Revenge porn: let’s go after the websites

After Emma Holten had her computer hacked and her intimate photos shared online she sent a message to one of the websites hosting the revenge pornography asking them to remove the images. As Holten reports in her Guardian short film, the reply she got was:

 

you shouldn't have been such a whore in the first place.

 

Other websites might insist on receiving payments for taking down the images, or just not reply at all. The reason is simple: there is no law preventing website operators from hosting revenge pornography. They can hide behind laws that are designed to protect free speech and freedom of information for all of us.

Website operators – which can be as big as Twitter and as small as any individual who owns a website – are not held responsible for user generated content. If you run a website and other people provide the content, by posting comments or blogs, you’re not liable for what they say.

However, if the post includes defamatory material, e.g. accusations against an individual about being a sexual abuser, the website would have to take action to remove it. A website operator who received such takedown notification could not lawfully reply with anything close to the answer Emma Holten received.

As reported in the Telegraph, this was discussed at a McAllister Olivarius sponsored event at the inaugural Clear Lines festival in Central London. As one of the very few law firms specialising in revenge pornography we know that while victims/survivors certainly want to seek justice against the perpetrator, more than anything they want the abuse to end: they want the pictures and videos removed.  The current law offers limited support.

The websites that host revenge pornography tend to be run for profit mainly through the display of advertisements. Everyone who looks at those images is creating the demand. The internet does not ask for what reasons the images are viewed; the mere fact that they are viewed at all keeps the abuse alive.

While those of us who have called for robust legislation in this field have celebrated the law that entered to force last April, criminalising the posting of revenge pornography (with the intention to cause distress), it is evident that the law does not go far enough.

We need law that effectively tackles the widespread circulation of revenge pornography and the brutal online harassment that often goes hand-in-hand with it. In addition to the criminal law, a civil remedy would increase the likelihood that justice would be served. An effective civil law could allow victims to sue the perpetrators, the hosting websites and the harassers for damages. This could serve as an effective deterrent to other people who might be considering posting, hosting or viewing revenge pornography, and hopefully also to those thousands of anonymous trolls who find online pleasure in other people’s suffering.

As always, legal remedies are only a part of the solution to violence and societal harms. Education and raising awareness are vital. But the law has to take a clear stand against the violence that revenge pornography is.