Why Do We Tolerate Revenge Porn?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 25 2013 6:21 PM

Why Do We Tolerate Revenge Porn?

A new bill in California tries to address the problem, but doesn’t go far enough.

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Franks thinks that the real objection to cracking down on revenge porn is that “we’re still trivializing harm against women.” Her argument resonates when you think about this question: Why can’t victims sue the pants off the men who post these photos, or the sites that host them? For starters, because the federal Communications Decency Act poses all kinds of obstacles. If the posters hide their identities—and most do—victims have to go through the expense and difficulty of getting a court order to unmask them. If the press picks up the story, the victim will just be drawing more attention to her own embarrassment (unless she’s allowed to sue under a pseudonym, a right that the woman who was the subject of the Jap Slut post successfully lobbied for in Hawaii). “Civil suits put all the burden on victims,” Franks told me. “The person who is putting up the pictures isn’t going to be afraid. They’ll know there’s no real threat, or maybe they don’t have any money anyway.”

Criminal laws are another route to deterrence. At the moment only New Jersey has one on the books. The bill in California, if it becomes law, would be the second. (Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t said whether he’ll sign it.) Citron and Franks want to see a ban on revenge porn written into the federal law that already bars cyberstalking.

And they would also like to “shut down the channels of distribution,” as Franks puts it. This would mean making it easier to go after the sites that devote themselves to hosting revenge porn—and make lots of money in the process. They’re protected by the courts’ interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been read to give a free pass to sites and Internet service providers that knowingly host content, posted by a user, that’s defamatory or illegally invades someone’s privacy.

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This part of the CDA is often lauded for letting a thousand free-speech blossoms bloom online. Censorship would break the Internet! In fact, the CDA allows for big exceptions to its anything-goes rule. They just don’t happen to be the exceptions that help people like Holly Jacobs. If you host a website and you get notice that content on it violates someone’s copyright, you have a choice: You can take it down, or defend yourself. Similarly, if you host content that violates federal law, like child pornography or identity theft, you have to take it down once you’re on notice. Why not shield the victims of revenge porn in the same way? “We just don’t care about this harm as much,” Franks says.

Reading Citron’s book, which is full of stories of people for whom cyberharassment and stalking turned into an utterly real-world nightmare, convinced me that she and Franks are right—and that we have to care more. If you truly go on a concerted campaign to ruin someone’s online reputation, you can diminish their offline lives in all kinds of ways. They become harder to hire and to trust. Why take a chance on someone you’ve heard bad or questionable things about? Why take their word that it’s all an awful bout of bad luck or a misunderstanding?

At the moment, the most successful tactic I’ve heard of for going after revenge porn is also a completely quixotic one. For years the king of this shoddy business, Hunter Moore, ran the site Is Anyone Up? When women protested, Moore would post their imploring messages and caption the photos with their names, addresses, or work history. “It’s stupid not to monetize it,” he boasted, clearly reveling in the press attention.

James McGibney, an ex-Marine with a master’s degree in criminal justice who runs the site Bullyville, met Moore through mutual press contacts and persuaded him to sell Is Anyone Up? for a relatively small sum of money. (Less than $15,000 is my guess). McGibney shut Moore’s site down, and then Moore turned on him, calling him a pedophile, among other things, online. McGibney sued for defamation. Moore failed to defend himself in court, and in March the judge entered a $250,000 judgment against him, plus legal fees.

That makes for a satisfying morality tale. But it’s not exactly a systematic solution. McGibney’s creativity is very much welcome—but it’s also a sign of how far the law has to go.

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