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Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos’s allegations the National Enquirer sought to extort and "blackmail" him could increase pressure on Congress to pass legislation to criminalize sharing graphic photos without the subject’s consent.
Some federal lawmakers have been trying for years to pass legislation to crack down on nonconsensual pornography — the distribution of private, sexually explicit images without the permission of those featured and sometimes colloquially referred to by law enforcement as “revenge porn” or “sextortion.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) tells me in the coming months, she plans to reintroduce legislation cracking down on nonconsensual pornography, which was co-sponsored in 2017 by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
“The more people that are impacted by this vicious conduct will hopefully give us the traction we need to get some laws on the books that create the criminality of this,” Speier said.
Though the distribution of nonconsensual pornography is an increasingly common issue, the circumstances surrounding Bezos are highly unusual. Last week, the Amazon chief accused the Enquirer of threatening to publish graphic photos, including one he said an executive at the tabloid’s parent company referred to as a “below the belt selfie,” unless Bezos halted an investigation into how the company obtained private messages between him and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez.
Currently, 42 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books criminalizing the distribution of nonconsensual pornography. But the current patchwork of laws varies dramatically state by state, and some states have very weak protections for victims, said Mary Anne Franks, the president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a non-profit focused on fighting online abuse.
Speier said comprehensive federal legislation is needed given the damage this issue can cause to victims’ lives.
There’s no question that Bezos is in a rare position to be able to fight the release of such graphic material given his wealth and notoriety. But regular folks don’t have those advantages — even as ubiquitous smartphones and web cameras make it easier than ever to snap and potentially abuse intimate photos.
“He’s not at anybody else’s mercy,” said Carrie Goldberg, a victims' rights attorney in Brooklyn, New York. “He had the privilege of being able to call out his blackmailer. But I have a lot of clients who can’t.”
In the defiant Medium post where he published alleged emails from executives at Enquirer parent company American Media Inc., Bezos acknowledged his advantages. “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” Bezos wrote in a Medium post outlining the allegations.
One in eight social media users have been the targets of nonconsensual pornography, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. They are more likely to be female than male, according to Franks.
Technology companies themselves say they have been cracking down on the practice in recent years, and advocates said they worked with the companies to develop legislation they would support. Both Twitter and Facebook supported the legislation Speier co-sponsored, called the “ENOUGH Act,” when it was introduced in 2017.
But the legislation stalled amid opposition from civil liberties groups that raised concerns the bill could have a chilling effect on free speech. And they have opposed bills across the country with broad language limiting nonconsensual pornography because of the impact it could have on images that might have news value or be of historical interest.
Speier is confident she is in a better position to pass legislation during this session of Congress, especially with Democrats in control of the House.
“We have strong values around privacy rights as a party,” she told me.
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From Apple's Tim Cook:
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