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Revenge porn isn't illegal everywhere, but victims can still fight back

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After numerous lawsuits, public scandals, and criminal charges, some U.S. states are starting to tackle the problem of online “revenge porn”—nude photos posted without the victim’s permission, often by an angry ex-lover.  But laws or no laws, Internet revenge is a tricky thing to prosecute, thanks to a loophole that states use to penalize victims who may have taken the very photos used to smear them. 

Luckily, if you’re the target of this kind of Internet revenge, you do have ways to fight back—just not the ones you might think.

California is the only state in the union that currently criminalizes revenge porn. But California’s law, passed earlier this month, has set an odd legal precedent: the criminal has to have taken the picture in question. That means victims who took nude selfies that were later posted online aren’t protected—even though this scenario applies to the vast majority of revenge porn cases.

The California law misses the point: In actual practice, revenge porn has less to do with property rights and theft, and more to do with defamation and slander. On the activist website Women Against Revenge Porn, revenge porn victim Bekah Wells shares her horrifying story of how a trusted ex-boyfriend turned out to be a monster who has been sharing nudes of her and other women online for years:

[A]s a victim of Revenge Porn, I am not victimized one time. I am victimized every time someone types my name into the computer. The crime scene is right before everyone's eyes, played out again and again, and, ironically, I am treated as if I am the one who has committed the crime. I am victimized every time someone tells me that it's my fault because I consented to the taking of the photos.

But when someone shifts the blame to me, do you know what I say? I say, "Congratulations, because that's exactly what the perpetrator wants you to think.  He wants you to think I am a dumb whore who makes poor decisions."

What this means for the average person is that if you’re the target of revenge porn, in order to successfully fight back against anyone spreading pictures of you around the Web without your permission, you have to think a little differently. As Bekah Wells learned the tragic way, fighting back isn’t about wiping the Internet clean of content that never should have been posted. It’s about changing the conversation instead.

According to privacy analysts and lawyers Sarah Downey and Thomas J. Mihill, protecting yourself against online privacy invasion is a complex, tricky process. It’s not as simple as retrieving a stolen picture, or having a single website taken down. As Mihill put it, “To some extent, protecting your intellectual property means keeping your intellectual property to yourself.”

To put it bluntly, there are no take-backs on the Internet.

Instead, the list of websites where a photo can be posted anonymously or with an untraceable email account is virtually endless. Laptops or smartphones can be hacked or compromised, and their contents shared with the world before the owner even realizes what’s happened.  

Even depending on the kindness of real-life strangers can be tricky: Downey cited examples of customers who’d brought their computers to Best Buy’s Geek Squad, only to discover that Geek Squad members had peeked through their personal photo collection and in at least one incident, allegedly posted the pictures online.

“Everybody has a porn production studio in their pocket,” Downey said, speaking of the ease of snapping a photo and uploading it to the virtual world. Downey had to learn this lesson the hard way, when her own photographs were stolen and placed online without her consent. 

The Problem

As soon as she tried to find and locate the perpetrators, Downey ran into the biggest obstacles that most people face when they seek to reclaim what the mysterious hooded figures of the Internet have stolen: It’s very easy to duplicate and upload a photo to a website. It’s considerably harder to track down all copies of those photos, then locate the website owners, and force them to give the items back. The time, effort, and money it costs you to find a website and locate the owner is enormous compared to the number of copies of files that a motivated abuser can create and disseminate. 

Additionally, most websites where porn and other such stolen content is permissible tend to be hosted non-locally through various anonymizing methods such as masked domains, International hosts, and fabricated credentials. 

Often, the only known contact for such a website is an unknown email address from a third party with no reason to answer your distress signal.

Downey grouped photo-hosting websites into a group of similarly themed “reputation-destroying” sites—some of which might surprise you. Sure, sites that enable illicit photos are bad, but what about review sites like Yelp, Rate My Professor or I Hollaback? 

Sites like these begin with the best of intentions, but to someone unfairly accused or demonized on them, they can be just as damaging as any dispenser of illicit content. So, too, can “confession” sites where names are named. 

The owners of these sites have little motivation to help you. Instead, they will sometimes offer to take down content for you—if you pay them. If you run into sites like those, watch out, and never agree to pay someone to take down content. 

Websites to Watch Out For:

File Fap, U Got Posted, Submit Your Ex, I Up Em, Porn IMG, Image Fap, Gallery Dump, Dump a Rump, Girlfriend Revenge, any Peer-to-Peer webservice. Other sites like Is Anyone Up / Is Anybody Down have been shuttered, but variants still exist in alternate forms on Tumblr and other social media centers.

Reputation-Killers: 

Rate My Professor, I Hollaback, Ripoff Report, Don’t Date Him Girl, Yelp, Glass Door, Mugshots, Busted Mugshots, Just Mugshots.

Confessionals:

Anonymous Confessions, Scary Mommy, Noteful, Daily Confessions, Truu Confessions, Confessionals, many more

So what can you do with so little recourse? Thankfully, more than you might realize. Your single best defense against revenge porn is not to defend yourself at all. Instead…

Learn How to Game Google

If you can’t beat revenge porn, bury it.

Gaming Google and other search engines is your single best offense against what can seem like the overwhelming power of a reputation-destroying image or piece of information. But it can work. And it works for anyone, whether you’re trying to bury a damning photograph or just trying to make sure potential employers don’t find flame wars or other controversial pieces of your Internet history.

When you game Google, instead of trying to take away information, you want to put more information out there, and you want to make sure it comes up first when someone searches for your name. If you’re a naturally private person, this might take a bit of confidence-building, but it’s worth it.

Here are some tips:

1) Flood Google with your social media presence.  One quick and easy way to push nastiness to the second or third page of Google is to use the many free social media tools out there to build an online platform or social media brand for yourself. In addition to increasing your professional image, Google’s search algorithm will prioritize sites like these and make sure they get pushed to the top of the list.

2) Create new content to override the old. As much as possible, try to fill each platform, be it Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr, LinkedIn, your own website, or some other media channel, with engaging and positive content. Put forth a healthy image to tie in with your real name. 

3) Google bomb. The “Google bomb” is an outdated tactic formerly used by trolls to push a specific site to the top of a search engine result—but it can still help you tell Google what sites are important. Frequently search your name and then “boost” positive results by clicking on them. That way, you can teach Google to associate searches for your name with the good sites rather than the bad ones. Have your friends chip in for maximum benefit.

You won’t always be able to bury the work of a determined harasser or abuser, but you can make sure that new information proliferates, rises to the top, and makes it harder to find the damning stuff.

Of course, you might still want to go after the malicious content, and remove as much as you can. In that case, it might take some time, but you do have options.

Other Ways to Combat Revenge Porn 

1) Assess the damage and document it. In the event that you decide to take legal action, you will want to document as much as possible of the incident. Be prepared to record website URLs, take screenshots of websites, and keep copies of any and all email correspondence. 

Use a reverse image search to track down all the places an image is being hosted. Google offers a reverse image search, as does free third-party website TinEye.

2) Try to find a real person behind the labyrinth. It takes some work, but it is often possible to contact the owner of any domain, or the company that hosts the offending website.  Use a whois search to look up the ownership details, if possible. Try not to fixate on the website itself, but rather try to find out who owns the ISP host that services the domain. While a domain owner may be negligent, ISPs have to comply with rules and regulations, and it may be easier to find a human being behind the business.

Persistence pays off: when contacting an ISP or domain owner about taking down materials, be aware that you may have to be aggressive in pursuing a response and demanding action on their part.

3) Use Google’s URL and cache removal tool. Even if you can’t get the website itself removed, you can request to have the page deleted from Google’s search engines. This is done with the URL removal tool. Additionally, you can request a cache deletion. Often, for a short time after a post has been removed from the Internet, a search engine will archive a cache, or saved copy, of the website you’re trying to have deleted. To make sure no one can save a copy of the saved copy, you can ask the search engine to remove the cache.

If you can get the original site taken down, Google’s URL removal tool will work faster. Otherwise, you may have to bring a court order to the search engine to get its attention.

4) File a takedown notice. Even reluctant ISP owners have to respond to takedown notices. To file a legally binding takedown notice, the copyright holder of the unauthorized content needs to sign a document stating that they are the holder and that the use of their content is unauthorized or infringing. Even if you can’t produce binding proof that the content is unauthorized, generally ISPs will give you the benefit of the doubt and remove the content first before asking questions.

Make sure you know who took the picture. Ironically, under California law, the best legal defense you have when issuing a takedown notice against revenge porn—i.e. affirming that you took the picture and own the copyright—is the very thing that means you can’t prosecute revenge porn as a criminal act in a court of law. 

5) File a police report for invasion of privacy. Since laws against revenge porn are limited and still emerging, your best bet to get the police to perk up is to file an invasion of privacy suit instead. The key is to prove an act called “intrusion upon seclusion,” which is a fancy way of saying you expected privacy, and that privacy was invaded without your consent. This is especially relevant if photos were stolen from your possession or gained in a deceitful way. 

When claiming intrusion upon seclusion, you need to focus on proving four things: an intentional, offensive invasion of a private context that caused mental anguish or suffering.

If all this seems like daunting or overwhelming work, just remember to take it one step at a time. 

Downey has also published a handy guide to deleting things if you run into any brick walls or get stuck along the way.

Still, the simplest and easiest way to fight back against revenge porn is to prevent if before it happens. 

Active Prevention  

1) Password protect everything. Choose quality, complex passwords. You can even lock all your passwords with secure password managers and tools. For your computing and online logins, you might consider two-factor authentication—using logins that require more than one form of proving your identity. 

2) Boost your antivirus and other malware protection programs. The more up-to-date your computer security, antivirus, firewalls, and other protections are, the harder it will be for hackers to install malicious software on your system. As Downey put it, “The goal is not to prevent hacking. The goal is to make hacking as difficult as possible.” 

3) If you have pictures and other important content to keep safe, encrypt it. Online encryption sites like TrueCrypt are often free and easy to use.

4) Share pictures responsibly. If you’re going to share racy photos, don’t include your face, and always take the picture yourself so that you will unquestionably be the copyright holder of the picture. If you do upload a picture to share, use a temporary host like Snapchat that take steps to prevent pictures from being saved or copied. (But be aware that even these services are far from foolproof.)

5) Join the conversation. A growing number of activist groups have dedicated themselves to fighting revenge porn and other shaming Internet-based tactics directed at women. These include End Revenge Porn, Women Against Revenge Porn, and Without My Consent.

Most of all, though few things may seem worse than having a permanent reputation-tarnishing item floating around on the Internet, out of your control, don’t get discouraged. For most people, even damaging content can and will sink to the bottom of the Internet where it belongs, given enough time. While you may not ever be able to erase the evidence, you may find yourself doing what Wells and Downey both did, and taking greater control over your digital persona and the things people find when they google you.

When in doubt, your best protection against revenge porn is probably still the tried and true one: Think before you pose.

H/T Sarah A Downey, Esq. | Photo via Rachel James/Flickr (Remix by Jay Hathaway)