you online, no consent required.

“The only true test as to whether or not our laws are adequate, unfortunately, is for a prosecution and conviction to occur,” Meyer said.

As the leaked celebrity photos foreshadow, that day likely isn’t too far off. Having existing sexual privacy laws on the books gives Alaskans a measure of security and redress that many states in the Lower 48 do not enjoy. In a state that puts so much weight on the value of privacy, it’s good to know that the protection of that privacy is taking note of changing technologies which often trade convenience for risk. With these laws in place, we’re a little less vulnerable.