California lawmakers approve lawsuits against ‘cyber flashers’

California residents who receive unsolicited sexually-orientated graphic material via text, email, app or other electronic means could sue the sender under a bill that state lawmakers have sent to Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday.

The bill targets so-called “cyber flashing,” where victims often receive such unwelcome surprises from strangers.

“Just as individuals experience sexual harassment and abuse in their physical and non-digital lives, there is a growing incidence of individuals being harassed by receiving unsolicited and sexually explicit images and videos, including from people they don’t know,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar. Curry when the Assembly approved the bill.

The Assembly passed the measure 76-0 on Thursday and the Senate sent the bill to Newsom on a 37-0 roll call on Monday. There was no registered opposition. Newsom is a Democrat and his office declined to comment on Tuesday whether he would sign the bill.

The most common recipients of unsolicited material are young women, Aguiar-Curry said. The Pew Research Center in a report last year on online harassment found that 33% of women under 35 had been sexually harassed online, three times more often than men.

In a 2017 report, the center said more than half of women between the ages of 18 and 29 had received unsolicited explicit images, as had 37% of men in the same age range.

The unsolicited material also arrived through various online dating apps and social media platforms, said Democratic Senator Connie Leyva, who requested the measure. Sometimes images were even transferred to devices via Apple’s AirDrop in public areas to unsuspecting recipients, Leyva said.

The bill would allow recipients to recover at least $1,500 and up to $30,000 from senders of obscene material over the age of 18, plus punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. They could also seek court orders to block such behavior in the future.

Proponents abandoned an earlier version that would have made cyber-flashing a crime punishable by a $750 fine for repeat offenders, after public defenders objected.

A Republican lawmaker who experimented with cyber-blinking herself originally sought a ban in 2019 at the request of dating app Bumble. The decision then came after Texas committed such acts.

The cyber-flashing bill is the latest in the California Legislature’s attempts to deter related harassment in the electronic age.

In 2013, state lawmakers banned “revenge pornography,” making it a crime to publicly distribute what were purported to be private intimate photos. And lawmakers in 2019 authorized lawsuits against those who distribute “deepfakes” or misrepresentations.