TAKEDOWN

How to Fight Back Against Revenge Porn

If you’re a victim of revenge porn, recording evidence is your most important weapon.

01.12.16 5:01 AM ET

“Screenshot everything.”

That’s attorney Carrie Goldberg’s first piece of advice to victims of nonconsensual pornography, also known as revenge porn. Goldberg serves on the board of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) and as a volunteer attorney for the organization’s End Revenge Porn (ERP) initiative.

When someone—usually but not always a woman, according to ERP statistics—discovers that sexual images or videos of herself have been posted online without her consent, her first instinct is usually to get them taken down right away. But rushing to remove them, Goldberg says, can make it difficult to penalize the offender who, in the majority of revenge porn cases, is an ex-boyfriend.

“The kneejerk reaction for most victims is to immediately do whatever they can to remove the content even though the content is really necessary to prove a criminal or a civil case,” said Goldberg.

Goldberg’s Brooklyn law firm specializes in cases of Internet privacy, abuse, domestic violence, and sexual consent. In her practice, she advises revenge porn victims to record as much evidence as they can, including messages sent by the offender, view counts, upload dates, and even the comments section below the posts.

“[Comments] tend to be very violent and graphic,” Goldberg explained. “Comments are instructional because if you’re trying to get the police or a judge to understand the harm of revenge porn—and how the consumers of revenge porn end up becoming harassers by proxy—then the comments show that.”

2015 was the year when Silicon Valley finally began to take revenge porn more seriously. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Google all formally announced bans on the practice, in which sexual photos taken without consent or within a relationship are disseminated online, often alongside the victim’s full name or contact information.

In October, PornHub, the largest porn website on the Internet, also launched a new content removal form for revenge porn victims to file takedown requests more easily.

It was also the year when revenge porn legislation crossed a tipping point. Now, 26 states and the District of Columbia have laws pertaining to revenge porn, with bills pending in several other states.

But even as legislative and technological support for victims grows, many women are still uncertain about what they should do in the immediate aftermath of discovering images of themselves online. One week ago, for instance, a Reddit user posting under a burner account on the TwoXChromosomes subreddit said that she was shocked to find pornographic videos of her and her boyfriend on the Internet.

“What are my options?” she asked. “Where do I turn?”

The most reliable option is 10 digits long. The CCRI runs a free 24/7 helpline for U.S. victims of nonconsensual pornography.

In addition to calling that number, Goldberg has several crucial pieces of advice for revenge porn victims. First, she says, victims should quickly adjust their social media privacy settings, setting up two-factor authentication for added security.

“As soon as the victim realizes that she’s been the victim of revenge porn, she needs to lock down her social media,” she said.

This step is essential because exes and other offenders often post the images on dedicated revenge porn websites along with identifying information or derogatory statements about the victims that may encourage stalking, harassment, or hacking attempts. Forty-nine percent of respondents to an ERP survey said that their nonconsensually posted images were accompanied by their social media handle, or a screenshot of their profile. Sixteen percent said their home address was attached to the material.

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An important aside: Although Goldberg tells victims to make their social media accounts more secure, she also advises against blocking the offender from sending incoming messages, as vile as they might be, so that they can be used in a criminal or civil case.

Then, to discover just how far the revenge porn has spread, Goldberg recommends that victims Google themselves alongside derogatory terms such as “slut,” or “my slutty ex.”

“The victim’s name alone might not come up with links to revenge porn but if you add the word ‘whore’ after her name, or something that the offender would have posted alongside her name, that can lead to more material,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s so important for the victim to know the breadth of the attack.”

After evidence collection, victims face two concurrent tasks: taking legal action and getting the offensive material wiped from the Web.

The latter task can be dizzyingly complex but ERP’s Online Removal Guide contains instructions for submitting removal requests to social media services like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and Tumblr, and to search engines like Yahoo, Google, and Bing.

Without a removal form, victims must directly contact webmasters, asking for removal and stipulating that all metadata be preserved for future litigation—requests that Goldberg says often won’t be honored without a subpoena.

Barring that, if a victim can claim copyright to the material—a selfie, for instance—a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown letter might do the trick.

“There aren’t a lot of rules on the Internet but one set of rules that most online service providers and webmasters take seriously are copyright rules, so that can be a very powerful tool for victims,” said Goldberg.

Legal recourse for revenge porn victims is a similarly patchwork system. Although the majority of states now have revenge porn laws on the books, not all laws are created equal. Some require proof of intent to cause distress in order to prosecute, some have weak punishments, others have exemptions for public figures. Goldberg holds up Illinois’ new revenge porn law as an example of an ironclad piece of legislation but says that otherwise the field is “split” between effective and ineffective laws.

“These cases should be very easy to prosecute because the distribution is the proof,” she said. “The fact that the images are on the Internet is the proof of the crime.”

But they can prove challenging nonetheless. If the victim and the offender live in different states, for example, law enforcement in each state may, as Goldberg says, “tell her to report it to the other state.”

If victims can’t get revenge porn legislation to work in their favor—or if neither they nor the offender live in a state where these laws apply—litigators still have other options. In addition to pursuing civil action, revenge porn may often involve other, related crimes that can be criminally prosecuted.

“If [the victim] does not live in a state where there is a revenge porn law, there may be other laws that were broken,” Goldberg explained.

Were the pictures taken without consent? That could be covered under unlawful surveillance law, says Goldberg. Is the victim underage? Child porn laws would likely apply. Is the offender stalking, harassing, or threatening the victim? That can be reported, too. In many instances, a victim can also seek a restraining order against the offender and take action if he violates it.

“Frankly, I, as a civil lawyer, don’t have the patience to wait for every state to pass laws,” Goldberg told The Daily Beast. “It is a space where there is no playbook. We’re creating the methods as we go along.”

Above all, Goldberg tells victims to get in touch with ERP right away so that they can understand that they are not alone, and that this nightmare is not their fault.

“We deal with victims of privacy invasion, and this form of sexual violence, all day every day,” she said. “And victims likely don’t know anybody else who’s dealing with this. It can be a very isolating, miserable experience, so it’s important that they get in touch with support as soon as possible.”