How and Why Revenge Porn is Shared

ccri-logoMy recent partnership with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) has kept me very busy fighting revenge pornography, having filed nearly a hundred free DMCA notices for victims.

Meanwhile, on paper at least, several major players have begun making their own stands against nonconsensual pornography including policy changes by Reddit and Twitter, both of whom are now promising to remove such images when notified, regardless of copyright.

While this policies might be helpful to at least some, the policies are somewhat out of touch with how nonconsensual pornography is actually shared in the real world.

The reason is that revenge pornography is not about distributing the work to the widest audience possible. Rather, it’s about distributing to the “correct” audience and that audience depends greatly upon the nature of the material and why it’s being distributed.

Once we do that, we can then begin to look at these anti-revenge porn policies and, most importantly, how they can be improved.

The Why of Revenge Porn

Twitter_logo_blueNonconsensual pornography is often referred to as revenge pornography, but it’s not always done with revenge as a motive. While many times sexual images and photos are leaked online with the intent of harming or shaming the subject, often times the images are released just because there are those online who want to look at it.

This means, on the whole, there are two reasons for distributing nonconsensual pornography: Revenge and enjoyment.

Nonconsensual pornography shared for the purpose of revenge often isn’t posted publicly online at all. Instead, it’s sent directly to friends, family members, employers and others that the subject would be hurt if they saw it. The goal is to maximize the embarrassment and humiliation and though broader posting can be a part of that strategy, it often isn’t.

When it is posted more broadly, it’s usually done with the intent of ruining their name or hurting their ability to escape it. This means posting it on sites that will not only appear for Google searches for their name, but also include other personal information such as phone numbers, email addresses, Facebook accounts and even home addresses.

The goal is to maximize the embarrassment and harm the photos do to the victim, not necessarily reach the broadest audience possible.

In other cases, such as with hacked accounts or content that was originally leaked on accident, the goal isn’t to cause harm to the victims, but to simply enjoy the content.

To some online, the private, personal nature of nonconsensual pornography makes it more appealing. Such people congregate in sites, forums and groups online that specialize in the sharing and trading of nonconsensual pornography. These groups will often take steps to ensure that the subject of the content is unaware of the use, making it harder for them to find it.

While the viewers clearly don’t care if their viewers are harmed by it or feel violated, it’s not their gaol. They seek only their own gratification and the violation of privacy is just a part of that.

So, with that in mind, how is nonconsensual pornography shared online? The answer depends on the motive.

How Revenge Porn is Spread Online

reddit-736-sizedTo understand how nonconsensual pornography is shared, we have to take a look at the two situations separately.

True revenge pornography, as stated above, may never be shared publicly online and, instead, be messaged privately to people close to the victim. If it is posted publicly, it will be where it can do the most harm and that typically includes sites dedicated to revenge pornography.

That’s because those sites not only allow but encourage the posting of names and other personal information. Other porn sites strictly disallow the publication of private information. While nonconsensual pornography may look exactly the same as voluntary, amateur pornography, adding personal information crosses clear lines that cause such sites to flag and remove content relatively quickly.

While there are some video and image sites that do tolerate this behavior, the focus, generally, is on the revenge porn sites dedicated to this activity.

Meanwhile, nonconsensual pornography that is shared for personal enjoyment is shared the same way as any other type of pornography. Videos are uploaded to pornographic “tube” sites (YouTube-like sites for porn) and images are on image hosts that are tolerant of adult content. Since nonconsensual pornography looks the exact same amateur porn, they can fly under the radar and be shared in groups, forums and other communities where such viewers congregate.

One frustrating twist is that these tube and image sites, generally, offer embeds of their content. While there isn’t a great deal of mainstream embedding of pornographic video content, spammers have latched on to this content, in particular the video, and created porn sites based entirely upon embeds from other parties.

The result is that a handful of uploads to a tube site can quickly become hundreds of spam links. However, taking down the tube site versions also removes all of the spam ones as the videos stop working.

The other wrinkle is that a lot of non-consensual pornography starts out as one type and turns into the other over time. For example, a person may leak photos and videos of a victim for the purpose of revenge, only to have them picked up by groups that trade in it and have no interest in the revenge aspect.

Likewise, it’s possible for content to start out being traded by those who have no ill will to the subject, only to eventually land in the hands of someone who does and then uses the now-public content to that end.

The result is that no two cases on nonconsensual pornography are exactly alike and there is no guarantee how they are going to end up. Some might be one round of posting and nothing else, others could start small and grow to involve thousands of links. It’s all a matter of the intent when posting and how the work is picked up.

The result is that it’s impossible to know exactly what will become of a case of nonconsensual pornography when it begins, but it does provide clues as to what can be done to reduce the amount of it online.

Policies that Work

While Reddit and Twitter’s policy changes are welcome, the simple removal of images after notification isn’t going to make a huge difference in battling nonconsensual pornography. Many of the victims might not be aware that their images and videos are being shared and others who are might be too overwhelmed by the size of the problem to take any action.

The problem with Reddit and Twitter’s stand is two-fold. First, neither are actual major vectors for distributing revenge pornography. Reddit doesn’t actually host images and, while Twitter does host images, it’s not done in a way that’s likely to show up in Google reach a targeted group.

Second, neither policy took a firm stance on what they could do that would actually help: Targeting the groups and individuals that distribute nonconsensual pornography.

For Reddit, promising to remove images and links when notified is meaningless when it allows several groups to specialize in the trading of nonconsensual pornography to operate openly. By not targeting subreddits dedicated to the exploitation of others, they guarantee that nonconsensual pornography will continue to thrive on the site.

This targeting of groups and sites that specialize in the trade need to be the first step for dealing with distribution for enjoyment. While one can’t hope to completely eliminate these groups, hosts and providers can be hostile toward them, making them more difficult to start, maintain and participate in. With fewer places to share, there will be less nonconsensual pornography uploaded and fewer views for what is.

For true revenge porn, the focus needs to be on the uploader. Copyright law, terms of services and so forth can not unring the bell. If those images are sent to parents, siblings, employers, etc. banning or blocking the submitter doesn’t do much good. The harm is done. If the victim can’t take legal action, there isn’t much that they can do to make things better.

This has proved problematic for many reasons, constitutional ones being a the top of the list, but without effective revenge porn laws, there isn’t much that can prevent or even mitigate many case of it.

Those laws also have to apply to the sites that deliberately host such content. Unfortunately, there too the enforcement has been lacking. Though the FTC recently came down on former revenge porn site operator Craig Brittain, he was not fined and faced no real penalty other than a ban on posting such images in the future. This despite earning an estimate $12,000 from the operation and providing a fake DMCA takedown service that essentially extorted victims.

Another revenge porn site operator, Hunter Moore, fared much worse. He received a $500,000 fine and and a two year sentence, but that dealt more with identity theft and hacking, activities that were not directly related to the revenge porn itself, but rather, how he obtained the images.

As long as there is limited risk in running a revenge porn site, there will always be such sites because there will always be an audience and a revenue stream with which to justify whatever risk does exist.

In short, to even begin making inroads against revenge porn, we need to kill the ecosystem that thrives around it, not just fruit that springs from it.

Bottom Line

Agreeing to remove nonconsensual porn images and videos while allowing groups and organizations that post it to thrive is akin to pruning the leaves off of a tree while allowing the trunk to stay intact.

While we may never be able to kill nonconsensual pornography, just as we can’t completely kill a lot of things that we don’t like on the Internet, we can make the Web a less hospitable place for it, reduce the number of victims and reduce how badly those who are victimized are injured.

To do that, we need more than feel good steps that look good in press releases. It’s going to take commitment to fight the problem and it will mean angering some people.

If any one or any site thinks that making a difference in this fight will come without sacrifice, they’re wrong. However, I believe that the sacrifice is well worth it, not just for the victims, but to make the communities that provide real assistance a better place for all of their visitors.

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