Why It’s So Hard to Stop the Spread
On an otherwise ordinary day in 2011, Holly Jacobs decided to Google herself. When a porn site came up in her search results, Jacobs went into what she now describes as “a complete state of shock.”
“I could feel the blood rushing out of my head,” she says. “I was turning white as the page was buffering.” She would soon learn that her photos were posted on nearly 200 porn sites. A collage of nude images had been sent to her boss and co-workers. Explicit pictures of her were shared with her father on Facebook. She says she almost lost her job at a Florida college after someone online accused her of masturbating with students there, and she eventually stopped working as a statistical consultant because “every time I met with a client I wondered if they had seen me naked.”
“I never thought this kind of violation was happening to everyday people,” says Jacobs, who originally sent the photos to someone she knew and trusted. “I didn’t realize there was a market for naked photos of people nobody knows.”
Jacobs says she was diagnosed with depression and PTSD, and became afraid to meet new people for fear that they would find the photos. “It was a living nightmare,” she says. “I kept being rejected by police, the attorneys, the FBI because they kept saying there was nothing they could do.”
Now in her 30s, Jacobs ended up legally changing her name to escape her online footprint. But she also decided to fight back. She started the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI,) a nonprofit devoted to helping victims of nonconsensual porn reclaim their identities. Since they launched the helpline in 2014, more than 5,000 victims have called CCRI, Jacobs says, adding that the group now gets between 150 and 200 calls a month.
“I’m a good person and I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with sharing nude images with someone I trust, so something needs to be done about this.”
Many victims think the moment they see their nude photos online is the worst part of their ordeal. Then they start having awkward conversations with bosses, fielding relatives’ questions about obscene social media posts, and getting strange looks from co-workers. It becomes impossible to know who has seen your photos, and what they think of you if they have. And when these victims start trying to get the pictures taken down, they realize something even worse: this type of cyber crime can leave a lasting digital stain, one that is nearly impossible to fully erase.
“Once the images and videos have been exposed or published, the internet is permanent,” says Reg Harnish, the CEO of cyber-risk assessment firm GreyCastle Security, who worked with Kara Jefts to successfully remove most of her photos. But even if you get an image scrubbed from one site, there’s no way to guarantee it hasn’t been copied, screenshotted, or stored on a cache somewhere. “There are literally hundreds of things working against an individual working to remove a specific piece of content from the internet,” he says. “It’s almost impossible.”
When victims seek help from law enforcement, they rarely get an effective response. “This is a case they put at the bottom of the stack,” says Johnstone, who represents victims of revenge porn. “They think that the victim was asking for it because they created the content that got them into the situation. They think they’re not as deserving of police hours as someone who was the victim of a physical assault.”
Jefts says she filed six police reports in three different New York counties (where she was living at the time) and got several restraining orders against her ex, but legal remedies were futile. Police officers often didn’t know how to handle digital crimes, and even if they sympathized with her predicament, they said there was nothing they could do because her ex no longer lived in the same state or even the same country. The restraining orders had “zero impact,” she says, and the harassment continued until she sought help from a tech experts like Harnish who helped her get the photos taken down.
As a result of growing awareness and increased pressure from victims and advocates, the number of states with a law addressing revenge porn has jumped from 3 to 38 since 2013. But the statutes are inconsistent and riddled with blind spots, which make them particularly difficult to enforce.
“There are no state laws across the U.S. that fit perfectly together,” says Elisa D’Amico, a Miami lawyer and co-founder of the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project. “It depends on where your victim is, where your perpetrator is, where someone was when they viewed pictures.”
One of biggest inconsistencies among state laws is the way they treat motive. Some states criminalize nonconsensual porn only if there is “intent to harass,” a targeted campaign to debase and humiliate the victim, as with Jefts. But in many cases, like the Marine photo sharing scandal, the distribution of images isn’t intended to harass, because the victims were never supposed to know that their pictures had been shared. According to the CCRI’s June survey of 3,000 Facebook users, 79% of those who said they had spread a sexually explicit image of someone else said they did not intend to cause any harm.
To those who have had their most intimate moments exposed on social media, such thinking misses the point. “These were images that I took under the assumption that it was a consensual, private relationship,” says Jefts, who has devoted her career to studying the power and dissemination of images. “The context in which they were shared changed their meaning. That trumps their original intention.”
To address the legal patchwork, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier is planning to reintroduce a bill this June to make nonconsensual pornography a federal crime — regardless of whether the suspect intended to harass the victim. “The intent of the perpetrator is irrelevant really,” says Speier, a Democrat whose district includes San Francisco. “Whether he’s doing it for jollies or money, it’s destroying another person’s life.” Facebook and Twitter backed her bill, called the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, or IPPA, as has billionaire Trump supporter and internet privacy advocate Peter Thiel. It also has bipartisan support from seven Republican co-sponsors.
But Speier’s bill, which stalled in committee last year, has vocal critics who oppose enacting new criminal laws that target speech. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) objects to the very portion of the bill embraced by victim advocates: the part that criminalizes nonconsensual porn regardless of intent. “The Supreme Court has correctly said again and again that when the government criminalizes speech, intent is a crucial component,” says Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s speech, privacy and technology project. “We do not put somebody in jail in this country simply because their speech offends someone else.”
With the law enforcement response in flux, tech companies have begun to respond to growing pressure to help address the problem. Under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, platforms like Google and Facebook aren’t liable for the content they host, which means they can’t be held legally responsible for the nonconsensual porn on their networks. But in response to an outpouring of user requests, several major websites have developed new policies to help fight revenge porn. In 2015, streaming porn site Pornhub announced it would remove revenge porn from its site, and Google announced it would remove the images from its search results. Twitter and Reddit have also updated their rules to prohibit nonconsensual porn. In April, Facebook unveiled a tool that enables users to flag content they think is being shared without consent; company technicians then check if it’s appeared anywhere else on the network to prevent it from spreading further. But this kind of response from tech companies requires significant manpower, since nonconsensual porn is difficult to identify. Unlike child pornography, which can often be spotted on sight, an image posted without consent doesn’t necessarily look different than one posted willingly.
No matter what steps Congress and tech companies take, nonconsensual porn remains a problem without easy solutions. And as lawyers sue and lawmakers debate, millions of pictures are still out there circulating, multiplying, waiting to ruin a life.