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.