Category: Cyber Civil Rights

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The Flawed Foundations of Article III Standing in Surveillance Cases (Part IV)

In my first three posts, I’ve opened a critical discussion of Article III standing for plaintiffs challenging government surveillance programs by introducing the 1972 Supreme Court case of Laird v. Tatum. In today’s post, I’ll examine the Court’s decision itself, which held that chilling effects arising “merely from the individual’s knowledge” of likely government surveillance did not constitute adequate injury to meet Article III standing requirements.

The Burger Court

It didn’t take long for courts to embrace Laird as a useful tool to dismiss cases where plaintiffs sought to challenge government surveillance programs, especially where the complaints rested on a First Amendment chill from political profiling by law enforcement. Some judges took exception to a broad interpretation of Laird, but objections largely showed up in dissenting opinions. For the most part, early interpretations of Laird sympathized with the government’s view of surveillance claims.

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Dispatches from Durham: Sexual Double Standards, Victim Blaming, and Online Abuse

In a series of recent pieces, the Duke Chronicle documented the experience of female students who were shamed for their expressing their sexuality. In one case, a young woman sent an e-mail to her sorority sisters saying that she had sex with a well-known performer who visited campus. The e-mail was leaked to multiple fraternity listservs, the site Betches Love This, and anonymous gossip site Collegiate ACB. On the site, the student was called a “whore, cum dumpster, and swamp monkey.” The various posts received hundreds of similar comments. The student deactivated her Facebook profile, deleted her Instagram, and disabled her Twitter account. Duke freshman “Lauren” was working in the porn industry to earn money to defray some of her college expenses. Lauren had not told anyone about her porn work, until a male classmate confronted her after watching her in a porn film. The student shared his discovery at a fraternity rush event. The story of the “freshman pornstar” went viral. The day after the student talked to his friends, Lauren received more than 230 friend requests on Facebook. Within days, the topic “Freshman Pornstar” was trending on Collegiate ACB. As Lauren confided to the school newspaper, the torment on Duke’s fourth campus–the online campus of the “towering chapel of Facebook,” the “student center of Twitter,” and the “grungy alleyways of Collegiate ACB”–was unrelenting. In a month’s time, the “Freshman Pornstar” thread on Collegiate ACB had 136 comments. The post was the seventh-most-recently commented post on Duke’s page on the gossip site. Some of the now-188 comments were vile, urging readers to write in once they have “banged” her and claiming that she slept with specific individuals and members of fraternities. Some were dangerous, noting her name and address. Comments blamed her for the abuse she was getting: “we going to pretend like she was unaware of the social consequences of going into that business? she made a decision, now she needs to live with the consequences;” “There’s no way she’s going to become a lawyer being a porn star (no law school is going to accept her). Seriously, she needs to get over herself and face the consequences of being a slut. I’ll be surprised if Duke doesn’t kick her out;” “Congratulations, you’ve ruined your own life.” Others defended the student: “you’re seriously making fun of her for that? um.. yeah this is the epitome of bullying.. you guys have written on a public forum her full name and where she lives (leaving her open for stalking and harassment) . as well as calling her a slut and attacking her personal beliefs.” As Lauren told the Chronicle, she feels harassed, hated, and discriminated against. She questions her decision to go to Duke given the abuse.

The Duke Chronicle’s editorial board wrote that the elite university is an “embittered battleground and discussions about Lauren–a first-year porn actress–have extracted salacious and sexist commentary from Duke’s student community.” The board found two primary themes in the commentary: characterizations of Lauren as a morally bankrupt slut and comments expressing a lewd desire to have sex with her. A third, unexamined theme, however, was also apparent–that Lauren was to blame for anything bad coming her way. She chose to do porn, so she assumed the risk of online harassment, poor employment opportunities, social shunning, and the possibility of getting kicked out of school.

Blaming the victim is a typical response to individuals facing online harassment, individuals who are mostly female and who are mostly attacked in sexually demeaning and threatening ways, as my articles and forthcoming book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace explore. After tech blogger Kathy Sierra was threatened with rape and strangulation via e-mail and on her blog, the response was that she chose to blog, so if she could not handle the heat, she should get out of the kitchen. College students blogging about sex were told that they “asked for” rape threats, defamatory lies, and the non-consensual posting of their nude photos because they blogged about their sexuality. Lena Chen’s experience was typical. When Chen attended Harvard, she wrote Sex and the Ivy. Anonymous commenters attacked her not with substantive criticisms of her opinions, but rather with death threats, suggestions of sexualized violence, and racial slurs. On a gossip blog, someone posted her sexually explicit photos, taken by her ex-boyfriend, without her consent. As Slate writer Amanda Hess reported (who would later face rape threats herself, see her recent article about her experience), Chen’s nude photos were reposted all over the Internet. The abuse continued even after she shut down the blog. Chen was accused of provoking the abuse by “making a blog about her personal sex life.” She was labeled an “attention whore” who deserved what she got. Commentators said that she leaked her own naked photos to get attention. Others said that she wrote about sex because she wanted posters to make sexual advances. We hear the same about victims of revenge porn.

Blaming the victim is a recurring theme. Society once blamed female employees for provoking their employers’ sexual advances. Wives were once told that they provoked domestic abuse. Just as society now recognizes sexual harassment at work and domestic abuse as serious social problems that victims did not bring on themselves, female college students are not to blame for online abuse if they have sex or make porn. Bloggers who write about sex are not to blame for online attacks. Revenge porn victims should not be blamed when harassers violate their trust and vindictively post their nude photos. Sexual double standards are at the heart of this response. Would we, for instance, say the same to men writing about sex? Tucker Max earned millions from writing books and a blog about his drunken sexual experiences with hundreds of women. By contrast, female sex bloggers have been attacked and told that they “asked for it.” As the Duke chronicle insightfully noted, the wildly different responses to the sexual escapades of Duke graduates Tucker Max and Karen Owen confirm that a sexual double standard is alive and well.


 

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Could Revenge Porn Victims Seek Civil Liability Against Hunter Moore?

Suppose that former revenge porn operator Hunter Moore is convicted of federal crimes of conspiracy to engage in computer hacking. Could individuals whose nude photos appeared on his site next to their home addresses and screenshots of their Facebook profiles sue Moore for intentional infliction of emotional distress and public disclosure of private fact? Probably not, but it’s worth exploring the issue.

The closest case law involves civil penalties provided for under federal criminal law. In M.A. v. Village Voice, a federal district court judge found that Backpage.com enjoyed Section 230 immunity for civil penalties under the child trafficking statute, 18 U.S.C. 2255. Section 2255 allows victims of child trafficking to recover damages from those who had committed or profited from the crimes against them. provides that, “[a]ny person who, while a minor, was a victim of a violation of [criminal statutes concerning child trafficking] and who suffers personal injury as a result of such violation may sue” and “recover actual damages such person sustained.” The representatives of a victim of child trafficking argued that Section 230 immunity was inapplicable because Backpage.com had profited from the plaintiff’s victimization in violation of Section 2255. As the court held, however, Section 2255 was a “civil damages” provision of Title 18, not federal criminal law.

The only remaining question is whether Moore materially contributed to the contested content–nude photos and Facebook screen shots. If so, he could be found liable as a co-developer of the content that often was tantamount to cyber stalking. Of course, the question of liability would remain. Just because a site operator does not enjoy immunity from liability does not mean he would be strictly liable for torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, for instance. The question would be whether he intentionally inflict emotional distress on particular individuals? Recall that Moore boasted to the press that the more embarrassing and destructive the material, the more money he made. When a reporter told him that revenge porn had driven people to commit suicide, Moore said that he did not want anybody to die, but if it happened, he would be grateful for the publicity and advertising revenue it would generate; “Thank you for the money . . . from all of the traffic, Googling, redirects, and press.” Earlier this year, Moore told Betabeat’s Jessica Roy that he was relaunching his site including not just of people’s Facebook accounts, but their home addresses. “We’re gonna introduce the mapping stuff so you can stalk people,” he told Roy. When talking to Forbes’s Kashmir Hill, Moore backed off his statement, claiming to be drunk, but had tweeted, “I’m putting people’s house info with google earth directions. Life will be amazing.”

More broadly, sites that principally host revenge porn are making a mockery of Section 230. As Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard explains, a site operator can enjoy the protection of Section 230 while “building a whole business around people saying nasty things about others, and . . . affirmatively choosing not to track user information that would make it possible for an injured person to go after the person directly responsible.” In my book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, I explore the possibility of Section 230 reform to ensure that the worst actors don’t enjoy immunity. It’s certainly a perverse result that the “Good Samaritan” provision of the Communications Decency Act immunizes from liability sites that solicit and principally host revenge porn and other forms of cyber stalking. More to come in August, when Harvard University Press publishes the book.

 

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Some Thoughts on Section 230 and Recent Criminal Arrests

We’ve devoted considerable attention on our blog to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes online service providers/hosts from liability for user-generated content. Site operators are protected from liability even though they knew (or should have known) that user-generated content contained defamation, privacy invasions, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil rights violations, and state criminal activity. Providing a safe harbor for ISPs, search engines, and social networks is a good thing. If communication conduits like ISPs did not enjoy Section 230 immunity, they would surely censor much valuable online content to avoid publisher liability. The same is true of search engines that index the vast universe of online content and produce relevant information to users in seconds and, for that matter, social media providers that host millions, and some billions, of users. Without Section 230, search engines like Google and Bing and social media providers like Yelp, Trip Advisor, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter might not exist. The fear of publisher liability would have inhibited their growth. For that reason, Congress reaffirmed Section 230’s importance in the SPEECH Act of 2010, which requires U.S. courts to apply the First Amendment and Section 230 in assessing foreign defamation judgments.

In the past few months, prosecutors have arrested notorious revenge porn site operators Hunter Moore, Kevin Bolleart, and Casey Meyering. Those arrests have raised the question, what about Section 230? Hunter Moore’s arrest is the least controversial. Although Section 230 immunity is broad sweeping, it isn’t absolute. It exempts from its reach federal criminal law, intellectual property law, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. As Section 230(e) provides, the statute has “[n]o effect” on “any [f]ederal criminal statute” and does not “limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.” Federal prosecutors indicted Moore for conspiring to hack into people’s computers in order to steal their nude images. According to the indictment, Moore paid a computer hacker to access women’s password-protected computers and e-mail accounts to steal nude photos for financial gain—profits for his revenge porn site Is Anyone Up. Site operators may be held accountable for violating federal criminal law.

What about revenge porn operators Bolleart and Meyerson who are facing state criminal charges? Generally speaking, site operators are not transformed into “information content providers” (who are not immunized from liability) unless they co-developed or co-created the allegedly criminal/tortious content, such as by paying for the illegal content and reselling it or drafting some of the contested content themselves. California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s prosecutions of both Bolleart and Meyerson press the question whether Section 230’s immunity extends to sites that effectively engage in extortion by encouraging the posting of sensitive private information and profiting from its removal.

Let’s take Bolleart’s case. It’s based on a similar theory as the case against Meyerson, who runs WinbyState, a private revenge porn site with a connected site that charges for the take down of photos. In December 2013, Bollaert, operator of revenge porn site UGotPosted, was indicted for extortion, conspiracy, and identity theft. His site featured the nude photos, Facebook screen shots, and contact information of more than 10,000 individuals. The indictment alleged that Bollaert ran the revenge porn site with a companion takedown site, Change My Reputation. According to the indictment, when Bollaert received complaints from individuals, he would send them e-mails directing them to the takedown site, which charged up to $350 for the removal of photos. Attorney General Harris explained that Bollaert “published intimate photos of unsuspecting victims and turned their public humiliation and betrayal into a commodity with the potential to devastate lives.”

Bollaert will surely challenge the state’s criminal law charges on Section 230 grounds. His strongest argument is that charging for the removal of user-generated photos is not tantamount to co-developing them. Said another way, charging for the removal of content is not the same as paying for, or helping develop, it. That is especially true of the identity theft charges because Bollaert never personally passed himself off as the subjects depicted in the photos. Nonetheless, the state has a strong argument that the extortion charges fall outside Section 230’s immunity because they hinge on what Bollaert himself did and said, not on what his users posted. Only time will tell if that sort of argument will prevail. Even if the California AG’s charges are dismissed on Section 230 grounds, federal prosecutors could charge Bollaert with federal criminal extortion charges. Sites that encourage cyber harassment and charge for its removal (or have a financial arrangement with removal services) are engaging in extortion. At the least, they are actively and knowingly conspiring in a scheme of extortion. Of course, this possibility depends on the enforcement of federal criminal law vis-à-vis cyber stalking, which as we have seen is stymied by social attitudes and insufficient training.

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Atrocious Privacy Invasion: Non-Consensual Videotaping of Sex Indicted in NY

Criminalizing privacy invasions has a long history. In their ground-break article The Right to Privacy published in 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis argued that “[i]t would doubtless be desirable that the privacy of the individual should receive the added protection of the criminal law.” Since that time, lawmakers have banned the non-consensual recording of individuals in a state of undress in contexts where they have reasonable expectation of privacy. New York’s unlawful surveillance law, for instance, prohibits use of an imaging device to secretly record or to broadcast another person undressing or having sex for the purpose of degrading that person in cases where the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

In November 2013, a New York former private wealth adviser was indicted for nineteen counts of unlawful surveillance and attempted unlawful surveillance for secretly taping himself having sex with different women without their consent. The illegal tapings allegedly occurred over a year’s time and apparently were many.

The New York Post talked to one of the victim’s attorney, Daniel Parker, who explained that the man posted the illegal videos on Internet sites. According to Parker, the man “used an elaborate system of surveillance using multiple devices in both his bedroom and their homes.” In other words, the man not only had various cameras in his own bedroom to tape himself having sex with women who had no idea and never consented but he also secretly taped himself having sex with the women in their homes. Parker explained that the man “left a trail and it was on YouTube and Vimeo.” What were those hidden devices? The man apparently used a hidden camera, a web cam and a stealth phone app to film the women engaged in various sexual acts. According to Parker, the man installed a hidden camera in the bookshelf of his East 69th Street apartment.

The victims delivered the video footage to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office prompting the investigation. Kudos to prosecutor Siobahn Carty for bringing the case, though my sense is that it took the victims considerable energy and time to convince law enforcement to take their case seriously and to understand the technology used to perpetrated the egregious privacy violations. Technical ignorance is common amongst law enforcement, well, and common for may people. Troubling cultural attitudes and “I don’t get the tech” response are notorious responses to different forms of harassment, including non-consensual taping of individuals in their most intimate moments. I will report more on the case as I get a hold of the indictment.


 

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Google Books and the Social (Justice) Contract

In channeling Judge Baer, Judge Chin at long last dropped the other shoe in the judicial effort to bring new information technology uses for copyrighted works fully in to the copyright regime. Congress has been slow to address the challenge of tapping the full copyright social utility/justice potential of these advances and it’s been left to the courts to sort it all out in the context of individual adversarial conflicts. Poignantly, when Jonathan Band asks “What [was] the Authors Guild fighting for?”, he also illustrates the tree-myopic/forest blind nature of the Guild’s position. What the Guild failed to see is that property rights fit into a larger socio-legal system: Yes your neighbor is precluded from trespassing on to your land but your ability to engage in whatever “private” activity strikes your fancy while thereon is limited by the legal system as a whole. Your land is individual private property, not an independent sovereign state.

 

Judge Baer reminded rights holders of this aspect of the social contract and now Judge Chin has made it clear to the Guild that this is not some narrow, eccentric application of copyright social utility. Property rights, including copyrights, exist to advance society, and to state the obvious, information technology has evolved our society. Like all other rights, customs, and expectations, however, whereas some aspects of copyright as previously envisioned fit comfortably into our new configuration others don’t fit at all. And when that ill-fit impedes important social progress modifications must be made, and if necessary, expectations altered.

 

The courts’ reasoning in both Hathitrust and Google Books moves fair use jurisprudence further toward the express consideration of copyright social justice in the application of the doctrine. As Kevin Smith notes, the judges in both cases have seized this opportunity to retrofit fair use, and it seems to me that these decisions push beyond questions of aesthetic and even functional transformation and pave the way for weighing social transformation in assessing the first fair use factor. I have also applied some of the legal conclusions drawn from Bill Graham Archives and other Grateful Dead archive projects to specific copyright social justice needs, for example, that of socially beneficent access to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Like some other historically and culturally important works, many of these books enjoy only marginal commercial market value and similar to the information harvested through data mining, “digital fair use” may be the only means by which to return these works to the general public. The social resuscitation of significant works through mass-digitization, and other uses that serve important and otherwise unattainable copyright social objectives, should be considered a purpose that satisfies the first fair use factor.

 

Authors and other copyrights holders would do well to finally get ahead of the information technology curve. The Authors Guild’s mistake was not so much in the effort to preserve what they considered to be their property rights or even in the effort to extract every conceivable drop of revenue out those rights, but rather, in failing to accept that in order for these rights to retain any value they must function as part of a thriving societal system or eventually forfeit the basis for legal recognition. In the analog world, the public’s access to most books remains largely dependent upon the vagaries of the commercial marketplace. Digital information technology has presented the opportunity to compile the world’s books toward the creation of global libraries accessible to every human being on a socially equitable basis. To believe that analog social inequity will be permitted to endure indefinitely in the face of digital information possibilities is simply unrealistic. Keeping in mind that the stimulation, perpetuation, and re-ignition of the cultural expression/dissemination/inspiration combustive cycle is the raison d’etre of copyright will enable authors to embrace digital change and as Gil Scott Heron sang, possibly even direct the change rather than simply be put through it.

 

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On the NSA and Media Bias: An Extended Analysis

By Albert Wong and Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Information Society Project at Yale Law School

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, we reported that major US newspapers exhibited a net pro-surveillance bias in their “post-Edward Snowden” coverage of the NSA. Our results ran counter to the general perception that major media outlets lean “traditionally liberal” on social issues. Given our findings, we decided to extend our analysis to see if the same bias was present in “traditionally conservative” and international newspapers.

Using the same methods described in our previous study, we examined total press coverage in the Washington Times, one of the top “traditionally conservative” newspapers in the US. We found that the Washington Times used pro-surveillance terms such as security or counterterrorism 45.5% more frequently than anti-surveillance terms like liberty or rights. This is comparable to USA Today‘s 36% bias and quantitatively greater than The New York Times‘ 14.1% or the Washington Post‘s 11.1%. The Washington Times, a “traditionally conservative” newspaper, had the same, if not stronger, pro-surveillance bias in its coverage as neutral/”traditionally liberal”-leaning newspapers.

In contrast, The Guardian, the major UK newspaper where Glenn Greenwald has reported most of Snowden’s disclosures, did not exhibit such a bias. Unlike any of the US newspapers we examined, The Guardian actually used anti-surveillance terms slightly (3.2%) more frequently than pro-surveillance terms. Despite the UK government’s pro-surveillance position (similar to and perhaps even more uncompromising than that of the US government), the Guardian‘s coverage has remained neutral overall. (Neutral as far as keyword frequency analysis goes, anyway; the use of other methods, such as qualitative analysis of article tone, may also be helpful in building a comprehensive picture.)

Our extended results provide additional context for our earlier report and demonstrate that our analysis is “capturing a meaningful divide.”

On a further note, as several commenters suggested in response to our original report, the US media’s pro-surveillance bias may be a manifestation of a broader “pro-state” bias. This theory may be correct, but it would be difficult to confirm conclusively. On many, even most, issues, the US government does not speak with one voice. Whose position should be taken as the “state” position? The opinion of the President? The Speaker of the House? The Chief Justice? Administration allies in Congress? In the context of the Affordable Care Act, is there no “pro-state” position at all, since the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice each have different, largely irreconcilable views?

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Moving Targets: A new blog from Mary Anne Franks discusses revenge porn, feminist theory, and social media

Former Concurring Opinions guest blogger Mary Anne Franks (an expert on “revenge porn,” cyber civil rights, and feminist theory) has just launched her own blog at Moving Targets. As expected, it’s fantastic.

Concurring Opinions readers are familiar with Professor Franks’ writings on topics like masculinity, consent, and social media. Professor Franks is a popular figure in the news as well — in a recent Huffington Post panel discussing gender roles, she thoroughly beat up poor anti-feminist internet writer Gavin McInnes. Her new blog provides a space for further follow up and conversation, and she’s already using it in that role. In a legal blogosphere which has been sometimes limited in its engagement with feminist legal theory, Professor Franks’ voice is a very welcome addition.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Mary Anne!

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Squaring Revenge Porn Criminal Statutes with First Amendment Protections

Yesterday, the New York Times editorial board endorsed the efforts of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative to criminalize revenge porn. As the editorial board urged, states should follow the lead of New Jersey in crafting narrow statutes that prohibit the publication of nonconsensual pornography. Such efforts are indispensable for victims whose lives are upended by images they shared or permitted to be taken on the understanding that they would remain confidential. No one should be able to turn others into objects of pornography without their consent. Doing so ought to be a criminal act.

Professor Mary Anne Franks has been at the forefront of legislative efforts in New York, Wisconsin, and Maryland. Soon, I will be blogging about the work Franks and I have done with Maryland legislators. Now, I would like to shift our attention to the First Amendment. As free speech scholar Eugene Volokh has argued elsewhere, non-consensual pornography can be criminalized without transgressing First Amendment guarantees. Let me explain why from the vantage point of my book Hate 3.0 (forthcoming Harvard University Press) and an essay Franks and I are writing for the Wake Forest Law Review. Read More

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New York Times Editorial Board: Calling for the Criminalization of Revenge Porn

From the New York Times editorial board, an endorsement of the work of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (led by Holly Jacobs and on which Mary Anne Franks and I are Board members) in calling for the criminalization of non-consensual publication of sexually explicit images:

Revenge porn is one of those things that sounds as if it must be illegal but actually isn’t. It’s the term of art for publishing sexual photos of someone without his or her — usually her — permission, often after a breakup.

Consider Holly Jacobs, founder of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, who exchanged intimate pictures with a boyfriend while in graduate school. When the relationship ended he started posting them online. She sought help from law enforcement, but the police said she didn’t have a case because she was over 18 when the pictures were taken, and they were her ex-boyfriend’s property.

So far only two states have restricted this humiliating, reputation-killing practice. In 2004, New Jersey adopted an invasion-of-privacy law aimed at voyeurs, which also prohibits the dissemination of sexual recordings or pictures without consent. This month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill making revenge porn a misdemeanor punishable with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But it contains a large loophole: it applies only if the individual who distributed the pictures was also the photographer.

California’s law does not cover situations where someone took a self-portrait and shared it with a partner, who then uploaded it to the Internet. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has estimated that 80 percent of revenge-porn images were recorded by the victim.

California’s law, though inadequate, has at least brought attention to the problem, and other states are considering action. New York Assemblyman Edward Braunstein, a Democrat, and State Senator Joseph Griffo, a Republican, recently announced revenge porn legislation that would make non-consensual disclosure of sexually explicit images a Class A misdemeanor. It would include pictures taken by victims.

Neither current nor proposed state laws are likely to have an effect on the Web sites that make the explicit images available to the prurient public, because they can claim protection under the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of that statute has been interpreted by courts to shield sites that host third-party content from liability, unless that content, like child pornography, violates federal law. (Or unless sites cross the line from aggregators to co-creators of the material in question.)

It is not clear how many people have been affected by revenge porn — activists rely on self-reporting — but Ms. Jacobs has said that over 1,000 victims have reached out to her since she started speaking out on this issue. And a tour through a site like Private Voyeur reveals a depressingly large cache of photographs.

Going through a breakup is bad enough; going through a breakup and finding out that your ex is a horrible person is worse. Although lawmakers can’t do much to help their constituents with these difficulties, they can work to provide recourse for when exes seek revenge through un-consensual pornography.