The internet has changed the world, facilitating instant access to vast amounts of information through a few clicks of the keyboard, enabling the creation of public personas, making it easier to find and connect with others, voice views, shop, and the list goes on.

However, the mechanism by which material can easily be published and disseminated has an insidious side – aiding those with sinister motives to almost-effortlessly destroy the lives of others.

One way this is done is through revenge porn, which is where a person shares sexual images or videos of another online, usually to demean and humiliate them.

An offshoot of this phenomenon is the deepfake video, which is where a real picture, video or sound bite is edited to make it appear a person is doing or saying something they’re not.

Deepfake videos

Deepfake videos typically use a machine learning technique known as generative adversarial network to seamlessly produce convincing but false or misleading content.

Initially, the software was primarily used to create videos of public figures such as celebrities and politicians engaging in conduct that is humorous, absurd or contradictory to what they would be expected to say or do.

However, it is estimated that 97% of new content takes the form of pornography, often revenge porn.

“You don’t need to be skilled anymore to make a deepfake,” explains Mary Anne Franks, president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and a law professor at the University of Miami.

“You can do it yourself by using readily accessible software.

Online developers are also able to take photos provided to them and generate this sort of content. This means that if a woman has ever had an ex-partner, employee that didn’t like them or any other person with a grudge, they could be at risk.

The difference between deepfakes and prior forms of revenge porn, is that a victim cannot merely refuse to share intimate videos or photos to prevent it. While many commentators previously tried to lay the blame on victims of revenge porn by saying ‘don’t take that picture or video’, this trite advice is no longer effective.

“You are lying to women and girls by telling them they can protect themselves by not having these kinds of photos, because it doesn’t matter anymore,” Dr Franks says. “Unlike the way people dismiss revenge porn, it could literally happen to anyone.”

Case study

In Australia, Noelle Martin has become the face of young women affected by such videos.

She was just an 18 year-old law student when, after doing a reverse Google Image search of herself out of curiosity, she found that her face had been photoshopped onto the bodies of porn actresses and sexualized images.

“I didn’t think I had any enemies,” Noelle says. “I’ve never taken, let alone shared nude photos. It was just a complete shock. I had no idea who’d done this.”

Ms Martin first tried to have the images taken off the internet, emailing the webmaster of every site they appeared on. This tactic became harder and harder as the images spread.

“I was so ashamed and humiliated and embarrassed and frightened and paranoid of what this meant for my future and my goals and dreams and my career,” she said. Eventually Ms Martin decided to speak out publically against this practice, hoping to pre-emptively protect her reputation.

Legal protection

Under new revenge porn laws, an update to the Crimes Act 1900 after the passing of the Crimes Amendment (intimate images) Bill, revenge porn is now a crime.

Section 91P of the Crimes Act 1900 now makes it an offence punishable by up to 3 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of $11,000 for a person to intentionally record an intimate image of another person without that other person’s consent, while knowing or being reckless to the fact that the other person did not consent.

Section 91Q of the Act prescribes the same maximum penalty for anyone who intentionally distributes an intimate image of another person without that other person’s consent, while knowing or being reckless to the fact that the other person did not consent.

And section 91R prescribes the same penalty for anyone who threatens to record or distribute an intimate image without consent, intending the other person to fear the threat would be carried out.

NSW courts are also empowered to issue rectification orders, which compel offenders “to take reasonable steps to recover, delete or destroy images taken or distributed without consent”. Disobeying this order could see an additional two years’ jail and $5500 fine issued.

Criminal laws can only do so much

Dr Franks, however, fears that legal protections can only do so much, calling for a discussion about changing the behaviour of those who commit revenge porn.

“If we don’t focus our energies on that obscene impulse to see women naked without their consent, we’re always going to be in this situation,” she says. “We’ve been watching women be sexually objectified without their consent for decades and we’ve done nothing about it.”

There’s an important lesson to be learnt here, according to Dr Franks. “Pay attention to who it hurts first and care about it before it has to happen to everybody else.”