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John Oliver Slams Revenge Porn As Federal Legislation Nears

Evan Agostini/AP

John Oliver unleashed his viral fury Sunday night against Internet users who harass women, making a call to support forthcoming federal legislation that would criminalize the growing industry of "revenge porn."

The comedian and host of HBO's Last Week Tonight dedicated the majority of his main segment to condemning revenge porn—the practice of posting nude photos or explicit sexual content of a person online without the subject's consent, often in order to extort and humiliate someone, such as a former romantic partner. Websites capitalizing on the concept have ballooned in recent years, and victims are disproportionately women.

"The Internet is an incredible tool," Oliver said. "But like most tools, it can be used as a weapon." That people can get away with revenge porn "is insane," he added, and "the official response to victims ranges from offensive to ridiculous."

Oliver specifically endorsed the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, a long-stalled measure authored by Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, that will be introduced "in the coming weeks," her office said Friday. The bill, which would make revenge porn a federal crime, comes as websites like Twitter and reddit have moved to tighten rules against posting revenge porn. On Friday, Google announced that it would honor requests to remove nude or sexually explicit images posted without consent from its search results.

Oliver's segments often hone in on an existing policy battle already brewing in Washington—whether it be net neutralitygovernment surveillancepatent reform or the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques." 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.

Despite its growth as an industry in recent years, Congress has been reticent to wrestle with revenge porn, instead leaving the issue largely to the states. More than twenty states, including New York, California and Arizona, have enacted a patchwork of laws criminalizing revenge porn.

Speier said she believes that recent actions by Google and other Internet companies are a good step in the right direction—but that there is "still a gaping hole in the law that leaves victims with little or no legal recourse."

"Without legislation, there's nothing to stop revenge porn websites and nothing preventing people from uploading this content with impunity," Speier said in a statement Friday. "We already punish the unauthorized disclosure of private information like medical records and financial identifiers. Why should personal images of one's naked body, given in confidence, be any different?"

Speier will have to overcome stiff opposition in order to pass any kind of federal restriction on revenge porn. 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. 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.

Exceptions are made for copyrighted material and content that violates certain federal criminal laws, such as child porn, but websites still are able to avoid liability if they adopt reasonable takedown policies. Speier's legislation would essentially seek to add revenge porn to the list of exceptions.

"I'm well aware that asking law enforcement to police free speech is a dicey proposition," Oliver said Sunday. "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."

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