Over the past two months, the so-called “revenge porn” issue has seen a rather dramatic development, as operators of roughly half of the dedicated involuntary porn sites (that is, sites which exist solely to allow people to post nude photos to harm another) have been convicted, will likely be convicted in the next few weeks, accepted plea agreements resulting in prison time, or settled with federal authorities. While there are a few significant sites remaining, and continued efforts of law enforcement are necessary to shutter them, their days may be numbered.
But the practice is not limited to these sites. Rather, other forms of social media are co-opted: photos posted on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and so forth are not only increasingly likely, but potentially more damaging. On a ‘dedicated’ site, an individual would be subjected to an anonymous audience (and usually extortion), but it was somewhat less likely that friends, family members, employers, and other acquaintances would see the photos. On social media, however, the results are immediate and more personal: the social circle around the victim sees the photos within minutes or hours. 1
The question, then, becomes one not necessarily of law (i.e., the operators of involuntary porn sites being arrested for peripheral offenses like extortion), but of policy. How do social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (which are, like ‘dedicated’ sites, exempt from most liability due to CDA 230) prevent or remedy this type of abuse of their networks? Of course, as the sites are largely exempt from liability due to CDA 230, they don’t have to do anything at all, but this approach would yield criticism. As Yahoo!’s CSO recently noted, “[w]e can’t tell people not to take intimate photos. We need to make that safe because that’s how people are using the technology.”
Reddit is taking the right — albeit not perfect – approach.
- I’m drawing some big black lines lines in a gray area here, of course. Some sites may provide the same anonymous mass audience, which perpetrators may utilize to impersonate their victims and harness strangers to do their stalking or harassment for them. See, for example, the case against David Elam, who is alleged to have impersonated an ex-girlfriend on Craigslist and OKCupid to solicit strangers to visit her home. ↩