New England wrestles porn law schizophrenia

Sexting OK. Geezer porn? Not so much


Have Vermont’s lawmakers, who are currently debating a law that would give immunity from prosecution to teenagers engaged in "sexting," been infected with a rare outbreak of common sense? Or are their best efforts still not good enough?

What, too, of Massachusetts legislators, who seem determined to turn the censorship dial in the other direction, making it a crime to look at porn featuring old people and the disabled?

The issue that Vermont is trying to get to grips with is that of teenage "sexting” - the practice of teenagers using digital technology to take lewd pictures of themselves and sending them to either friends or partners. The problem is that the number of such cases has been on the increase, and the legal response in many states has been to prosecute the picture-takers under legislation designed to deal with paedophiles.

The result is that a 14 or 15-year-old girl, whose only motivation – if she had thought about it at all – was to give her boyfriend a pleasant surprise, may now find herself branded a paedophile and added to a list of sex offenders. It goes without saying that the job prospects of such an individual are marred for life.

In an explanation that suggests he almost gets it, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said: "We don’t want to condone it. We need to educate. But there’s no public interest in labelling them as sex offenders for engaging in a perverted, albeit new, form of courtship."

He cited a case where a 14-year-old girl "flashes" her 18-year-old boyfriend while the two are in the same room, but the couple refrain from sexual contact. No crime would have occurred. Why, then, should either partner face child-porn charges if the girl snaps a nude picture of herself and sends it via cellphone to her boyfriend?

"The technology makes it the crime," Donovan said. "The act here is sending the photo. There’s no sexual act performed."

The real issue is whether the law needs to be involved at all. A seminal report on this issue in the UK – "Setting the Boundaries, 2000" – addresses the underlying question concisely: "We thought that it was inherently undesirable for young people to end up in court because they had been involved in mutually agreed sex with their 15 year old girlfriend or boyfriend. We wanted to find a way forward that recognised the undesirability of early sexual activity whilst offering help rather than punishment and a criminal record to those involved in it."

However, "if there was no law in place we could not deal effectively with situations which may not be serious enough to justify the more serious charges of rape or sexual assault. Every country in the EU has a law in place to deal with under-age sex, particularly where there is a complaint or exploitation."

Basically, rigid adherence to the Law causes difficulties (not least the fact that the majority of the UK adult population are probably guilty of committing an indecent assault at some point in their lives: its called "petting"). Over-codification of the law can create the same result.

The Vermont initiative is S.125 (pdf), a bill designed to expand the sex offender registry. It includes several provisions relating to sex-crime laws, prison policies and related topics, as well as a specific exception for individuals aged 13 to 18 whose only "crime" is to sext pictures of themselves to their partners. Whilst the Bill has already passed the Senate and the Judiciary Committee, it still has some way to go as critics worry about the power differential between the two ends of this age range, and the possibilities for exploitation.

Supporters believe they have now put in place sufficient safeguards. Is this commonsense legislation? Or would it have been even more commonsensical not to bring such prosecutions in the first place?

Head south from Vermont, and you come to Massachusetts. There, state legislator Kathi-Anne Reinstein, is backing a bill that will make it a crime to promote porn featuring elderly (over 60) or disabled people.

She explained her support for this move as "a no-brainer." Given the wave of criticism that this proposal has excited, that may be an unfortunate choice of words.

Clearly, exploitation happens, but the question in this case is whether this is once more over-broad legislation being brought in to play to deal with a problem that is mostly already dealt with by existing law.

Prominent civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate believes it is. He said the proposal "amounts to blatant censorship" and is "unconstitutional." He added: "We’ve already got (laws) against coercion. Why is that not adequate?" ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Sina Weibo, China's Twitter analog, reveals users' locations and IP addresses
    Sssshhhh! Nobody tell Elon Musk

    To the surprise of many users, China's largest Twitter-esque microblogging website, Sina Weibo, announced on Thursday that it will publish users' IP addresses and location data in an effort to keep their content honest and nice.

    In a post whose title translates as "IP Territorial Function Upgrade Announcement," the company stated it was taking the action to protect users' rights, and to make the service more pleasant to use.

    "In order to reduce undesirable behaviors such as impersonating parties, malicious rumors … as well as to ensure the authenticity and transparency of the disseminated content, the site launched the 'IP Territory' function in March this year," announced the social media platform's official account in Chinese.

    Continue reading
  • China's internet regulator squeezes famously freewheeling Reddit-alike
    App already banned, now it's getting very close supervision

    China's internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), has taken unusually strong action against a social network that has long been considered a thorn in the side of the nation's elites.

    The site in question is Douban: a Reddit-like affair that started life as a forum to discuss books, music, and film. In the years since its 2005 founding, the site has become known for attracting users who express opinions that China's government may well find displeasing. Commenters have, for example, generally been unafraid to share frank opinions of works considered to represent exceptional expressions of Chinese patriotism.

    That culture has sparked numerous controversies – most famously when users downvoted the film The Wandering Earth, based on a novel of the same name by Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin, whose works are considered seminal contributions to the genre in China. Liu's novel, The Three Body Problem, took the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, and is being adapted for Netflix by the showrunners who made Game of Thrones. Dissing Liu is therefore a big deal.

    Continue reading
  • Vulnerabilities and censorship tools among hot new features in Beijing's Olympics app
    Visitors have to install it 14 days prior to arrival in China until their departure

    Toronto-based Citizen Lab has warned that an app required by Beijing law to attend the 2022 Olympics contains vulnerabilities that can leak calls and data to malicious users, as well as the potential to subject the user to scanning for censored keywords.

    "To support the successful delivery of the Games and the safety of all Games participants, Beijing 2022 has developed the 'My 2022' application, which includes information provided by the Organising Committee, the City of Beijing and also general information," reads the International Olympic Committee's Beijing 2022 playbooks.

    The playbooks [PDF], which are documents that serve as info guides for Olympics-goers, instruct international visitors to download the app and use it to monitor health for 14 days prior to their departure for China.

    Continue reading
  • Iran's internet chokepoint caught fire, caused outages
    Digital karma at its finest

    A datacenter fire resulted in internet outages across Iran for around three hours last Friday, and it appears the cause was the nation's surveillance apparatus.

    The fire took place at a building belonging to the Telecom Infrastructure Company (TIC) – the only reseller of connectivity to Iranian internet service providers. The TIC applies content filters so that ISPs receive a feed cleansed of anything Iran's rulers don't want citizens to see – which means religious or political content that disagrees in any way with the views of the revolutionary government.

    According to Netblocks, the centralized gateway "allows Iranian authorities to control the flow of information to counter cyberthreats, but has also come under scrutiny for its use to limit the public's access to information and international services."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022