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A new bill intended to combat online sexual trafficking and exploitation will begin making its way through the California state Senate.
On Tuesday, Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) introduced legislation that would give victims, including children and their parents, the ability to file civil causes of action against the distributors of naked or sexual photographs and videos — the first bill of its kind in the nation.
Cortese, who worked on the bill with the California Women’s Law Center, local advocates and sexual assault survivors, said the goal is to end “human trafficking in the digital age.”
Essentially, that means dismantling the billion-dollar industry that profits off the distribution of sexual abuse, assault and rape content and preventing individuals and entities from sharing such content.
“Sex trafficking, with unwilling victims of all ages, including children, is a major issue in our state,” Cortese said at a news conference. “And the internet is its biggest platform.”
Last year, 69 million videos and other forms of sexual abuse material found online were reported to United States authorities, Cortese noted.
“The fact is that we simply haven’t updated our laws to include penalties that match the timeline and financial scale of our realities in the digital age.”Betsy Butler, California Women’s Law Center
And according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, California had by far the most reported human trafficking cases.
Oftentimes, those victims of sexual assault are “repeatedly assaulted” by having sexual videos or photos of them distributed on sites like Pornhub, which is estimated to attract more than 3.5 billion visits each year and almost 3 billion in advertisement impressions, according to online advertising service Traffic Junky.
“Websites are fueling and profiting off of this abuse, with content receiving billions of advertisement impressions, each day,” Cortese said. “That is what this bill is getting after.”
It is not only those sexually trafficked or raped that fall victim to online sex trafficking. Cortese underscored that even videos or photos that were taken consensually but distributed without someone’s consent are a form of abuse and sexual assault.
With the new bill, SB 435, victims of online sexual assault would be able to bring civil action for damages against any person or entity that “makes, obtains, reuploads or distributes in any form, including electronic distribution, non-consensual, sexually explicit content.”
Electronic distribution means “transmission or sharing by electronic means including, but not limited to, transmission, posting for public view, or sharing via an internet website, platform, application, peer-to-peer file sharing, or other online mechanism,” Cortese said.
In addition to damages awarded to the victim, the offender would be legally required to pay $100,000 for every two hours of online exposure after given notice to take the content down. The amount is doubled to $200,000 every two hours if the victim is a minor under the age of 18.
Any online service that is cited would also have to disclose this violation publicly on its website.
Remedies currently lacking
Ruth Silver Taube, a Commissioner on the Santa Clara County Human Trafficking Commission said this new law would provide “remedies to survivors of online sex trafficking that currently do not exist under California law.”
“This law provides a strong incentive to take the material down, rather than foot dragging as is customary while the victim who was exploited against their will, will continue to suffer,” Taube said.
The current civil laws in place, instead create a “blanket exception” for material that has already been distributed by anyone else at any time, giving victims very little recourse to get content removed, former Assemblymember Betsy Butler said.
“The fact is that we simply haven’t updated our laws to include penalties that match the timeline and financial scale of our realities in the digital age,” said Butler, who is now the Executive Director of the California Women’s Law Center.
Cortese noted that for many victims, online sexual assault “can be an issue of life or death for the victim.”
Sheila Pott said she knows this first-hand. Her daughter Audrie Pott committed suicide in 2012, eight days after she was sexually assaulted and nude photos of her were posted online.
Audrie was a 15-year-old student at Saratoga High School at the time.
“Sharing nude images without consent is one of the cruelest forms of digital torture, and because this happened to Audrie we know the pain it causes,” Pott said. “This bill is very thoughtfully put together, and if passed, will offer a powerful tool for victims of this terrible crime.”
Cortese said he anticipates there may be some logistical concerns or suggestions to make the law stronger but would be taken aback if there was any legitimate opposition to such a bill.
“As with any kind of legislation if there are practical details, for example on how to best put people on notice, we’re all ears. But we can’t let this continue,” Cortese said. “I think people who have any kind of have a moral compass whatsoever, representing both individuals and the corporate world, are going to come forward and (agree).”