The New York state Senate failed to vote on a revenge porn bill on Wednesday, and those advocating for the legislation blame Google and a tech lobbyist group for pressuring lawmakers to abandon it in the final hour.
The bill, if passed, would have criminalized the non-consensual distribution of intimate photos in the state, which is one of the last remaining holdout states to make revenge porn illegal.
“In New York state we have laws that protect financial information, medical information, corporate secrets,” victims’ rights attorney Carrie Goldberg told Gizmodo in an email. “Hell, it’s technically illegal to record at a Beyoncé concert and post that to the Internet, but yet there is no protection when it comes to sexual privacy.”
On Tuesday, the New York Assembly unanimously approved the bill. Wednesday was the last day for the Senate to vote before the end of the legislative session. With no movement on the bill on Wednesday, lawmakers will have to wait until January of next year for a vote. The bill has already been in the works for the past five years.
Goldberg attributes the bill’s last-minute failure to Google and the Internet Association (IA), a lobbying group representing major internet companies, including the search giant. She said that in the last five years since they proposed legislation, neither Google nor IA spoke up until just before a possible Senate vote. “And then our lawmakers just rolled over to them,” she said, adding that she’s confident New York will pass a revenge porn law, “but this scares me how watered down it will be.”
Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and a director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, began working on the bill with Assemblyman Edward Braunstein in 2013. In the years since, however, it has become so tangled that, she said, it would affect only a very narrow subset of perpetrators. Franks characterized the bill to Gizmodo as “one of the weakest in the country, thanks to the influential efforts of revenge porn apologists in the state legislature.” In her assessment, the legislation “pretty much gives a free pass to anyone running a revenge porn site or secretly trading naked photos of passed-out girls at fraternity parties.”
“Practically the only people who have anything to fear from this bill are those who not only publish naked photos of a person without permission, but also make a formal announcement that they are intending to harm that person by doing so,” Franks said.
Tech companies want to further modify the bill because “they hate the civil law language that allows judges to order them to remove content,” according to Goldberg. She said that they may compromise on amendments to the language in the bill over the next week, but that it sets an unsettling precedent to the lawmaking process.
Neither Google nor IA said specifically which provisions they oppose. Google did not comment on the legislation and instead pointed Gizmodo to a blog post from 2015 in which the company announced that it will “honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results.” A spokesperson also shared a link to the page detailing the process for having such images removed.
IA told Gizmodo that it wants to “rid the internet” of revenge porn and “will continue working with lawmakers” to do so but did not address issues related to the New York bill.
“Internet Association and our member companies share the goals of New York State policymakers who want to rid the internet of non-consensual sexual imagery,” John Olsen, the Northeast Region director at the Internet Association, said in a statement. “We already work to prevent bad actors from using platforms to who engage in this terrible activity. We will continue working with lawmakers who are committed to solving this problem.”
Tech companies are certainly making strides in combatting revenge porn on their platforms. Facebook introduced a new tool this year that lets users shares intimate photos with the social network, which will then block them from being uploaded to Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. And Google, along with most of the leading internet and social media services, does not allow nonconsensual pornography to be distributed on its platform. But lobbying against the New York State revenge porn bill indicates that these companies still want to flex control over legislation that will best serve these companies’ agendas.
Despite the weakness of the New York bill, Wednesday’s defeat was a blow to revenge porn victims and advocates against online abuse. But it was also an unnerving peek into the influence tech companies have on the legal system. While there’s still hope a modified version of the bill will pass, an arguably weaker piece of legislation and an unfortunate delay signals the weight powerful tech giants have on lawmakers.
It’s certainly not a groundbreaking revelation—last year, Google’s parent company Alphabet spent $18 million lobbying the federal government. It was the first tech company to lead individual company spending in three decades. Center for Responsive Politics research director Sarah Bryner told Gizmodo that Google had historically been in the top 15, indicating that the company’s movement up signals its “gradual creep.”
We’re going to continue to see tech companies’ grasps extend into the political arena, especially as their influence reaches far beyond just technical services. What’s troubling is when self-serving agendas throw a wrench in legislation intended to help some of the most vulnerable among us.