Advertisement

Facebook fails to stop lawsuit from 14-year-old revenge porn victim

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on July 6, 2011. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PAUL SAKUMA/FILE
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on July 6, 2011. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PAUL SAKUMA/FILE

Her naked photograph was on a “shame page.”

From November 2014 to January 2016, a now 14-year-old girl saw her nude picture posted several times on Facebook as “an act of revenge,” without her consent.

So she sued. She sued the man who allegedly posted the photograph — her lawyers say her case is the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, where her trial will be held — and she sued Facebook. Facebook, her legal team argued, was capable of using a tracking process to ID the image and thereby prevent its re-publication; the site failed to do so.

Facebook tried to have the claim dismissed. A lawyer for the social network argued that the company, upon notification, removed the picture every time it was reposted. (The argument hinged on a protection in Europe that shields one from needing “to monitor a vast amount of online material for what is posted on one page.”)

Advertisement

On Monday, a high court judge in Belfast sided against Facebook and with the underage revenge porn victim, whose lawyer compared the publishing of the photo to a kind of “child abuse.” The girl is seeking damages, as The Guardian reports, “for misuse of private information, negligence and breach of the Data Protection Act.”

Revenge Porn, Free Speech And The Fight For The Soul Of The InternetRevenge porn victims won big last week: Three states passed legislation criminalizing the distribution of nude pictures…thinkprogress.orgRevenge porn, the act of posting naked images of someone without their consent, is as rampant as it is abhorrent. In the United States, about half of all states have laws criminalizing revenge porn, which is far better than the status quo in 2013, when only three states had laws of this kind, but leaves millions of people in states without this critical legislation. In the absence of laws directly targeting revenge porn, victims and their legal teams typically rely on copyright law to get images removed from the internet. (In many cases, the explicit images were taken by the subject — selfies, webcams, and so on — and so the person in the picture is also the copyright holder.)

Revenge porn has likely been around since the first person figured out how to combine photography, pornography, and blackmail. But the crime took on its modern, insidious form, and earned its colloquial title, with the advent of the internet, digital photography, and camera phones. The issue really burst into the public consciousness with the celebrity photo hack in fall 2014, when a 4Chan user hacked into the iCloud accounts of over 100 female celebrities and leaked private, naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and others online. Lawrence later told Vanity Fair the hack was a “sex crime”: “It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting.” As ThinkProgress reported at the time, one victim told investigators that the hacker posted photos she’d never even sent to anyone; she’d simply had the pictures stored on her phone. The mere possession of intimate images made her a target.

That hack wasn’t the first of its kind, either: In 2012, Christopher Chaney was sentenced to ten years in prison for publishing stolen naked photos of Scarlett Johansson, Christina Aguilera, and other women (it’s almost always women). One of Chaney’s victims, singer-actress Renee Olstead, said in court that she tried to commit suicide after Chaney leaked her photos. She had never contemplated killing herself before.

Advertisement

And those are just the famous victims: Ordinary women who are victimized in this way frequently face threats of sexual assault. They are “routinely… stalked, harassed, fired from jobs, and forced to change schools. Some victims have committed suicide,” according to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. Revenge porn is one of the weapons in an abusive partner or ex’s arsenal, wielded against women to extort child custody or coerce her into staying in a relationship she is desperate to escape. Sex traffickers can “use compromising images to trap unwilling individuals in the sex trade.” Rapists who record their assaults are armed with footage that can be used to torment victims further and dissuade them from reporting the assault.

In February 2015, Kevin Bollaert, a 28-year-old revenge porn site operator from California, was found guilty of 27 counts of identity theft and extortion. His case is generally thought to be the first against a revenge porn website operator. Bollaert ran ugotposted.com, where anonymous users could post naked photos without the consent of the women in the pictures, and changemyreputation.com, where the victimized women from the former site were extorted for at least $300 a pop to have their photos removed. Bollaert’s ethically bankrupt extortion ring made him tens of thousands of dollars. His sentence, reduced last September, is eight years in prison followed by ten years of mandatory supervision.

Hunter Moore — whom you may know by as “Revenge Porn King” or, more fittingly, “The Most Hated Man On The Internet” — was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison followed by three years of supervised release for founding IsAnyoneUp.com, where he posted stolen naked photos of women. Moore’s literal partner-in-crime, Charles Evens, was paid to hack hundreds of female victims’ email accounts; he was sentenced to 25 months in prison plus a $2,000 fine. (Moore also had to pay a $2,000 fine.)

Over the past few years, most social media sites have issued updated standards and practices policies that ban abusive behavior, including revenge porn. Reddit’s privacy policy, amended in February 2015, explicitly bans naked photos posted without the permission of the pictured individual; it was the first time in Reddit’s history that the site agreed to remove revenge porn from its pages upon the victim’s request. Reddit had allowed the images from the celebrity photo hack to remain on its site but ended up banning them shortly after posting a convoluted explanation for not banning them in the first place. The images of not-famous women, however, stayed up, along with the tagline: “They should know better.”

But these policies are unevenly and sometimes bizarrely applied. Last week, Facebook removed one of the most iconic images from the Vietnam War because the Vietnamese girl in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, fleeing a napalm attack, is naked. (The site also took down a post by Norway’s prime minister, who condemned the removal and reposted the picture herself; Facebook eventually changed course and said the image could be shared on its network after all.)

This is a June 8, 1972 file photo of South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NICK UT
This is a June 8, 1972 file photo of South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NICK UT

In a statement on Friday, Facebook responded to the back-and-forth:

“An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our community standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time.”

Facebook —which is, to paraphrase the prophet Britney Spears, not a collegiate social network, not yet a media company — is sussing out exactly what role it should play in this mess where privacy, free speech, journalism, censorship, sex crimes, and abuse all wind up intersecting. In the meantime, it reckons with users who demand more from the site when Facebook’s action (or inaction) seems to call for it.

Advertisement

In 2014, Facebook was slammed with a $123 million lawsuit from a woman who claimed the company took months to take down a page an ex-friend of hers created to post pornographic and altered images of her. Her face was photoshopped onto pornography, and though the body was not her own, she couldn’t bring herself to show the pictures to her conservative Muslim parents. Facebook, she told Cosmopolitan, was unresponsive over email, “And the only phone number I could find for Facebook was for the advertising department.”