The push for a federal law to protect people from others who share private photos of them online without their consent is once again gaining a national spotlight. Last Thursday (October 31), Representative Katie Hill (D-CA) officially stepped down from her Congressional seat after right-wing blogs published photos of her without her consent. And Amber Heard, who has been vocal about navigating both the internet and life after being targeted in a mass photo hack in 2014, is once again helping push the conversation towards a bill that would ban such attacks on a federal level.
In an essay for the New York Times published Monday (November 4), the actor and activist opened up about her own experience, and the aftermath of the hack: "Complete strangers were consuming my most private moments without my permission. I faced a flood of unwanted propositions and harassing messages. The hack jeopardized my physical safety, my career, my sense of self-worth and every relationship I have had or will have," she wrote. "And because nothing disappears from the internet, the torment will never end."
Though websites worked to remove the images of Heard and the hundred-plus other celebrities who were targeted by the hack, the very nature of internet sharing and data saving means that people are likely still violating complete strangers on a daily level. And because laws against nonconsensual pornography, which is commonly known as "revenge porn," vary from state to state, taking legal action can be an arduous process that verges on the impossible. Even so, Heard acknowledges her own privilege as a white woman with enough financial stability and legal support to protect herself.
"These consequences of nonconsensual pornography intensify with the vulnerability of the target: Lower-income women, women of color and LGBTQ people are at even greater risk," she added, and urged people to take the issue as seriously as it should be, not least of all in order to prevent more people from being stalked or harassed, and to help remind people contemplating suicide or other self-harm because of such attacks that they are not alone, and that both help and solidarity are available to them.
Revenge porn is currently banned in 46 states and Washington, D.C., but activists and politicians alike are fighting to pass a law at the federal level that could better protect victims, and clarify the jurisdictional quagmire that people usually face if and when they do decide to press charges. "Especially when the offender has posted [nonconsensual pornography] under the guise of anonymity, we’ll have local police say, ‘Well, we don’t know where he was when he posted them,'" Carrie Goldberg, a survivor and lawyer who specializes in advocating for victims, told MTV News in July. "There’s often a lot of back and forth from local precincts about which one has the actual jurisdiction to prosecute it."
For her part, Heard is urging Congress to take action by passing the SHIELD Act, which has bipartisan support and which would make it illegal to "knowingly distribute private intimate visual depictions with reckless disregard for the individual’s lack of consent to the distribution." Introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Congressman John Katko (R-NY) in May of this year, the bill has yet to move forward in the House; Heard joined Speier in Washington, D.C., when the congresswoman unveiled the bill last spring. On Friday (November 1), Congressman Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) wrote a letter to the Judiciary Committee urging them to move forward with the bill. "Clear and concise federal regulation can complement and coordinate local efforts to stamp out [nonconsensual pornography," he wrote. "A unified federal statute is long overdue." MTV News has reached out to the Judiciary Committee for comment.
Malinowski wrote the letter in light of the harassment and threats that Hill was subjected to, but Heard is urging people to take action so that everyone — celebrities, politicians, and everyday civilians — feel like the law is finally on their side. "Every person, from the most famous to the most obscure, from the privileged to the poor, deserves privacy," she said in the Times. "Ending the violence of nonconsensual pornography should not be tied to fleeting cycles of outrage or cases involving celebrities, but enshrined in the law to protect the right of intimate privacy for all of us."
"As time goes on, the stigma around private photos will fade — and hopefully, the stigma around sharing someone else's photos without their consent becomes even more ferocious, and the legal and societal consequences will be taken seriously," Run For Something co-founder Amanda Litman wrote in an op-ed for MTV News. "The people who use a woman’s sexuality to manipulate and abuse her, holding her hostage to their whims — they should be scared."