Revenge Porn and Leaked Celebrity Images

On Sunday night, members of the Internet forum 4chan leaked naked photographs of hundreds of female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Arianna Grande, and Kate Upton. These pictures were (as far as we know) consensually taken, but stolen off their personal devices or from their iCloud accounts by hackers. These images are now plastered across the Internet.

Millions of people have sought these images out, knowing full well  that the women had no intention of these images going public. Indeed, the search queries for Jennifer Lawrence on Google on the day of the leak were exponentially higher than her next most-searched day – when she won her Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

Lawrence, like tens of thousands of women worldwide, is a victim of revenge porn – a misogynist practice designed to control, degrade, and sexually humiliate women. For now, the person(s) responsible are anonymous, but Gawker has suggested that it was a semi-private group of men who traded illegally hacked images for bitcoins and bragging rights.

On Twitter, victim blaming has proliferated. Essentially, say a lot of people, if Kate Upton didn’t want these photos leaked, she shouldn’t have taken them in the first place. This is the cyber version of the common refrain: “if she didn’t want to get raped, she shouldn’t have worn a short skirt.” To say Upton asked for it because she is a celebrity is ridiculous.

This time round, though, the dialogue surrounding this leak has been more constructive than in the past. In 2007, when a nude photo of then-18-year-old Disney Channel star Vanessa Hudgens appeared online, she was forced to apologise, though it was leaked without her permission. The leaker is still unknown, and no one criticized the security measures of her digital device providers or the creepy effort that must have gone into hacking those images. Instead, a Disney Channel representative intoned: “Vanessa has apologized for what was obviously a lapse in judgement. We hope she’s learned a valuable lesson.”

Now, perhaps because we are more keenly aware of cyber security, or perhaps because Jennifer Lawrence is so widely adored , the conversation has shifted to focus on the identity and methods of the hacker(s), and the punishment they should face.  This has triggered a larger discussion about misogyny, privacy and civil liberties on the Internet. This time, the shaming has largely been the other way round. For the first time, there has been a backlash against simply watching the content, with a number of writers and celebrities imploring users to avoid clicking on the images.   

However, the sad truth is that this is just one headline-grabbing example of an epidemic-level problem. Behind Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton stand thousands of ordinary women who have been subjected to the humiliation and harassment of revenge porn.  

The use of technology as a tool to punish and control women has reached alarming levels, according to McAfee’s 2013 Love, Relationships, and Technology survey. The survey shows that one tenth of ex-partners have threatened to post naked images of their ex-girlfriends online. About 60 percent of that group have actually done it. While this practice is occasionally inflicted on men, research by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative suggests that as many as 90 per cent of revenge porn victims are women. Thousands of videos on general porn websites have been posted to humiliate ex-girlfriends, and there are dozens of revenge-porn specific websites. Here, women’s names, telephone numbers, Facebook pages and home addresses are shared along with nude photos. This offers random Internet-dwelling misogynists great power to stalk, intimidate, and threaten women.

There are some legal options available to victims of revenge porn. If they took the images or recorded the videos themselves, they can use copyright law to get them taken down from specific websites. It is also often possible to bring a lawsuit against the poster, with the potential to recover damages.  Since people’s livelihoods can be entirely ruined by revenge porn (many people have been fired when pictures are sent to their bosses, for example), damages are important. 

Our firm has represented several victims of revenge porn.  Although the law does not provide easy answers, we have made progress in targeting the perpetrators and helping some of our clients get the images taken down.

But stronger legal tools are needed. There is a growing movement to combat revenge porn through criminal punishments: already, 13 US states have passed criminal statutes, and a similar proposal looks to be introduced shortly in the UK. Making it a crime tells perpetrators that revenge porn is entirely unacceptable, and should also lead the way to more effective civil options.

There’s also an argument to be made that websites should be held responsible for their content. As of now, host websites in the US have legal immunity from the often-poor decisions of their “third party” users, due to Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act; many other countries have similar laws.  This gives revenge porn sites the right to claim that nothing is “their fault” because they are just conduits for what people want to post, and that doing more would allegedly limit “free speech” – though in the case of child porn, such limits are almost universally accepted. While the internet is a valuable space for the expression of unregulated opinions, the public good is not served in any way by seeing naked pictures of people, celebrities or not, released without their consent. It is time wealthy websites—financially and legally immune for the time being—be held accountable for policing the standards of the online communities they create. They should privilege women’s safety over a hacker’s right to harass, rob, and intimidate them. When they fail to do so, they should be made responsible for the damage done to the victim.

This recent theft may have a silver lining. It should lead people to think twice about the content they are viewing on the Internet, and not assume that naked pictures are victimless follies.  It should strengthen the movement against online civil rights violations, and demonstrate to legislators the need for stronger protections and more tech-savvy enforcement. Beating revenge porn will not be easy, but many more people now understand its depravity.