Sen. Al Franken is urging the FBI to more quickly and aggressively pursue and prosecute revenge porn, marking a rare burst of attention on a controversial topic about which Congress has typically been quiet.
In a letter to FBI Director James Comey, the Minnesota Democrat asked for more information about the agency’s authority to police against revenge porn, or the act of posting explicit sexual content online without the subject’s consent, often for purposes of humiliation and extortion. Its popularity has ballooned in recent years, and victims are disproportionately women.
“The digital age has brought many benefits for free speech, commercial activity, and the sharing of information, but new technologies can pose significant threats if bad actors are not held accountable to our nation’s laws,” Franken wrote in his letter.
“As technologies rapidly advance, it is our responsibility to ensure that our nation’s laws keep pace with those technologies. But it is also our responsibility to ensure that existing laws are strictly enforced.”
Franken—the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s privacy, technology and the law panel—asked Comey to explain all the legal authorities at the FBI’s disposal that can used to investigate and pursue revenge-porn cases. The privacy hawk also is requesting statistics on how those authorities, ranging from hacking and identity theft laws, have been used “to combat conduct of this nature.”
In addition, Franken wants information on any limitations within current law that may have impeded the FBI from carrying out investigations or making arrests. Franken, who asked for a response by May 8, is exploring whether legislation may be necessary to combat revenge porn, his office said.
Lawmakers in Congress have been reticent to weigh in directly on revenge porn, despite the growth of the industry in recent years. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, has for the past year been working on a bill that would criminalize revenge porn, but no bill has yet been introduced.
Open-Internet advocates generally oppose legislation that would expand criminal penalties to allow authorities to go after operators of revenge-porn websites. At the heart of the debate is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally protects websites such as YouTube from being legally liable for the third-party content. Exceptions are made for copyrighted material and content that violates certain federal criminal law, such as child porn, but websites still are able to avoid liability if they adopt reasonable takedown policies.
Absent federal action, several states have passed revenge porn laws of their own that make the practice a crime.
Franken applauded technology companies for becoming increasingly diligent in policing against revenge porn, citing recent steps taken by Twitter and reddit to make such content easier to flag and remove.
“I am hopeful that these recent developments and the increased public attention to the problem will lead to a more concentrated federal effort to combat this growing threat to Americans’ privacy and safety.”
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