The internet is forever. So how would you feel illicit photos of you were posted to a website along with identifying information such as your full name, Facebook profile, and phone number? Unfortunately, countless women know exactly how that feels. And, in some of these cases, the photos hadn’t been sent to anyone; the photos ended up on the website after the victims’ personal accounts—where the photos were stored—were compromised. How would you feel if, after these photos had been posted, you were being contacted by numerous individuals soliciting sexual favors, threatening you, and calling you names? Again, many women have had this unfortunate experience, which they’ve relived in painstaking detail in Netflix’s trending documentary, The Most Hated Man on the Internet.
So, What Happened?
Hunter Moore, the self proclaimed professional life ruiner, started a website in the early 2010’s dedicated to hosting explicit content. But wait! There’s more: the website encouraged visitors to upload explicit images and videos of their exes in an act of revenge. However, not every image on there was from a vengeful ex. In fact, a lot of those images had never been sent to anyone else, leaving victims mystified as to how they ended up on the website in the first place. Well, it turns out, Moore had been paying someone to hack into personal accounts and steal any photos or videos that fit the site’s theme. Along with the photos, Moore posted the full name of the individual along with other identifying information. There was also a comment section where bullying was welcomed, if not flat out encouraged. Though the victims pleaded to have their content taken down, their pleas were often mocked, if not unanswered. The website was taken down after just 16 months. And an FBI investigation proved that Moore had paid someone to steal the photos from victims’ personal accounts, resulting in jail time for Moore. This, of course, is the TL;DR version.
And, It Was Legal?
Sort of. It’s not legal to post stolen content, especially without the consent of the content’s owner. However, Hunter frequently claimed that he was not responsible for what users uploaded to his site which, to some extent, is even true today. Though websites are responsible for removing content that violates their policies, or is somehow illegal, websites are not necessarily responsible for ensuring that it doesn’t get posted in the first place. So, if someone else uploaded illegally obtained content to Hunter’s site, the liability would fall on the person who uploaded it, not Hunter. For Hunter to be formally charged, the FBI needed to gather enough evidence to prove that he was involved in stealing photos.
What Are a Platform’s Legal Responsibilities?
The internet is relatively new and our laws haven’t quite caught up yet. Though most states have passed revenge porn laws, our laws still aren’t holding websites responsible for the content that they’re hosting, especially when they remove illegal content, and other content that violates their policies. Therefore, the liability is more on the person who uploads the content than it is on the platform on which it’s uploaded. Facebook’s response to their cyberbullying epidemic is a classic example of this. Facebook argues that they cannot be held responsible for the fact that bullying occurs on their site since they aren’t posting the content, it’s just a platform for the content to be posted to. Furthermore, Facebook argues that they have features in place to protect victims of bullying.
Do We Have Laws Today?
Currently, there are no federal laws outlawing intimate images that were shared out of malice. However, nearly all 50 states have laws regarding the distribution of such images. And, in some states, it’s a felony. In multiple states, distributing such content can even land you in jail. Also, it’s worth mentioning that criminal trials are separate from civil trials. This means that you may also be civilly sued for distributing the content as well as tried criminally. In most civil cases, the victims would be filing claims for defamation, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. So, if you maliciously distribute content such as the aforementioned, you could still face serious legal consequences, even if the pictures were sent to you by the person in them.
It’s important to remember that, once you send a text, image, or video, you no longer have control over who sees the content. And, unfortunately, it appears people do not even have full control of content that was sitting in their private accounts. It is important to take necessary precautions when creating and sharing content, even content that doesn’t contain explicit material, because you may not have full control over what happens with the content. Finally, if you have had intimate content posted without your consent, you may be able to get the content taken down. Depending on the circumstances and your local laws, a website hosting your content without your consent may be in violation of a law.
We Stand with the Victims
Many of the victims in The Most Hated Man on the Internet expressed suicidal ideation. Having their privacy invaded in such a way must have been a horrifying and traumatizing experience for these women and men featured in the documentary. If you are experiencing depression or having thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help today.