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Florida bill on revenge porn sparks emotional debate

The Senate committee unanimously passed the bill, which includes penalties on the promotion of what are known as “deepfakes.”
Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Sabrina Javellana
Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Sabrina Javellana [ City of Hallandale Beach ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 9

TALLAHASSEE — Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Sabrina Javellana got up the courage to speak before a Senate committee Tuesday about her experience as a victim of a deepfake — images taken from her personal, social media account were doctored to appear as pornographic images and posted on an anonymous website.

She urged the committee to pass the bill to impose penalties on the activity as a cybercrime and she said she was prepared for questions, but she was not prepared for the reaction she got from Sen. Ileana Garcia, a Miami Republican who has recently deleted her social media accounts.

“It had never dawned on me how bad the situation is, but sometimes it’s caused by, I don’t know I guess, our journey for validation,” Garcia said.

She criticized parents for “very innocently” posting nude pictures of their children on social media and concluded: “I think that the responsibility starts with us, with you, and the content that you put out there. We expose too much of ourselves sometimes.”

For Sen. Lauren Book, the Plantation Democrat who sponsored Senate Bill 1798 in response to her images being manipulated and posted on websites, the comment stung.

“I didn’t put my images out there. I didn’t parade them on social media,” Book replied calmly. “They were stolen from me and my family, put out there, created, disseminated and are being sold. I’ll never get them back.”

Javellana said she was offended by Garcia’s comment.

“It did not make any sense. It was like victim shaming,” Javellana said.

The incident underscored the tensions that have emerged between lawmakers in a highly polarized legislative session characterized by bitter partisan feuds.

After the meeting, Garcia said her comments about social media were not intended in any way to refer to Book or Javellana and she is “no one to judge” their situation.

“I totally feel what she’s going through. That is a horrific situation to be in,” she said. “... As the chair of the Children, Family and (Elder Affairs Committee), and as someone who wanted to hear the bill, why would I be talking down to the victims?”

Hallandale Beach commissioner’s story

Javellana had told the committee that, last February, someone reached out to her to tell her they had found nude images of her on an online 4Chan thread.

“I thought that’s ridiculous,’’ she recalled. “This has to be fake. The pictures looked so real, but they were not. They were stolen images from my social media.”

Someone had “very strategically” photo-edited them to look like real nude images, she said.

Javellana, who was elected to the city commission in November 2018 at the age of 21, said she didn’t know what to do, so she approached her city’s police department, which referred her to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Cyber Crimes division. She signed affidavits, confirmed the photos were not real pictures, and investigators attempted to find the source. But they were stymied and told her the activity “is technically not illegal.”

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The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee unanimously passed the bill, which will make it a third-degree felony for anyone to knowingly obtain sexually explicit images from a phone or other digital device, create deepfakes, and promote them without consent of the victim. Deepfakes are images created using a person’s likeness and, while they often look authentic, they are not real.

It also establishes new standards for Florida’s revenge porn statute by criminalizing the theft of sexually explicit images and it increases existing civil damages against individuals who have willfully and knowingly chosen to inflict what Book calls “sexual terrorism.”

“Cyber trafficking is very real. It’s very scary, and it’s happening to people across the state of Florida every single day,” she told the committee. “Teachers, moms, social workers, nurses, teenagers — let’s give victims some hope and bad actors have reason to think twice.”

Book, who was sexually abused by her nanny for six years when she was a child and has since channeled the pain into a lifetime of helping other abuse survivors, has had her own encounter with deepfakes and cyber crime.

In November, as the Legislature was meeting in special session, a 19-year-old Plantation man was arrested on cyberstalking and extortion charges after he allegedly faked sexually explicit photos of Book and threatened to distribute them to media outlets.

Like Book, Javellana is a survivor of sexual assault.

“I was raped my freshman year of college,” she told the committee, noting that she is a recent graduate of Florida International University.

The deepfake harassment triggered her trauma, she said. She had planned to take the Florida teachers certification exam to become a teacher, but she worried what might happen if parents or students found the pictures online.

“Because they’re there, and I didn’t take the exam,” she told the committee. “So it’s had a lot of impact on my life, my mental health, my professional career.”

Garcia supports the bill

Garcia, the chairperson of the committee, said she supported the bill but, after having worked at the Department of Homeland Security on a human trafficking campaign, she has concluded that “the very rules and laws that we have to protect us actually counter us.”

“The issue’s with where do you draw the line between freedom of expression and pornography?” she said. “... Sometimes I see parents very innocently posing with their kids or putting nude pictures of their children on social media and I think to myself, wow. They have no clue as to what they’re exposing themselves to, what they are inviting in.

“But I think that the responsibility starts with us, with you and the content that you put out there. And then, the responsibility will continue with legislators like the ones on this committee today.”

Book responded that there are 29.3 million images of child pornography and child abuse material on the internet and yet Florida has only 20 cyber investigators for 21 million Floridians. She underscored the photos stolen from her and Javellana were not their fault.

“While I have been a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and all of you know my story, this is one that I never thought I would have to endure,” Book said. “And I am terribly devastated to have to be here to have this conversation.”

Javellana said in an interview that perhaps Garcia misunderstood the bill.

“Because if she really understood the bill, and what it means for survivors and victims of this, of revenge porn and deepfakes, she wouldn’t have said that,” she said. “It definitely didn’t feel very supportive of victimhood. It felt like it was blaming us for posting pictures online. Nobody asked for this, this invasion.”

Garcia responded: “I’m the chair of the committee. I had wanted the bill to be seen. So how would I not understand the bill?”

Garcia says she feels she’s a victim, too.

She said the incident, and the fact that Book and Javellana may have misinterpreted her comments, are another episode in a trying few weeks that have left her “always in fear as a Republican, Hispanic female in the Florida Senate of saying things because someone’s going to get offended.”

Garcia took down her Twitter and Facebook accounts after a January interview with CBS4′s Jim Defede in which she said that people should “move on” from racism. She said Tuesday that she decided to remove her social media because it was her way of “taking my own advice. They’re just things that you should just avoid.”

She said she is sensitive to the fact that Book and Javellana are victims, but added: “I also think that I am constantly a victim,” she said. “I hate to play that card in this world of politics, where every single thing that I say is being questioned and taken out of context.”

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