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Revenge porn websites ensnare Ohioans

Push for legislation to outlaw vengeful posting of sexual content online.


The victims of revenge porn websites — where people reveal personal information about ex-lovers and others and post nude and pornographic photographs without their knowledge — are calling on state and federal lawmakers to ban the practice.

California recently passed legislation that makes it illegal for people to post some nude images online without the consent of the people pictured.

“The drive behind these websites is completely malicious,” said Holly Jacobs, founder of EndRevengePorn.org, a national campaign of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and herself a victim of the websites. “It is this day and age’s Scarlet Letter — it is just a way for (people) to get back at their exes for breaking up with them or cheating on them.”

In Ohio, hundreds of people are using the Internet to punish and humiliate ex-lovers and others by posting nude and pornographic photos and videos of them along with their personal information, such as their names, ages, home addresses and how to contact them. A majority of the victims are women.

“Revenge porn” websites contain hundreds of explicit images of women from across southwest Ohio, and most images and profile pages have been viewed thousands of times by visitors to the sites.

Many of the area women featured on these websites told the newspaper they were unaware sexually-explicit images of them existed online, and most said they never dreamed private photos would be shared on the Internet for the purposes of hurting and humiliating them.

Jacobs and other critics said the images and information posted on these websites can hurt employment prospects, as well as create a significant source of distress since friends, relatives and co-workers can discover them.

Free speech or bullying?

But some proponents of First Amendment rights said though revenge porn is despicable, they fear new laws that seek to ban the activity may have a deleterious effect on free speech on other websites that have nothing to do with sexually-explicit content.

One Dayton resident, who asked not to be named, told the newspaper she is stunned and outraged her ex-husband posted nude images of her following a messy divorce.

“I think this is horrible, and I think it’s deplorable, and I think it encourages depraved human behavior,” she said. “If you have a problem with someone, you should address it with that person directly and shouldn’t be able to hide behind a veil of anonymity and attack people without their knowledge, consent or control.”

Most of the operators promote their websites are there to “punish” ex-lovers by publishing embarrassing photos and videos without their permission and often without their knowledge.

Last year, a Sinclair Community College student ran a revenge porn website, IsAnyoneBack.com, which featured explicit photos of people, mainly women, with their names and home addresses. After receiving complaints, the student’s site and its content was removed in December. A message posted on the site said its operator agreed to take it down after paying a “nominal” buyout.

One of the Internet’s most notorious revenge porn site, IsAnyoneUp.com, was also shut down in 2012 after the owner agreed to shutter it and was paid a “nominal fee” by an anti-bullying group.

Anti-bullying organizations have targeted and tried to buyout and shut down revenge porn websites because they say they are extremely harmful, and victims of the activity often become depressed, anxious and experience suicidal thoughts.

Operators of some revenge porn websites alert visitors they will comply with requests to remove content, especially when initiated by an attorney. But some are less cooperative, and federal law generally protects site operators against legal liability. The majority of the sites include a link to the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by others.

The website that has posted hundreds of explicit photos of women from Ohio says on its site it will not remove any images or personal information unless the images feature minors or the company is paid $499 through Western Union. “If you are an adult who has been submitted to this site tough luck,” the website says.

The company has a mailing address in the Netherlands, and the only contact information is an e-mail address. Site operators did not return requests for comment.

Limited legal recourse

Jacobs said the websites that charge people to remove explicit images and videos certainly sounds like extortion. But if the site is hosted overseas, the owners may believe they are not legally liable for the its content.

“It’s gotten a reputation as being one of the most difficult sites for victims to get their pictures taken down from,” she said of the website.

Jacobs knows how hard it is to get compromising photos removed from the Internet.

Jacobs, who lives in Florida, said she shared racy photos with her boyfriend while they were in a long-distance relationship. But when they broke up, nude photos of her began to appear on various websites.

Jacobs filed a civil lawsuit against her ex, and Florida authorities eventually decided to file criminal charges against him for cyber stalking, disclosure of private facts and harassment.

Victims of revenge websites sometimes can pursue civil action against people who harass them by posting explicit photos online.

But state and federal lawmakers across the nation need to pass legislation outlawing revenge porn behaviors to help protect victims of this abusive and harassing activity, Jacobs said.

New Jersey is the only state with a law that specifically criminalizes revenge porn-type behaviors — it classifies certain types of content sharing as a punishable invasion of privacy.

California state legislators recently passed a bill that makes it a misdemeanor criminal offense to post some sexually explicit images online without the consent of the people pictured.

“This is a new phenomenon, and technology has moved a lot faster than the law,” said Jeff Macedo, a spokesman for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. “We heard from law enforcement that this is a growing problem, and they just don’t have any tools to combat it.”

Lawmakers in Georgia, Maryland and Wisconsin are working on bills to combat revenge porn, and legislators in Florida may re-introduce a bill to address the problem, Jacobs said.

But Jacobs said the exact language of bills that seek to curb revenge porn is extremely important, because the legislation in California will not help most victims. She said the bill does not cover revenge porn if the victims took videos or photos of themselves.

Creating safeguards

Revenge porn falls in a gray area of the law, because in some circumstances it may rise to the level of cyber stalking or harassment, but it may not in other cases, said Art Jipson, the director of the Criminal Justice Studies Program and associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton.

“Is it a violation of privacy? Well yes, but what is the expectation of privacy when the person willingly sent the photo to the other person in the first place?” he said. “It’s tricky because it doesn’t quite match the laws we have on the books right now.”

Jipson said he would like Ohio lawmakers to create reasonable safeguards against the vengeful and malicious publication of sexually explicit content online, but while still protecting appropriate Internet activities.

“I do think we need greater regulation on this, and when we post (certain private) pictures of people we need to have their permission,” he said. “We should continue to look at this and study this and pass legislation that protects people — especially kids and vulnerable populations.”

But some legal experts said outrage over revenge porn websites could lead to bad laws that threaten free speech.

Federal law generally protects web hosts from legal liability relating to information posted by third parties on their websites, said Monica Dias, a media attorney with Frost Brown Todd, LLC in Cincinnati.

But revenge porn websites could be the issue that tempts federal lawmakers to pass legislation that ends immunity for website operators, she said.

Punish lawbreakers

The Internet is essentially a virtual town square where people are free to express themselves, even though people can still be held liable for their statements if they are defamatory and invade someone’s privacy, she said.

She said lawmakers should not punish people for creating and operating digital town squares.

“All website operators are doing is providing a forum,” she said. “So from a pure free speech perspective, you shouldn’t punish the forum for the bad, defamatory and actionable statements people are making on the forum.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said current law promotes free speech online by not holding Internet intermediaries responsible for the behavior of users.

“We’ve always taken the position that the collateral damage caused by allowing sites to be held responsible for what their users’ bad behavior will on balance do far more harm than good as site operators will simply restrict lawful speech of all kinds out of fear of litigation or potential criminal sanctions,” said Matthew Zimmerman, the foundation’s senior staff attorney. “The focus should remain on punishing people who break the law, not those who create the speech tools in the first place.”

Revenge porn is an unfortunate consequence of the growing tendency for people to overshare online and in their personal lives, Jipson said.

Many relationships do not last, and break ups can be extremely ugly. Angry lovers who possess sexual and embarrassing images and videos may decide to use them in hurtful ways. Many of the people featured on revenge porn websites are young and may not understand the potential long-term consequence of sharing explicit material.

“We need to educate people about being really thoughtful about every photo they take with their phone, and every photo they share online,” Jipson said. “Anything you share has the potential of winding up on a site like that.”


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