Sharing pornographic images of an ex for revenge? That's perfectly legal -- in most states. But as victims are speaking up, state governments are stepping in, making it a criminal offense to text, email or upload intimate photos of someone else without their consent. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

A week after the images first appeared on Reddit — and a day after site administrators vowed not to take them down — the Internet’s front page has deleted the forum that propagated stolen celebrity nudes and popularized them across the Web.

But Reddit wasn’t acting out of concern for the female celebrities victimized by the hack, or out of fear that users linked to stolen goods. (To the contrary, a statement by Reddit CEO Yishan Wong made it clear that he washed his hands of all those petty moral concerns.) Instead, like 4Chan and a slate of other accidental revenge-porn hosts before it, Reddit was reacting to copyright concerns.

“We take down things we’re legally required to take down, and do our best to keep the site getting from spammed or manipulated, and beyond that we try to keep our hands off,” Jason Harvey, a Reddit systems administrator, explained on Sunday. But when it came to the nude photos, “it became obvious that we were either going to have to watch these subreddits constantly, or shut them down. We chose the latter.”

Reddit had, in effect, just learned a lesson that revenge-porn activists, attorneys and victims have known for years: Despite the obvious privacy violations, the apparent harassment, and — in many cases, including this one — the overwhelming evidence of computer crimes, the quickest, easiest way to get compromising images off the Internet is frequently copyright law.

“It’s the path of least resistance,” explains Amanda Levendowski, a recent graduate of NYU Law who has written extensively on revenge porn and copyright. “I wouldn’t say it’s the best solution, and it’s not a perfect fit, but it does do what victims want.”

“Doing what victims want” — a.k.a., getting their misappropriated images off the Internet — turns out to be a messy, labyrinthine legal goal. For one thing, Levendowski says, every revenge porn case is different: some photos are selfies and some aren’t; some were hacked and some were uploaded by exes; some victims are under 18, and some are well over it. Different laws and legal concepts apply in each of those cases, which makes any kind of comprehensive approach impossible.

To further complicate things, Internet content has long been governed by something called the Communications Decency Act, a law that rules (among other things!) that Web sites are not responsible for content posted to them by users. This is an overwhelmingly good thing, in most cases: It’s basically what allows us to have blogs and comments sections and social networks, at all. Just imagine an Internet where every site had to monitor every single post for law-breaking — put simply, that Internet couldn’t exist.


(The Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Unfortunately, while the act has essentially provided for a free and open Web, it also makes it exceedingly difficult to get problematic material taken down. Under the law, recall, sites aren’t responsible for hosting images if they’re uploaded by a user, no matter how invasive or illegal or reprehensible they seem. So when victims see their stolen nude photographs on say, Reddit, they can’t just go to Reddit and complain. It’s not Reddit’s problem.

Unless –– because there’s always an unless! — one of two things is going on. No. 1: The user-generated content contains child porn. Or, no. 2 (ding ding!) the content infringes on the copyright of the person who took the photo. If the victim took the photo herself, which roughly 80 percent of victims do, this exception applies.

“The first question I ask is if it’s a selfie,” attorney and victim-advocate Mary Adkins told Buzzfeed last week. “That makes things much easier. Going the copyright route by filing a takedown notice with the website is the most straightforward means of getting the images or videos down.”

In other words, when copyright is in play, the images are the site’s problem and you can ask they be taken down by the site directly — rather than laboring for untold months or years to find the original poster and penalize him.


A screenshot of Reddit’s copyright policy. (Reddit)

The copyright approach is not foolproof, unfortunately: While large corporations like Reddit respond to them quickly, irreverent upstarts like Hunter Moore’s infamous Is Anyone Up may ignore takedown notices or, worse, publicize the victim’s image further in an attempt to shut her up. (Victims then have to contract lawyers for expensive, indeterminable lawsuits.) Copyright only applies when the victim took the photo herself. And, of course, advocates hope the future will hold protections more compelling than “you didn’t take that, bro.”

Laws already on the books protect victims against hacking and extortion; individuals can also pursue civil cases for things like defamation and emotional distress — though, perhaps because revenge porn is a relatively novel concept, relatively few victims have done so thus far. And while Levendowski doubts legislators can craft an effective, constitutional criminal law in this realm, a dozen states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania, have tried; just last spring, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) announced she was drafting a federal law to criminalize revenge porn. Nothing’s come of that effort yet.

There is, of course, an easier solution to all this — a solution that won’t help victims of sites like My Ex or Is Anyone Up, but that could prevent the next “Celebgate.” Individual platforms, like Reddit, could change their site policies to disallow revenge porn, thereby guaranteeing the stuff wouldn’t spread. There’s precedent for such a change on Reddit itself: The site belatedly banned child porn in 2012, in response to a wave of media outrage on the subject. Some users have advocated for such a change now, as well.

“You’re doing the exact same thing you do every time there’s bad press. Deal with at the last possible moment … and use free speech as the reason why it doesn’t set precedent,” wrote one Redditor in response to Harvey’s post. His comment is, as of this writing, the most popular on the thread. “This is just what happens when your stance is that everything goes … You can’t let the inmates run the asylum and then get shocked when someone smears s**t on the wall.

“Stand up for standards for a change.”