A bill was introduced Thursday in the Texas House of Representatives that would make sending an unsolicited nude or sexual photograph a misdemeanor punishable with a fine up to $500. The state has a woman startup founder to thank for putting the spotlight on so-called cyberflashing. 

Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of Austin-based Bumble, has for the greater part of a year been on a mission to clean up not just her own online dating platform--Bumble already prohibits nudity, guns, pornography, drugs, and even racy-slash-lame mirror selfies--but also the internet at large.

While about half of all states have some law concerning posting nude images of other people, sometimes known as "revenge porn," and many have specific statutes governing what sort of photographs minors can send, particularly of one another, the sending of unsolicited naked pictures and the like is rarely policed--and it's rampant. (New York City tried last year to introduce a similar bill; it's in committee.)

"Right now, the internet is the Wild Wild West. It's ridiculous that there is no accountability online for things you are not allowed to do in the real world," said Wolfe Herd. "We are trying to make a law for indecent exposure, but for the digital realm."

She started with the state where she operates her business, which has an estimated $200 million in annual revenue. A few months ago, Wolfe Herd hired a lobbyist to help seed the idea. On Thursday, Texas Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Republican from Dallas, took up the issue and introduced a bill that would add to the state penal code an offense "of unlawful electronic transmission of sexually explicit visual material."

Texas House Bill 2789 would make sending, without express permission, photographs of sexual acts or intimate parts--even if clothed but highly visible through clothing--subject to being charged with a Class C misdemeanor. While that's not a jailable offense, it could lead to fines of up to $500 per incident. As written and if passed, the bill would take effect September 1, 2019.

Wolfe Herd hired lobbyist Gaylord Hughey after seeing the sorts of bad behavior her company's moderators have to deal with from users, and becoming frustrated with the larger social media companies' failure to "put their users' safety ahead of the bottom line." Hughey is a major Republican fundraiser from East Texas.

Wolfe Herd and other execs at Bumble have met with state and federal officials about policing unsolicited nude photos, and are hoping to take the issue national soon, perhaps by introducing a federal bill if all goes smoothly in Texas.

"We've spoken to folks on both the left and the right. This is a human issue, and it's affecting our youth especially," Wolfe Herd said.

She noted that as an executive with direct knowledge of how individuals behave on her platform--in spite of human and algorithmic moderation and official bans--she felt the need to take more action. On Bumble, users can find matches for dating, networking, or socializing, and once individuals are connected, they can message each other or send photographs.

"We are the ones with the data and watching the user behavior every day," Wolfe Herd said. "As long as there is still anyone on our product who is being mistreated, we have to do this. And others across the industry certainly aren't taking the action."

Published on: Mar 1, 2019