Culture

With The New Reddit Ban, Revenge Porn Loses Another Battle. Will It Lose The War?

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Reddit rolled out a new privacy policy yesterday that explicitly bans naked photos posted without the permission of the person in the photograph. For the first time in Reddit’s history, these images, colloquially known as “revenge porn,” will be removed from the site upon the victim’s request.

Is this a cause for celebration? It sure sounds like it is: revenge porn is a horrifying violation of privacy and trust. Reddit’s old policy failed victims and enabled abusers. Any steps taken against those who would seek profit from the humiliation and degradation of others are good steps. But the announcement was quickly followed by skepticism and questions, mostly around how enforceable the new policy would be. Is the revenge porn problem on Reddit simply unsolvable?

The Reddit team explained the new policy in a section titled “Protecting Your Digital Privacy,”:

Last year, we missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy — something we’ve cared deeply about since reddit’s inception. At our recent all hands company meeting, this was something that we all, as a company, decided we needed to address.

No matter who you are, if a photograph, video, or digital image of you in a state of nudity, sexual excitement, or engaged in any act of sexual conduct, is posted or linked to on reddit without your permission, it is prohibited on reddit. We also recognize that violent personalized images are a form of harassment that we do not tolerate and we will remove them when notified. As usual, the revised Privacy Policy will go into effect in two weeks, on March 10, 2015.

We’re so proud to be leading the way among our peers when it comes to your digital privacy and consider this to be one more step in the right direction. We’ll share how often these takedowns occur in our yearly privacy report.

Is the ban perfect? No. But will it be so difficult to enforce that it’s functionally useless? No.

Reddit’s new policy “is terrific news,” said Danielle Citron, law professor at University of Maryland and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Though the inciting incident here is the celebrity hack, “this is for far more people that we don’t know, who aren’t celebrities, stories we never heard because they didn’t have legal teams going through thousands of photos and making takedown requests. This will have a profound impact on a place like Reddit. It’s really the ordinary person who needs a policy in place to protect them… I think this is a huge step in the right direction.”

Though Reddit’s unwillingness to take down the stolen images was met with public outrage, they legally had no obligation to intervene. “They’re immunized from liability, and amateur porn and porn is totally protected speech, so they could just take the position, ‘We can’t figure out when a nude photo is amateur porn that someone just regrets putting up or is truly non-consensual posting of someone’s nude photos in violation of their trust and confidence,'” said Citron.

The new plan does not require a person to demonstrate he or she has the copyright to any image. “They say, ‘If you find your photo on our site and you complain, we’ll take it down. And your say-so is good enough,'” said Citron. “And that’s potentially too inclusive, because an anti-porn group or religious group could be reporting it” in a Sisyphean effort to eliminate pornography from the internet entirely. “We shouldn’t forget there’s another side to this. We could have mischief on both sides of the coin. I think we underestimate that possibility.”

But “it’s worth the risk of taking down some stuff that somebody wants up to ensure that victims who do not consent to their nude photos being posted online, and all of the risks that come with it, that they have the opportunity to complain and a site is telling them, this huge platform, that they’re taking it down.” The Reddit policy “is providing more protection than current copy law would provide.” Citron estimates at least 15 states considers the posting of someone’s nude photos without their consent to be a potentially criminal act. What this does is “put invasions of sexual privacy on the map.”

Citron stressed that reports of how difficult it would be for Reddit to enforce this policy are “overstated.” “We have countless well-respected sites who have policies against nude photos, harassment and stalking threats. Take Facebook. I’m not suggesting their moderation is ideal, but they train their content policy officers, they’ve got teams of people working on it. Reddit says they’ll have monitors in-house and volunteer. And frankly, it’s not hard when you get a notice that’s like, ‘This is my photo, take it down.’ It’s not that complicated. There are things that are complicated. Like defamation, we know what would hurt a reputation, but being able to determine if it’s true or false, that’s hard and complicated… But this is a nude photo. Is it sexually explicit? We can define what that is. And it’s quite clear when someone says, ‘I did not consent to my photo [being posted].'”

“I read this post on Buzzfeed yesterday saying it’s going to be terribly complicated, and that’s just wrong,” Citron said. “The idea that you have a process, you submit a complaint, you attest to the fact that it is your photo, that’s not hard. I’m much more willing to live with the mischief of over-takedown than under-takedown, because the misery of under-takedown is profound. When it’s searchable, [women in these photos can] lose their jobs, can’t get new jobs, strangers contact them in 50 percent of the cases.”

“So let’s not overstate how hard this is,” she said. “We can acknowledge the fact that there may be over-chilling by anti-porn groups. But let’s remember that we’re in a cost-benefit analysis… We could make it tougher on victims, but is that worth it? Let’s not lose sight of what’s really good here. The overreaction, ‘This is so hard!’ The rending of clothing, the ‘how can we possibly implement this?’ Of course we can! That is misguided. So I hope it sends a message to other companies; you can follow, too.”

“You can’t ask for the moon,” she said. “Let’s take steps where we get them. This is a huge victory.”

In the announcement, the events of “last year” to which Reddit refers is the celebrity photo hack last September, when a 4Chan poster hacked into over 100 female celebrities’ iCloud accounts and leaked private, naked photos of stars including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. The images were posted on a Reddit subgroup, “The Fappening,” and Reddit allowed the pictures to remain on the site.

The post defending this decision, by Reddit CEO Yishan Wong, was titled “Every man is responsible for his own soul” and read, in part: “We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize. Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event… We believe that you — the user — has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is your responsibility to do so.”

Reddit ended up banning the subreddit at approximately the same time as this confusing, convoluted explanation for not banning questionable subreddits was posted; basically, Reddit took the Fappening page down because of copyright concerns and the possibility that some of the celebrities were underage when the photos were taken, not because the images violated people’s privacy. Meanwhile, the subreddit dedicated to stolen nude images of non-famous women remained live, along with its tagline: “They should know better.”

But Wong resigned two months later (reportedly over a disagreement about a new office space) and Ellen Pao took his place. Before starting at Reddit, Pao was a partner at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. In 2012, she sued the company and her colleagues for sexual harassment; her complaint was packed with allegations that the rejection of sexual interest would result in professional retaliation, sparked a national conversation about sexism in tech. It is under Pao’s stewardship that Reddit is walking back from the “don’t get involved, free speech forever” mentality and is starting to treat revenge porn as a scourge that should be eliminated from the platform.

In an interview with the New York Times, Reddit’s co-founder and executive chairman Alexis Ohanian said, “I really want to believe that as we enter the next 10 years of Reddit life, essentially the most trafficked media site on the Internet, the opportunity here to set a standard for respecting the privacy of our users.”

In another huge victory against the revenge porn industry, on Monday, Kevin Bollaert, a 28-year-old revenge porn site operator from California, was found guilty of 27 counts of identity theft and extortion. Bollaert operated ugotposted.com and changemyreputation.com; the first was a site where anonymous users would post naked photos without the consent of the women in the images, and the latter was where those victims were made to pay fees of at least $300 to have their photos removed. Bollaert was making tens of thousands of dollars off what amounted, legally, to an extortion ring.

Bollaert’s case is widely believed to be the first case against a revenge porn website operator, but it’s unlikely to be the last. Hunter Moore, known by such enviable titles as “Revenge Porn King” and “The Most Hated Man On The Internet,” was indicted on federal charges last year on 15 counts, including conspiracy and aggravated identity theft. He pled guilty to felony hacking charges last Wednesday and faces up to seven years in prison, on top of which he may face a $500,000 fine and three years probation. Moore founded and ran IsAnyoneUp.com, where he would post stolen naked photos of women (he paid codefendant Charles Evens to hack the female victims’ email accounts; Evans’ trial is scheduled for March 24). The 15-count indictment filed against these two men reveals that Evens hacked hundreds of victims’ email accounts.

This announcement from Reddit also comes on the heels of Twitter’s release of a new set of anti-harassment tools intended to make it easier for users to report abuse on the platform, along with a remodeled blocking system that prevents blocked accounts from tweeting at or viewing the profile of the user who blocked them. A handful of high-profile stories about harassment and abuse on Twitter — the vitriol aimed at Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda, in the wake of Williams’ death; the nightmare that is Gamergate and the threats that have wrecked havoc on the lives of Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn; Lindy West’s reporting on her worst abusers, including a troll who created a fake account as her dead father — predated this policy change.

And earlier this month, an internal memo obtained by The Verge revealed that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo believes Twitter has failed to address abusive speech in any meaningful way: “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day.”

What’s in it for sites like Reddit and Twitter to side with the victims in these cases? The day of the celebrity photo hack, Reddit “hit new traffic milestones,” according to Jason Harvey, a Reddit systems administrator. “Ones which I’d be ashamed to share publicly.”

“I think there’s advertising money that maybe they’re realizing they’ve taken off the table,” said Citron. “Remember when Facebook came up with a policy to take down pro-rape pages? It [was after they] got pressure from big advertisers: ‘We won’t advertise on Facebook if you keep these pages up.’ They may be arguably ethical, but I’d bet it’s also the threat of advertising going away. And there’s probably more advertising in this position” — that is, the anti-revenge-porn position — for “mainstream companies. Maybe if they got wind of the fact that Reddit is hosting the Fappening and creepshots and ‘she should’ve known better,'” they wouldn’t want their brand associated with Reddit. “maybe the altruistic or ethical position had money behind it.”

“Is it just kind of jumping on the cultural zeitgeist in a way that’s not genuine, but who cares? I think that’s clearly part of it,” she said.

The Twitter memo and the Reddit announcement demonstrate an awareness on the part of these CEOs that most internet users want to see sites take a stand on behalf of victims and against revenge porn purveyors. “[Reddit] said, ‘we had a cultural moment and we were on the wrong side of it. We screwed up,'” said Citron. “I think these companies are getting that it’s really not good to be in bed with the Hunter Moores and Craig Brittains and Kevin Bollaerts of the world.” Brittain operated IsAnyoneDown, yet another site that published naked photos of women without their consent; the Federal Trade Commission barred him from publicly sharing any more nude videos or photos of people without affirmative express consent and ordered him to destroy the pictures and contact information he obtained while running his site. Earlier this month, Brittain sent a DMCA complaint to Google demanding the site erase every link associated with his history as a revenge porn proprietor. One assumes the irony of Brittain’s current situation escapes him.

“I think we’re seeing law send a really clear message that this is wrong and criminal and this is destroying people’s lives, and law plays a powerful role in how people view things,” said Citron. “And Reddit doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of that, either… if you’re a mainstream business that wants to have an IPO and D.C. money. The little destructive people are always going to exist. But these big platforms, they’re starting to see: they’re not going to attract investors that think they’re disgusting.”

Companies like Reddit and Twitter are realizing that “the idea of making money off of people’s total misery and economic ruin is not good,” said Citron. “I think they’re coming to see that it’s a better business model to not be a cyber cesspool.”