Deepfake porn is ruining women’s lives. Now the law may finally ban it

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“Every time you do it, you have to relive the thing over again.”

Helen Mort

Noelle Martin, who became an activist after discovering at 18 that she’d been victimized in a fake porn campaign, was subsequently targeted with a more elaborate deepfake porn campaign. The fact that faked and deepfake porn are inherently false also doesn’t quiet the volume of victim blaming.

This makes it challenging for politicians to understand the scope of the issue. Charlotte Laws, a longtime advocate who successfully passed legislation to ban revenge porn in California (the second state to do so), says victims’ stories are crucial to generating political will. When revenge porn was considered a non-issue, she’d bring files “two inches thick” with cases of victims who’d suffered tangible harm to their careers and personal lives, including her teenage daughter. When another teenager, Audrie Pott, killed herself in Northern California after nude pictures of her were posted without her consent, California legislators finally mobilized, setting off a wave of state laws across the country. “Those stories need to come out, because that’s what touches people,” Laws says. “That’s what makes people act.”

The technology is difficult to regulate, however, in part because there are many legitimate uses of deepfakes in entertainment, satire, and whistleblower protection. Already, previous deepfake bills introduced in the US Congress have received significant pushback for being too broad.

“It’s about reclaiming power”

Here’s the good news: the tide seems to be turning. The UK Law Commission, an academic body that reviews laws and recommends reforms when needed, is currently scrutinizing those related to online abuse. It plans to publish draft recommendations within the next few weeks for public consultation. Activists are hopeful this will finally expand the ban on revenge porn to include all forms of faked intimate images and videos. “I think it’s been a really thorough exercise,” says Mortimer, who has been consulting with the commission to share victims’ stories anonymously. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

If the UK moves forward with the ban, it would become the first country to do so, greasing the wheels for the US to follow suit. The US and UK often mirror each other because they have a similar common law structure, says Mania. And if the US takes action, then the EU will likely do so too.

Of course, there will still be major hurdles. A key difference between the US and UK is the First Amendment: one of the biggest obstacles to passing a federal revenge porn ban is that it’s been perceived to infringe on freedom of speech, says Rebecca Delfino, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University. Charlotte Laws echoes this assessment. She has now worked with members of the US Congress to introduce a bill to ban revenge porn three times, but all those efforts petered out amid First Amendment concerns.

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