Combating `sextortion’ in the digital age

by Trang Chu Minh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 25 July 2017 09:32 GMT

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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Utah, Arkansas and Alabama have enacted the first pieces of legislation in the US that criminalise `sextortion’, a form of extortion where the currency of the bribe is sex or sexual images. The new laws signal a significant victory for Legal Momentum, a legal advocacy group for women, international law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s pro bono legal programme, who together produced a report in 2016 outlining the need for legal reform to tackle this heinous crime.

The Arkansas bill became law on 29 March 2017, following closely after Utah’s legislation, which was signed by the governor on 25 March, while Alabama’s statute was enacted on 26 May.

The FBI has called `sextortion’ one of the fastest-growing crimes against children. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 78 percent of reported victims are girls, with an average age of 15. More than one-fifth of reported incidents involved multiple victims.

`Sextortion’ is a pervasive yet under-reported form of corruption involving sexual exploitation: judges demanding sex in exchange for visas or favorable custody decisions, landlords threatening to evict tenants unless they have sex with them, supervisors making job security contingent on sex, and principals conditioning student graduation on sex. Today the crime has become digital, and women as well as children are especially vulnerable.

Sexual predators often pose as teenagers and use social media, mobile apps and other online communications platforms to groom, entice or coerce a victim—frequently a teenage girl—into providing sexually explicit personal images or videos. Once a `sextorter’ obtains a single sexually explicit image, they often threaten victims by demanding more images or illegal sexual acts.  

Victims are told if they don’t comply, their images will be released to friends, family members, teachers, employers, and the world at large, via the Internet. If they resist, their reputations could be ruined, or their loved ones and livelihoods could be targeted.

But the devastating impact of `sextortion’ goes well beyond the immediate sexual and emotional abuse suffered by children. Victims often drop out of school, fall into severe depression and resort to self-harm. According to analysis by the FBI in 2015, more than one-fourth of cases had at least one ‘sextortion’ victim committing or attempting suicide. Because technology evolves so quickly, until recently, current criminal laws did not address this form of sexual violence.

“Sextortion is a new word for an old concept: corruption,” says Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO and TrustLaw Founder Monique Villa. “The way we connect, interact and share information and personal data has been radically reshaped by technology, but the laws have not kept pace to ensure powerless victims are not targeted by unscrupulous criminals who can hide behind a computer or cell phone. I commend the moves made by Utah, Arkansas and Alabama to tackle this growing crime, and urge other states to follow suit.”

In 2015, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in collaboration with the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), launched a study that outlined laws and practices relating to sexual exploitation in nine jurisdictions, spanning six continents. The 2016 report was borne out of that research, and takes a more specific look at how `sextortion’ has evolved in the US over the past decade.

The report shines a spotlight on the growing threat of `sextortion’, and highlights how easy it is to infiltrate computers to record and steal sexual imagery. According to documents leaked in May 2017, Facebook had to assess a staggering 54,000 potential cases of revenge pornography and `sextortion’ in just a single month. Yet its ambiguous moderator guidelines often allow authors of abusive sexual content to escape accountability unscathed. While social media giants should undoubtedly take greater responsibility in policing content shared on their platforms, there is also a growing need to create adequate legal solutions to combat `sextortion’.

The report provides pathways for prosecutors to use existing statutes to bring perpetrators to justice, and suggests concrete revisions to these statutes to ensure that no predator escapes punishment.

Following the publication of the research, Legal Momentum and Orrick embarked on a nation-wide advocacy campaign to update state laws to take into account `sextortion’.  Within a few months, Utah, Arkansas and Alabama passed the first pieces of legislation in the US which make `sextortion’ a punishable crime.   

“Our 2016 report is a powerful tool to raise public awareness about sextortion, and to support legislators, advocates and the public in Utah, Arkansas and other states to end online sexual violence targeting children, teens and women”, said Penny Venetis, Legal Momentum’s Executive Vice President and Legal Director. “We are working with other states to follow Arkansas, Utah and Alabama’s example, so that prosecutors and law enforcement throughout the United States have the tools they need to protect women and children, and to hold perpetrators accountable.”

“We are extremely proud to have worked with Utah, Arkansas and Alabama to pass this historic legislation, which provides crucial protections to the vulnerable victims of sextortion,” said Ann Patterson, partner at Orrick who leads the firm’s pro bono efforts to secure such legislation around the country. “We look forward to working with other states to enact similar legislation, and are confident we will see Legislatures move in this direction across the United States.”

This legislative effort and the 2016 report are only two elements of Legal Momentum’s partnership with Orrick and the Thomson Reuters Foundation to fight `sextortion’.  In February 2017, Legal Momentum and Orrick filed the first-ever civil lawsuit in state court seeking money damages for sextortion. The plaintiff, a US Marine Corps veteran, was threatened with exposure of intimate images that had been stolen from her computer by her landlord. 

The project has been shortlisted for the 2017 TrustLaw Impact Award. 

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