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Comedian John Oliver Tackles the Issue of Revenge Porn, Endorses Rep. Jackie Speier’s Controversial Bill on Resolving Problem

( [email protected] ) Jun 23, 2015 01:40 PM EDT
British comedian John Oliver turned the main focus of his Last Week Tonight show on Sunday to dangers some members of society, in particular women, face on the Internet. He also tackled the issue of revenge porn, which one member of Congress is trying to ban in a proposed bill that has drawn attention from activists in favor of free speech and an open Internet.
John Oliver tackles revenge porn on Sunday's episode of 'Last Week Tonight.' (Photo: Youtube)

British comedian John Oliver turned the main focus of his Last Week Tonight show on Sunday to dangers some members of society, in particular women, face on the Internet. He also tackled the issue of revenge porn, which one member of Congress is trying to ban in a proposed bill that has drawn attention from activists in favor of free speech and an open Internet.

In a segment that aired on HBO Sunday night, Oliver addressed the hostility from the Internet that can be downright dangerous at times, especially for women. According to Dustin Volz of National Journal, Oliver excoriated the practice of revenge porn, which is described as a method of posting sexually explicit content of a person online without consent; it is often used as an extortion or humiliation method.

"The Internet is an incredible tool," Oliver said. "But like most tools, it can be used as a weapon."

Oliver added that it was "insane" people could get away with posting revenge porn, noting that "the official response to victims ranges from offensive to ridiculous." He attacked the notion that victims of the practice should not have taken such pictures in the first place or gave their compromising photos to people who breached their trust.

"For a start, not taking pictures doesn't always work. Sometimes these photos come from hacked webcams, but regardless of that it doesn't matter how it happens," Oliver said, then setting up a joke related to victim-blaming. "Here's a fun game -- insert any other crime into those same sentences: 'Listen guys, if you don't want to get burgled don't live in a house!'"

According to Alanna Vagianos of the Huffington Post, there are few actions that people can take if they become a victim of revenge porn. However, major websites in the United States such as Reddit, Twitter and Google have either banned such content or remove it upon request.

"Forms of it are still legal in most parts of the country and only 23 states have laws against this type of online harassment," Vagianos wrote.

Oliver turned his attention to the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, which was written by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. According to National Journal, the bill, which is also endorsed by the British comedian, would make revenge porn a federal crime.

"Oliver's segments often hone in on an existing policy battle already brewing in Washington-whether it be net neutrality, government surveillance, patent reform, or the CIA's 'enhanced interrogation techniques,'" Volz wrote. "Sunday's revenge-porn tirade, however, is unique for finding Oliver jumping out ahead of an issue before it has gained much attention on Capitol Hill."


Speier, in a previous email sent by her office to the Gospel Herald on Friday, cited current federal law as one of the reasons behind her proposed legislation.

"We already punish the unauthorized disclosure of private information like medical records and financial identifiers," Speier said. "Why would personal images of one's naked body, given in confidence, be any different?"

Speier added that nothing currently exists in federal law "to stop revenge-porn websites," highlighting that the lack of legislation currently allows people to continue "uploading this content with impunity."

However, the National Journal reported that Speier could face stiff opposition from both Congress and activists in favor of an open Internet and free speech.

"Many open-Internet and free-speech activists, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union, generally oppose legislation that would expand criminal penalties against operators of revenge-porn sites," Volz wrote. "The concern primarily rests on fears about tampering with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects websites such as YouTube or Facebook from being legally liable for third-party content."

Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason argued that turning "bad things" such as revenge porn into federal crimes is a "lazy solution that ultimately fails us all, even when the actions in question are undoubtedly unsavory." She contended that Speier's bill was a "regulatory red herring" that would "make the posting or sharing of non-consensual pornography a federal crime."

"What is gained by bringing the heavy hand of federal prosecutors into this?" Brown wrote. "Victims can be just as well served by private or state efforts to thwart the spread of their images. And perpetrators can be rebuked just fine in state criminal or civil courts-without taking up space in our already woefully overcrowded federal prisons or wasting the resources of federal investigators."

Oliver reflected on the implications of endorsing such a bill on his program. He contended that Speier's legislation would make exceptions for "bona fide public interest" cases.

"I'm well aware that asking law enforcement to police free speech is a dicey proposition," Oliver said. "No one wants them trawling through message boards looking for violent language. But if a woman shows up to a police station saying someone threatened her life on Twitter, the answer 'What's Twitter?' is woefully inadequate."

Brown elaborated on current federal law surrounding content posted on the Internet.

"Federal law currently grants Internet service providers and online platforms legal immunity for most content posted by third parties, with exceptions for child pornography, copyright infringements, and-as of last month-sex-trafficking ads," Brown wrote. "Though the specifics of Speier's bill are not yet available, it seems it would add yet another category of offense for which sites such as Twitter, Google, or Reason could be criminally charged should someone use the site for those ends."

Brown warned that banning revenge porn under federal law would have serious consequences "not just for criminals but for also in terms of economic costs, resource allocation, and civil liberties." Senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke out against similar legislation Speier tried to push through Congress last year.

"Frequently, almost inevitably, statutes that try to do this type of thing overreach," Zimmerman said. "The concern is that they're going to shrink the universe of speech that's available online."


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