Article Lead Image

Celebgate victims threaten Google with $100 million lawsuit

"Google's 'Don't be evil' motto is a sham."


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Oct 2, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 11:48 am CDT

Hollywood stars whose naked photos were recently leaked to the public have a threat for Google: stop linking to our pics, or we’ll sue.

A lawyer representing a number of victims of the Celebgate scandal has written a letter to the tech giant, threatening a $100 million lawsuit if it doesn’t take immediate steps to block the circulation of the images.

The letter, which comes from noted Hollywood lawyer Marty Singer, charges that his clients have spent the past four weeks filing numerous notices to have Google take  user-posted images down from the company’s properties. However, Singer charges, the company has been unwilling to fulfill its legal obligations and remove the images.

The letter was addressed to the company’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

Google wasn’t the only company that’s hosted the images, which were reportedly obtained through a security hole in Apple’s iCloud photo hosting service, but Singer alleges most other companies that he contacted moved much more expeditiously to remove the photos from their servers.

The vast majority of those sites and ISPs/hosts, all of which are much smaller than Google, with far fewer staff and resources, complied with their obligations under the DMCA and removed the Images within the hour or two of receiving our DMCA notice. Yet Google, one of the largest ISPs in the world, with vast resources and a huge support staff, generating multi millions of dollars in revenues on a daily basis, has recklessly allowed these blatant violations to continue in conscious disregard of our clients’ rights.

He noted that Twitter has done a far better job of blocking the content, and charged that Google is deliberately allowing the images to remain on platforms like Blogger and YouTube.

“In fact, Google’s YouTube counsel and compliance department refuse to remove stolen images through your expedited content verification process would would facilitates the instant removal of the images uploaded to YouTube,” the letter reads. “Google has chosen to protect its revenue stream partners in order to earn multi millions of dollars on a weekly basis over the rights and protection of individuals.”

There is some danger in going public against Google. As per the Streisand Effect, which states that any effort to have a piece of online content censored will just result in more attention being drawn to that content, now a significantly larger portion of people know its possible find the offending images on YouTube and Blogger.

Representatives from Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other websites that have either hosted or provided links to Celebgate content have taken drastic moves to crack down on people using their services to spread it. Reddit shut down its r/TheFappening community, which had become the central online hub for sharing the pictures. For its part, 4chan the anarchic message board where the nude photos first appeared, updated its user policies following the incident.

The celebrities’ ability to have their nude photos taken down relies on copyright law. Unless otherwise stated, copyright on a given photo vests in the person who took it. The nude selfies at the heart of the Celebgate are all technically owned by the celebrities, or their romantic parters, who where behind the smartphone cameras. As a result, they have the ability to make claims of copyright infringement against anyone who shares them in the same way that a record label could go after someone sharing a pirated song.

“When it comes to copyright, the obscenity part doesn’t matter,” Richard Assmus, an intellectual property attorney with the law form Mayer Brown told the Daily Dot in September. “These photos could be of the view from someone’s apartment window overlooking Central Park. What matters is that they’re copyrighted.”

Under the “safe harbor” provision of Digital Millennium Copyright Act, companies aren’t liable pirated copyright content uploaded by users on their servers as long as those companies remove that content when they are notified about its existence.

“To qualify for…safe harbor, the ISP/host much not have actual knowledge that it is hosting infringing material,” Singer wrote. “Pursuant to our dozens of notices to you, Google has had actual knowledge of ongoing mass infringement (including from repeat infringers on Google based sites) and Google was legally obligated to expeditiously remove or disable access to the allegedly infringing viral material.”

“Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ motto is a sham,” he added.

Singer has reportedly declined to name the celebrities he is representing, but a search of DMCA claims on the copyright takedown notice search engine Chilling Effect made by Lavely & Singer to Google in recent weeks were on behalf of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and Justin Verlander, Kirsten Dunst, McKayla Maroney, and Krysten Ritter.

Of the URLs to the infringing photos cited in the the complaints listed on Chilling Effects, the majority had been removed or were replaced by completely unrelated images hosted at the same online locations that previously housed Celebgate content.

The letter demanded that Google remove the images, suspend or terminate all of the sites that hosted them, and block all search results which could result in a user finding the stolen images.

Despite Singer’s insistence, the company may not have to get out its giant Google Wallet quite yet. “I don’t think that Google has a whole lot to worry about legally,” said Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

She explained that there are a lot of reasons why Google may not be honoring the takedown claims in a manner that is to Singer’s clients’ liking. Google could be arguing that the celebrities themselves may not be actually be the copyright holder of certain photos—only the owner of the copyright of a piece of intellectual property had the ability to file a takedown notice. Additionally, there’s no exact legal definition for the timeframe a piece of flagged content has to be removed in. “One court has said it’s within 24 hours, but actual rule is that it just has to be ‘expeditious.'”

McSherry insisted that the most important thing note is that, while Singer’s letter demands it to do so, “Google isn’t required to go out and affirmatively search for, locate, and then take down all the examples of a certain piece of copyrighted content.”

Read the entire letter here:

Hacked celebrities threaten to sue

H/T Page Six | Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Update: The story has been updated to include a comment from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Share this article
*First Published: Oct 2, 2014, 3:29 pm CDT