QotD: “Revenge porn: the industry profiting from online abuse”

Six years ago, Rebekah Wells Googled her name to see what turned up. The results horrified her: nude photos of herself taken by her ex-boyfriend, along with her name and address, on commercial porn sites such as ImageFlea, ImageEarn and PinkMeth.

She went to the police in her home town of Naples, Florida, and a sheriff’s deputy was assigned to her case. One year later she became romantically involved with the deputy, and after the relationship fizzled, Wells claims the police officer threatened to upload a new batch of her nudes.

She felt nauseated, embarrassed and angry. Wells managed to get her photos removed and filed suit against her ex and the sites, but the lawsuit fizzled. She also launched a site, Women Against Revenge Porn, to help other victims of abuse, though it is closed for now. But the sites that posted her photos weren’t just trying to satisfy her ex’s pathological desire for revenge – they were there to make money.

According to the Pew Research Center, four out of 10 people have been insulted, shamed, stalked, bullied or harassed online. Revenge porn is just one of the ways sites are profiting from internet abuse. And even sites that don’t profit directly may benefit in other ways from the attention online abuse can bring.

Revenge porn sites such as SeenMyGF or MyEx charge $100 a year to access private photos and videos of non-porn stars, almost invariably women, usually posted by spurned ex-lovers. But it doesn’t end there. As with every adult site, there’s an entire ecosystem supporting them – from domain registrars and web hosting services to upstream bandwidth providers and online payment systems. Everybody gets their cut.

Is this even legal? It depends. At present, 27 US states and the District of Columbia have laws barring nonconsensual (ie, revenge) porn, but penalties vary and prosecutions are rare. One problem is that most law enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to handle crimes of cyber exploitation, says attorney Bennet Kelley, founder of the Internet Law Center.

“I have had clients tell me the cops confessed to them they don’t do this cyber stuff,” he says. “Another barrier to prosecution is the ‘blame the victim’ mentality, which is still fairly prevalent.”

A handful of victims have also won high-profile civil lawsuits. Last December, a Texas court awarded Bindu Pariyar $7.25m after her ex-husband posted thousands of nude photos and videos of her online. (She also claims that he forced her to work in a strip club and as a prostitute.) But Pariyar told a Nepali news site she doesn’t expect to collect much from her ex, and the damage is probably irreparable: her nude photos have spread to mainstream porn sites.

Kevin Bollaert thought up an even better money-making revenge porn scheme: extortion. First, the 28-year-old from San Diego published more than 10,000 nude photos on his site YouGotPosted and linked them to the women’s social media accounts. When victims demanded their photos be removed, Bollaert directed them toward another site he owned, ChangeMyReputation, where he charged $300 or more to have images expunged.

Last February, Bollaert was convicted on 27 felony counts of identity theft and extortion and sentenced to 18 years in prison. But the business model he helped foster continues in less illegal but no less unsavory forms.

Scores of businesses routinely scrape law enforcement sites for mugshots of recent arrestees, republish them, then charge $400 or more to remove them. A handful of US states now prohibit the release of mugshots to commercial sites or have outlawed the practice of charging to remove a mugshot; in most cases, though, the practice is perfectly legal because mugshots are considered part of the public record.

Then there are advertising-sponsored gossip sites such as TheDirty, as well as tell-all sites such as ShesAHomewrecker, DatingPsychos, DeadbeatDirectory and BadBoyReport, where readers share often defamatory material about others.

These sites are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes them from legal responsibility for material posted by their users. (Reader comments on US sites are also protected under Section 230.) And because scandalous material drives readership, sites are usually loathe to remove anything unless it violates copyrights or involves a minor.

[…]

For the vast majority of online harassers, however, the benefit is not monetary but psychological, says Danielle Citron, professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.

“You think of a site like 4chan, where people actually proclaim themselves trolls,” she says. “They derive pleasure from other people’s pain. They’re doing it for the lulz.”

Perversely, while the internet has given a voice to vast numbers of people who might not otherwise be heard, unfettered free speech can have a chilling effect, whether it’s Gamergaters ganging up on female writers or Donald Trump using Twitter to attack his enemies, notes Stephen Balkam, CEO and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute.

“I think the people who profit most from online harassment are those who use it to suppress other people’s thoughts, suggestions, comments, and criticisms,” he says. “We are often so focused on making sure governments don’t chill speech, and here are anonymous stalkers and harassers doing just that.”

Full article here

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