Women Declare War on Revenge Porn

What Women Really Think
Jan. 23 2013 4:25 PM

Fighting Back Against Revenge Porn

Woman with mobile phone.
I’m OK with chilling some speech if that’s what it takes to kill off the trolls who are causing real and actionable harm

Photograph by Aleksan Ghojoyan/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

Revenge porn is a vile creature lurking in the basements of the Internet. Also called involuntary porn, it’s the practice of posting sexually compromising photos of people (often exes, one imagines) in order to humiliate them. The scourge goes back to now defunct sites like AutoAdmit and JuicyCampus. And it continues to pop up, notoriously, on sites like porn king Hunter Moore's Is Anyone Up?, which featured nude photos of people who didn’t consent to the use of their images, tagged with their real names and hometowns. Moore took his site down last year, but as this good piece by Joe Mullin on Ars Technica points out, an even shadier site called Is Anybody Down? took its place, even including “a service called Takedown Hammer which allows users to get off the site—if they pay up.”

Now there’s a new campaign to address these trolls—End Revenge Porn—and a lawsuit to go with it. The campaign includes the stories of two of the women named in the suit, Hollie Toups and Marianna Taschinger. Their pictures went up, against their will, on a site called Texxxan.com, which the suit alleges is hosted by GoDaddy. Toups, Taschinger, and a group of other women are suing Texxxan and GoDaddy under Texas law, for invasion of privacy and related violations. This will be a very hard suit for the women to win—but good for them for bringing it anyway.

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The barrier they face is Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a federal law that governs speech on the Web. As interpreted by the courts, Section 230 means that ISP providers and websites generally aren’t liable for the content that users post, even if it’s defamatory or privacy invading. They don’t have to patrol for porn photos, and, generally speaking, they don’t even have to take them down when the subject complains—as they would have to if accused of a copyright violation. The standards of copyright law don’t apply here because of a concern called the heckler’s veto: The fear that if all it takes to delete content is a complaint that it's offensive, the web will lose its free-speech ethos and become a tame police state. Personally, I think the heckler’s veto gets more deference than it should. Like scholars such as Daniel Solove, Danielle Citron, and Stanley Fish, I’m OK with chilling some speech if that’s what it takes to kill off the trolls who are causing real and actionable harm. But the courts, and Congress, have yet to agree.

In the meantime, what women like Toups and Taschinger can do more easily is go to court to get a subpoena to force a site like Texxxan to disclose the identity of users who posted the privacy-invading photos, and then sue that user. I’ve written about women who have brought these suits anonymously, to protect their reputations from further damage. That concern makes me all the more impressed by the victims of revenge porn leading this new campaign, who are willing to stand up for themselves in their own names. The power balance between the trolls and their targets is out of whack, legally speaking. And the point of suing a site like Texxxan, and especially an alleged deep-pocket host like GoDaddy, is to take a real run at changing that. Someday, I hope a court or a body of lawmakers sees it that way and makes it easier for women like Toups and Taschinger to win. Fighting back against the trolls won’t break the Internet.

Correction, January 23, 2012: This post originally referred to Hunter Moore's site as Is Anybody Up. The site was called Is Anyone Up? Also, this post orignally referred to the website being sued as Texxan. It is Texxxan.com.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

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