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Make cyber-sexual assault a felony [Commentary]

In 2010, When Annmarie Chiarini's ex-boyfriend posted 88 naked pictures of her on a website designed to shame, humiliate and destroy lives, she went straight to the police. Certain her ex committed a crime, she was shocked when the officers smirked sheepishly at the thought of this young woman's naked pictures on the Internet while informing her no law had been broken.

Meanwhile, Ms. Chiarini's job at a local college, her reputation as a responsible, upstanding citizen, her relationships with her children, family and friends and her mental stability hung precariously in the balance. In fact, at her lowest point, Ms. Chiarini attempted to take her own life.

She turned her trauma into determined advocacy. After success in amending Maryland's existing cyber-harassment law, which doesn't address posting on so-called shaming sites, she joined the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a coalition of courageous men and women devoted to ending this type of cyber sexual harassment, often referred to as "revenge porn."

But because so many other victims have found their lives in ruins, I have joined the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative; Danielle Keats Citron, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and international expert on Internet privacy law; and thousands of victim advocates to write and introduce the nation's toughest law criminalizing this despicable form of online sexual assault.

Detailing its dangers, Professor Citron summarized, "Revenge porn is a harmful form of bigotry and sexual harassment. It exposes victims' sexuality in humiliating ways. Their naked photos appear on ... shaming sites. Once their naked images are exposed, anonymous strangers send e-mail messages that threaten rape or worse."

And once those images are out there, they are nearly impossible to remove; some websites have charged upward of $5,000 to remove just one picture while most images remain on the Internet, easily accessible with a quick Google search, forever.

On the issue of why revenge porn must be a crime, Professor Citron said "revenge porn and its ilk raise the risk of offline stalking and physical attack. Fear can be profound. Victims don't feel safe leaving their homes." For assaults with consequences this devastating, our society asks for jail time to punish and to deter — cyber sexual assaults are no different.

To those who deny the scourge of cyber sexual harassment, a recent McAfee Security survey found that 50 percent of respondents had shared intimate photographs of themselves with a loved one or a friend and that one in 10 people has had an ex threaten to expose these photos on the Internet. Of those threats, 60 percent have been carried out. This means that there is a good chance you or your child will someday find your naked image posted on the Internet with little or no possible recourse. No one deserves to suffer this fate, and it is unacceptable to just throw up our hands and say there's nothing we can do about it because we can't regulate the Internet.

I have a 2-year-old daughter, and before she began to walk, she already learned to listen to music on my wife's iPod and communicate with her grandparents over Skype. This is the new world our children and families are living in and wired into. In this rapidly changing environment, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend cyber bullying, online identity theft and now revenge porn are not taking place with intentional malice and technological ease every day.

Neither my daughter nor yours should have to live in fear that a moment's lapse in judgment and a click of the mouse will cost her a job, her reputation or lead to psychological anguish or an actual assault. Plastering naked images of another on the Internet without that person's consent is a crime, and the perpetrator should pay.

In the 21st century, it is not acceptable to ruin someone's life and then cower behind the anonymity of the Internet. This law will find these sexual predators, bring them to justice and make everyone think twice before hitting that "send" button.

Jon S. Cardin is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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