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Revenge Porn, Public Shaming and Why It Needs To Stop

“Revenge porn” invades the privacy and dignity of women—and sometimes men—but the nefarious phenomenon gives rise to thorny legal issues that often leave victims unprotected—something about which I’ve recently written. If a victim’s photograph was a “selfie,” then said victim has a takedown right of action. But Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects service providers. This latter provision helps, for the most part, keep the Internet free and open.

Many of these thorny issues were affirmed this week after a court ruling overturned an earlier judgment in GoDaddy.com v. Hollie Toups, Et Al. A group of women from Texas can move to sue a former revenge porn website that published their photos, the new ruling states, but cannot sue Go Daddy for hosting that offending site. Unsurprisingly, the new judgment states that Go Daddy is protected under Section 230 of the CDA.

But revenge porn is not the only source of online humiliation. There’s also “stranger shaming.”

Take, for example, the Facebook group calling itself “Women Who Eat on Tubes” (WWEOT). This group—armed with nearly 27,000 members—looks for contributors to send in photos and corollary stories of women, well, eating food while on London’s public rail transportation, aka the Tube.

Here’s the group’s “About” page:

WWEOT is observational not judgemental (sic). It doesn’t intimidate nor bully.

Women are embraced and cherished. We celebrate and encourage women eating food on tubes. We do not marginalise them. We always look for the story in the picture.

Aside from this creepy—perhaps deranged—Internet fetishism, there are real privacy and safety concerns here for women. As part of the posting process, members must include the time of day, food being consumed and Tube line. This has serious potential to give away women’s location and travel patterns, not to mention the dissemination of their photos without consent.

No doubt, an open and free Internet should allow for free speech, but isn’t this going too far?

The group says it will “remove insensitive, offensive, abusive or unjustified comments or images.” But, it is a closed group, so if you’re not part of it, you may not know there’s something to complain about. And who knows what types of creeps belong to the group?

According to Yahoo, some of the women’s photos are obscured, but many are not. And, so far, technically nothing illegal is being done. Transport for London Enforcement Director Steve Burton said, “Taking photos on the Tube isn’t illegal, but we ask anyone doing so to ensure that they use common sense and respect for other passengers. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken, it is obviously inappropriate to do so.”

At least one person has said she felt humiliated by a photograph of her eating a salad. “Though the group information states it ‘doesn’t intimidate or bully,’” she said, “I felt victimized. And hurt.”

One influential feminist, Caitlin Moran, has suggested a “surveil-the-surveillors” approach by telling women to take photos of the person taking their unwanted photo and then send them to Moran, who said she’d tweet them out to her extensive Twitter following.

The group seems amenable to takedown requests, and if that’s not enough, as Moran suggests, fight fire with fire and photograph the photographers. Maybe make a counter-site called “Men Who Photo Women Who Eat on Tubes.”

But do we want a world requiring mutually assured destruction to help regulate the Internet and digital privacy? I hope not.

A legal approach to these issues is clearly needed.

That need for legal protections was successfully called for this week by privacy scholar Danielle Citron in a column for Forbes. She convincingly writes about protecting sexual privacy with law, and in a second column, she argues that revenge porn laws, if narrowly crafted, will not stifle free speech.

With today’s technologies, stalkers can terrorize victims without ever contacting them. Today social media, blogs and e-mail are used to torment victims. Tomorrow it may be robots or drones. Stalking and harassment laws should be revised to cover any means, methods or technologies exploited by perpetrators to stalk and harass victims.

Danielle Citron

Throughout the last 120 years, we’ve seen several waves of privacy vulnerabilities brought on by technology. First it was the snap camera at the turn of the century, then databanks in the 1960s and 1970s and more recently advances in digital recording. Citron points out that in each wave, appropriate legal action was taken, including privacy tort law, the Fair Information Practices, which helped produce the FCRA, HIPAA and COPPA. and more recently, video voyeurism laws.

But the recent onslaught of revenge porn, and now public shaming, demands another set of legal protections.

Citron cites a recent revenge porn case involving a jealous ex-boyfriend who posted naked photos of his ex-girlfriend on Twitter and sent them to her employer and sister. Prosecutors tried to sue him for aggravated harassment, but a judge dismissed the charges because the photos were not sent directly to the victim.

Law protecting this victim was clearly lacking.

Citron moves us logically into the near-future realities of emerging technology:

With today’s technologies, stalkers can terrorize victims without ever contacting them. Today social media, blogs and e-mail are used to torment victims. Tomorrow it may be robots or drones. Stalking and harassment laws should be revised to cover any means, methods or technologies exploited by perpetrators to stalk and harass victims.

Luckily, some states are taking revenge porn seriously, plus, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), for the second time, is pursuing an anti-stalking law. But more needs to be done to protect revenge porn and stranger-shaming victims.

There is one other weapon in the U.S., and we were reminded of it last week: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

On April 7, the FTC charged the operators of Jerk.com with deceiving customers. Though what they’re being charged for is not “revenge porn,” it’s certainly very close to public shaming and extortion. The FTC charged the company:

…with harvesting personal information from Facebook to create profiles labeling people a “Jerk” or “not a Jerk,” then falsely claiming that consumers could revise their online profiles by paying $30. According to the FTC’s complaint, between 2009 and 2013 the defendants, Jerk, LLC and the operator of the website, John Fanning, created Jerk.com profiles for more than 73 million people, including children.

It’s good to see the FTC take action here, but this is based on a deception claim and would unlikely be able to address the greater revenge porn and public shaming issues described above. Perhaps I’m wrong here, though.

Ultimately, if we want to have a free and open Internet, we need to enact law to help protect victims of revenge porn and public shaming. Women have an equal stake in safely participating on the Internet and living their lives free from digital torment. As Violet Blue has discussed in The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy, women face a disproportionate amount of online harassment, stalking and revenge porn. Crafting legal protections against these despicable acts will ultimately help keep everyone engaged in what should be a free and open Internet.

As Citron points out, it’s often massive public outcry that motivates legislators to pass laws. Making the serious issues around revenge porn and public shaming part of the public dialogue could help get the ball rolling here.

photo credit: MarkyBon via photopin cc

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US

2 Comments

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  • Ray Gordon Apr 22, 2014

    This is nothing new. "Don't Date Him Girl" was called a "social networking site" by a cable news anchor. What's new is that the victims are pretty women, rather than some male falsely accused by a bitter ex. Interestingly, courts have upheld the right of women to publish love letters they received from exes, on the grounds that there was no expectation of privacy. How is "revenge porn" different? Oh yeah, pretty (and slutty) women are the victims. This white-knight reaction to revenge porn only proves conclusively that women are privileged in ways that men are not. Ironically, the crusade against revenge porn is the perfect tool for men who want to involve themselves with these women, and they don't even have to stalk to do it. Just show "solidarity" for this injustice, and shrug their shoulders at any injustice whose victims aren't so slutty or hot.

  • Rita Di Antonio Apr 24, 2014

    Thank you Ray for reiterating Jed's point about the ignorance posed against women on the internet.

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