The Internet is arguably the most integral tool of our modern lives, but just like any other powerful tool, it can be used for good or it can be abused. On Sunday night's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver tackled online harassment and revenge porn, delving into the darker side of the world wide web. Besides exposing the various ways in which people ruin the Internet for others and the lack of legal protocol in dealing with this new kind of criminal activity, Oliver aptly points out how these issues almost exclusively affect women. As always, the witty Brit is precisely on point about a problem that is in desperate need of some solutions.
What better way to kick off his segment on the wonders of the Internet than to Rick Roll all of his viewers? Instead of showing a rare clip of an injured WWI soldier returning home to his pregnant wife, Oliver showed this instead. After gloating that he "got you so good," Oliver takes us back in time to the beginning of the Internet, proving that it's been blowing our minds for two decades now. But along with all of its marvels is a much darker aspect to the Internet, one filled with online harassment and abuse. Oliver knows that a certain degree of abuse is par for the course, like when viewers make fun of his physical appearance in the comments section of his YouTube page.
No, that's not the kind of harassment Oliver wants to highlight here. He's talking about the specific, targeted threats that make users fear for their safety.
And if you're thinking, "Oh, come on, that doesn't seem like that big a problem," then congratulations on your white penis. Because if you have one of those, you probably have a very different experience of the Internet.
That's because, for women, the Internet can be a very abusive place. Oliver plays a series of clips showing female gamers relaying their threats, which range from the bizarre:
I'm going to stick an egg in your vaginal canal and punch it.
To the downright terrifying, like death threats posted along with your address, which Brianna Wu experienced.
When someone posts your address online and they tell you they're gonna murder your whole family, you don't really feel safe staying at that location.
However, Oliver points out, this scary trend isn't limited to women in gaming.
It can potentially affect any woman who makes the mistake of having a thought in her mind and then vocalizing it online. For example, journalist Amanda Hess, who wrote "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet" for Pacific Standard, has also received disturbing death threats.
As if these tweets weren't troubling enough, the problem gets exacerbated by law enforcement's ineptitude in dealing with threats like this. When Hess tried to report her death threats to the police, the officer who answered her call didn't understand what Twitter was or whether the threats were even criminal.
If someone tried to drown you, you don't want the police saying, "I get the murder attempt, but what's this water thing you keep bringing up?"
Death threats and abusive comments aren't the only way in which women can suffer online. There's also the seedy world of revenge porn, which is when someone posts naked pictures of someone else online without their consent.
Oliver says that English professor Annmarie Chiarini was a victim of this loathsome practice when her ex-boyfriend sent private photos of her to her employer and her son's kindergarten teacher, and the next thing she knew, there was a profile of her on the revenge porn site xHamster.com. Along with the nude photos was her full name, the college where she teaches, the town where she lives, and a solicitation for sex. After this happened to her, Chiarini attempted suicide.
But, again, it gets worse. There's no federal law protecting women or anyone from revenge porn, and only 23 states have specific laws against it. But in the other 27 states?
It's one of those things that should be explicitly illegal, like ... returning from a semester abroad in Spain and insisting on calling it Barthelona.
So what happens if you're a victim and you live in one of those 27 states? Well, your options are limited. You can try pursuing stalking or harassment charges, or file a civil suit against the person posting the pictures, but you'll likely be met with more challenges than solutions. Chiarini's lawyers told her to "get better boyfriends" and charged her an arm and a leg for legal counsel. So then what?
Yup, you guessed it — it's about to get even worse.
A victim of revenge porn can ask the website to take the photos down, but only if you own the copyright to them. And in order to register for the copyright of your naked photos that were posted without your consent, you have to send pictures of your naked body to the copyright office to prove that it's really you in the photos you want removed. "Absurd" and "asinine" are staggering understatements here.
But that's just one challenge victims of revenge porn might face. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera that women are often a variety of unhelpful things, like it's their fault for sharing the pics, the photos belong to their ex now, and just turn off your computer and ignore it.
That mentality that blames the victim for getting herself involved in the situation, Oliver points out, is "hardwired" into our society, which he exhibits by showing how the media talks about revenge porn. Numerous anchors and pundits dismiss the issue by saying in so many words, "Don't take naked pictures of yourself, end of story."
Here's a fun game: insert any other crime into those same sentences. "Listen, guys, if you don't want to get burgled, don't live in a house."
Luckily, there is one bright spot in this story. There are plans to introduce new legislation against revenge porn, called the Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2015, that aims to protect victims without sacrificing Freedom of Speech. And Oliver then introduces an exclusive video of one representative's "genuinely moving speech" on the legislation:
I got you again!
All jokes aside, if passed, the law would make it illegal to post revenge porn. However, there would be exceptions "in the bona fide public interest." For example, if a public figure like Anthony Weiner texted his penis to someone, we could still read about that story.
Besides new legislation, companies are also cracking down on revenge porn. Reddit and Twitter have banned it from their sites, and Google announced just last Friday that it would remove revenge porn photos from its search results upon request.
And for Google to do that is not nothing because we all know not even vindictive perverts will use Bing.
As for the rest of us, Oliver says, it's our responsibility to help maintain the Internet as a safe place, to keep it as an integral tool in life, rather than a weapon.
Nowadays you can click a button and buy a book, meet your spouse, and ruin someone's life. Sometimes those last two are the same click.
To illustrate how the Internet has been hijacked and perverted by online harassers and revenge porn enthusiasts, Oliver shows what an early ad for the Internet would be like if it reflected how it's used today.
Watch the entire segment below.
Images: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/YouTube