United States: Keeping Privates Private: The Legal Landscape Of Revenge Porn

Mark Zuckerberg famously stated that the purpose of Facebook is "to make the world more open and connected," and indeed Facebook, other social media outlets and the Internet in general have brought worldwide openness and connection-through-sharing to levels unparalleled at any point in history. With this new universe of limitless dissemination often comes the stripping away of privacy, and "revenge porn," a relatively new but seemingly inevitable outgrowth of social media and the Internet, is stripping away privacy in the most literal sense.

Defining "revenge porn" is relatively simple and does not require any sort of "I know it when I see it" test; in short, "revenge porn" is the act of publicly disseminating nude photographs or videos of somebody without her or his consent. The name derives from the fact that the act is most often associated with spurned men posting photos on the Internet that were received from their ex-girlfriends in confidence as "revenge" for breaking up with them or otherwise hurting them. But recently, more and more photos are popping up that were either taken without the victim's consent or that were obtained by hacking a victim's email or computer.  Revenge porn website operators invite users to post nude photos of their exes (or of anybody else, for that matter) and often allow the community to comment on the photos (which in many cases results in a barrage of expletives aimed at shaming the victim).

Recently, operators of revenge porn sites have taken attacks to a higher level, inviting visitors to post victims' full names, addresses, phone numbers, places of work and other items of personal information alongside their photographs.  In some cases, victims' faces are realistically superimposed onto nude photographs of pornographic actors or actresses in order to achieve the same effect when no actual nude photographs of the victims can be found. Victims of revenge porn often suffer significant harm, facing humiliation, loss of reputation, and in some cases, loss of employment. Due to the all-pervasive and permanent nature of the Internet, once a victim's photo is posted online, it is very difficult for him or her to have it completely removed.  Operators of revenge porn sites have sometimes capitalized on this fact by offering to remove the photos for a fee (or running advertisements for services that will do so).

Operators of revenge porn websites often shield themselves behind the First Amendment, and website operators have been known to employ sophisticated legal teams in order to protect themselves from civil and criminal liability and to maintain operation of their sites.  Nonetheless, the law provides several avenues for victims seeking to have photos removed from websites, obtain restitution and, to the extent damage has not already been done, clear their names.

Self-Help as a First Step

Although the Internet is the tool used to disseminate revenge porn, it also now provides resources for victims who seek help in dealing with this invasion of privacy.  The website WomenAgainstRevengePorn.com contains a step-by-step guide to getting nude photos removed from the Internet, as well as contact information for lawyers and other advocates for revenge porn victims in various states.

According to WomenAgainstRevengePorn.com, the first step to mitigating the damage of revenge porn is to establish more of an online presence.  Although this may be counterintuitive, it is actually a logical approach: one of the biggest harms of revenge porn is that a friend, family member or employer will find nude photos when entering the victim's name into a search engine.  By opening Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram accounts under his or her name, a victim may be able to move the revenge porn photo to a lower position in search engine results.

Because nude photos tend to be spread quickly on the Internet, WomenAgainstRevengePorn.com also encourages victims to use Google's reverse image search engine to find all websites where the victim's photos may appear.  After taking careful note of all locations where such photos appear, victims are encouraged to file police reports.

Copyright Infringement

The next step in removing photos recommended by WomenAgainstRevengePorn.com, which has been successful in a number of cases (including as described in this particularly fascinating account), is for the victim to take advantage of U.S. copyright law.  Under U.S. copyright law, a person who takes a nude photo of herself or himself is the owner of the copyright in that photo and thus can enjoin others from reproducing or displaying the photo.  A victim may, therefore, submit a "takedown" notice under Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to the webmasters and web hosts of the offending sites as well as to search engine sites where the nude photo may come up as a search result (Google even provides step-by-step instructions).  Because the DMCA provides an infringement safe harbor to web service providers who comply with the statute's requirements, many search engines and web hosts will remove revenge porn photos upon receipt of a takedown notice.  If the photo is not removed, the victim may consider registering his or her copyrights in the photos and suing the web host or search engine in federal court, although this may not always be a desirable approach for the reasons described below.

Using copyright law to fight revenge porn, while effective to an extent, is not without problems, including the following:

  • It only works if the victim owns the copyright.  While many revenge porn photos are taken by the victim himself or herself and then posted without his or her consent, this is not always the case. In situations where another person took the photo –e.g., if the victim's girlfriend or boyfriend took it, or if the photo was taken secretly without the victim's consent–the victim would not be the copyright owner and thus could not use copyright law to force removal.
  • Website operators may reject copyright infringement claims and refuse to remove the offending photos.  Although a victim could move forward with litigation to obtain an injunction and possibly monetary damages, revenge porn operators are often confident that (a) the costs of litigation are too expensive for many revenge porn victims and (b) many revenge porn victims fear making their situations even more public by bringing suit. To mitigate the risk of such increased exposure, victims can attempt to bring suit pseudonymously, and there are resources on the Internet devoted to assisting with this.
  • Even if a website operator removes the photos of one victim who follows all of the necessary steps to enforce his or her copyright, the website will still display photos of hundreds, if not thousands of other victims.

Thus, copyright law is not always enough to effectively combat revenge porn.

Defamation, Privacy and Other Related Laws

Several victims of revenge porn, as well as people who have had other personal information of a sexual or otherwise inappropriate nature published on revenge porn websites, have launched civil lawsuits under theories such as defamation, invasion of privacy, and identity theft.  As we have reported previously, one high profile example of this came in July 2013, when a federal judge in Kentucky allowed a defamation lawsuit against the operator of a site called TheDirty.com to proceed and a jury awarded the victim (about whom the site had published false accounts of her sexual history) $338,000.

Prosecutors have also taken advantage of the fact that the operators of these sites often engage in criminal activity in order to obtain and capitalize on nude photos.  On January 23, 2014, Hunter Moore, known by some as the "most hated man on the Internet" and probably the most famous and successful revenge pornographer to date, was arrested on charges of illegally accessing personal email accounts in order to obtain photos for his revenge porn site.  Further, California Attorney General Kamala Harris recently announced the arrest of a revenge porn site operator for 31 accounts of conspiracy, identify theft and extortion based on the unauthorized posting of nude photos.  Depending on the outcome of these cases and civil cases such as that against TheDirty.com (and their inevitable appeals), revenge porn victims may soon have additional avenues of legal recourse.

The most commonly used defense of website operators against charges like those discussed above is 47 U.S. Code § 230(c)(1), the provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) that states: "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."  Revenge porn website operators have cited this statutory provision to argue that they are not responsible for the images they host if the content was provided by other users.  However, § 230 might not provide a defense in all cases.  First, § 230 does not grant a website operator immunity from federal criminal laws, intellectual property laws or communications privacy laws (such as the laws that Hunter Moore allegedly violated).  For example, if a website operator uses a photo of a victim submitted by a third party to extort money from the victim, § 230 would not provide any defense. Second, § 230 may not protect a website operator if the site contributes to the creation of the offending content.  In the case against TheDirty.com referenced above, the court rejected the operator's § 230 defense, pointing out that the operator, who edited and added commentary to the submitted offending content, "did far more than just allow postings by others or engage in editorial or self-regulatory functions." It is noteworthy, however, that the website operator of TheDirty.com has filed an appeal in the Sixth Circuit and that TheDirty.com did prevail in a 2012 case based on similar facts).

State Anti-Revenge Porn Laws

Another approach to deterring website operators from posting unauthorized nude photos is passing laws that criminalize that specific activity.  As of today, only two states, New Jersey and California, have such laws. These laws are fairly limited in scope in order to pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment. California's law, enacted on October 1, 2013, is subject to a number of limitations. For example, it does not cover photos taken by the victim himself or herself, it does not apply if a third party obtains the photos through hacking, and a website operator can only be prosecuted if the state can prove that the operator intended to cause emotional distress.  Further, the penalties under this law are relatively minor: distribution of unauthorized nude images or videos is a misdemeanor, with convicted perpetrators facing six months in jail and a $1000 fine.  Nonetheless, free speech advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have criticized the law, stating that it is overly broad, criminalizes innocent behavior, and violates free speech rights.

Despite broad objections against anti-revenge porn laws from the EFF and various other free speech advocates, legislatures in several other states, including New York, Rhode Island, Maryland and Virginia, have introduced laws that would criminalize operation of revenge porn websites.  There is also discussion about enacting a federal anti-revenge porn statute. Whether these laws will be enacted, and the extent to which prosecutors will actually invoke these laws if they are passed, remains uncertain. But such laws could become powerful weapons in the fight to eliminate revenge porn.

As revenge porn is a worldwide phenomenon, jurisdictions outside the U.S. have also passed laws aimed at punishing the practice. For example, a law criminalizing non-consensual distribution of nude photographs of other people was passed in the Australian state of Victoria in December 2013. And, in January 2014, the Israeli parliament passed a law that criminalizes revenge porn, punishing website operators who publish unauthorized photos or videos of a sexual nature with up to five years in prison.

Conclusion

As long as people fall in (or out of) love (or lust) and cameras and the Internet exist, the proliferation of revenge porn websites will remain a troubling issue.  As discussed above, however, the law does provide at least some recourse to the victims of revenge porn.

Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Morrison & Foerster LLP. All rights reserved

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Aaron P. Rubin
 
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