Twenty years after it entered the mainstream, the internet has delivered on its promise to make basically everything faster and more convenient: doing research, buying stuff, arranging to meet up with your “kayaking friends,” and harassing women until they consider suicide. On Last Week Tonight Sunday, John Oliver considered the heavily gendered crisis of online harassment, and the glaring lack of any legal framework for stopping it.
Oliver sets up the problem—which, to be explicit, involves men threatening women with sexual violence or death, and weaponizing nude photos to make their lives miserable—with clips from high-profile women who’ve lived through it: Gamergate targets Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, and feminist writer Amanda Hess (whose 2014 piece about how unbelievably useless law enforcement is when it comes to criminal online harassment is required reading).
And then he sets up the solution, or glaring lack thereof. Although harassment can be criminal, that often doesn’t matter in practice. Women who go to the police are often told to ignore their tormentors and “stay off the internet,” or given the brush-off by cops who don’t understand how social media works. (To understand what this is like, see Hess’s story and Jezebel writer Anna Merlan’s experience earlier this year.)
Only 23 states have passed measures against “revenge porn,” and there’s no federal law preventing harassers from sharing a target’s nude photos with the world. Women can claim copyright on photos they took themselves, but doing so requires sending copies of their nudes to Washington, D.C., thus exposing them to even more strangers.
As usual, Oliver doesn’t take us down a tunnel without at least a small sliver of light at the end of it—in this case, the Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2015, a federal anti-revenge-porn bill that’s due to be introduced in Congress.
Making sure that police don’t answer reports of violent threats on Twitter with “what’s Twitter?” would also be nice, but Oliver seems less hopeful on that front. At this point, a lot of law enforcement agencies haven’t even taken the first step: admitting they have a problem.