The Revenge Porn Fixers
This week's hack of celebrity nudes may be the most high-profile example of "revenge porn" — humiliating women by spreading private photos. A dedicated group of activists, led by the mother of a victim, has been pushing for more aggressive laws, but can this really be stopped?
Charlotte Laws takes a seat in Birmingham High School’s Sally Field Performing Arts Center. Outside the theater, it’s a bright and warm California spring morning. Inside, a small gathering of mostly senior citizens slowly drifts from the snack table into their seats for the town hall meeting. California Congressman Brad Sherman takes his place at the podium.
Sherman’s aides call Laws' name first. She steps out of her aisle seat and walks to the microphone facing Sherman’s podium. He shoots her a wide smile. Laws, a petite woman in her early fifties, launches into her well-rehearsed speech.
“My daughter was a victim of revenge porn,” Laws says, her voice carrying through the drowsy auditorium. "There are thousands of victims around the country; most of them are women. Revenge porn is when a nude or topless picture is posted on the internet without consent, along with the victim's name, city, workplace, social media link, and other identifying information. The goal is to humiliate a woman, ruining her life, and driving her to suicide.”
She’s not squeamish about the details, explaining that a handful of states already have revenge porn bills on the books, and another 22 states are currently working on them. “Will you be bold and take a stand on this issue?" she asks Sherman. "Can we count on you to introduce a law?”
California’s first anti-revenge porn bill — a bill that Laws actually helped draft — was heavily criticized for not going far enough when it was passed last year. It made nonconsensually distributing explicit photographs a misdemeanor, but it didn’t apply to selfies. “With today's technology, people take as many pictures of themselves as they take of anyone else,” Sherman says pensively to the mostly gray-haired audience lounging placidly in the crowd. “It ought to be illegal nationwide, and it ought to apply to distributing that which should remain private, for the sole purpose of hurting somebody.”
After the meeting, Laws tries to grab the congressman’s attention. The crowd of people around him swells and all he’s able to do is shake Laws' hand and pose for a photo.
Laws and Sherman might never have had occasion to be in the same room together if not for Hunter Moore, the man whose website posted photos of Laws' daughter. Often called the King of Revenge Porn, Moore has been arrested following an FBI investigation. As he awaits his court date, those going after individuals who steal and share intimate photos are facing an increasingly unwinnable game of whack-a-mole; revenge porn is becoming less centralized, more common, and harder to trace.
After this week’s massive leak of nude photos, many of which appear to have been taken from over a dozen celebrities’ iCloud accounts, people are again asking: If this can happen to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence or Kate Upton, how are average women expected to track down — and take down — nude photos tweeted by an angry ex-boyfriend or posted to 4chan by an anonymous stranger? Can revenge porn be stopped?
Perhaps the precursor to modern revenge porn happened in the pages of a Hustler spin-off called Beaver Hunt in the '80s. Readers, many of whom now owned point-and-shoot cameras, provided Hustler with nude photos of a nonprofessional “model" — with her face visible — along with said woman's name, age, hobbies, and sexual fantasies. It didn’t take long for Hustler’s mostly male audience to realize they could submit stolen photos and Beaver Hunt would publish them. Several women who ended up in Beaver Hunt without their consent sued the magazine. In 1990, Sabrina Gallon, a woman from New York who ended up in Beaver Hunt without her consent, was awarded $30,000 in damages.
As the web has grown, the idea of covertly sharing other people’s naked photos has evolved right along with it. In the early days of dial-up, people began posting on Usenet, one of the first social networks, and, once again, began anonymously submitting intimate photos of women they knew. Users on the anonymous imageboard 4chan have taken the idea a lot further and turned it into a game, unearthing nude photos of random girls and matching them up with Facebook data, then passing them around on social media for fun. For girls they can’t find nude photos of, users who are good at Photoshop take requests and “X-ray” images, making fake ones.
In 2010, then-24-year-old high school dropout Hunter Moore started a website called Is Anyone Up. Moore, who was working odd jobs in the sex industry, decided to upload real and photoshopped nude photos and videos of men and women, connecting them to their Facebook pages and adding fake bios detailing his victim’s sex lives. Moore’s first victims were Myspace celebrities, Warped Tour-affiliated bands, and their fans. He would organize the pages so users could browse by city and state.
At the height of its popularity, Is Anyone Up was reportedly getting around 30 million views a month. Moore shut the site down in 2012, blaming server costs, women trying to attack him in public, and a lack of support from Facebook and PayPal. Moore’s revenge porn as a display of power philosophy had earned him legions of fans and thousands of copycats.
But by that point revenge porn no longer needed a hub. Moore moved with it, taking his whole online presence to Facebook and Twitter, and instead of posting stolen nudes, he started just retweeting the ones his fans would send him. Getting nudes sent straight to your phone became easier than ever.
According to The Pew Research Center, 20% of cell phone owners in 2014 reported receiving a sext from someone they knew, up 5% since 2012. A 2014 study from security software firm McAfee found that 50% of those surveyed had used their mobile device to share intimate content and 16% of those surveyed had sent sexual content to a complete stranger. The Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality has put that number as high as 70% for college students. Revenge porn thrives on open access — mobile messaging apps like Kik, Snapchat, and Instagram are only making the harassment more ubiquitous. There are teenagers using the web right now that have never known a version of high school without the looming threat of their most personal photographs going viral.
Charlotte Laws settles into a big chair in her living room. A tiny white dog named Sammy plays at her feet until he jumps up onto her lap. Her daughter Kayla putters in the kitchen. Her charming ranch-style home is at the top of a long, winding hill that overlooks the outer suburbs of Los Angeles. In the back is the office where she does most of her work and has the clutter to prove it.
“Women are really not that welcome on the internet,” Laws says with a sad chuckle. “I'm kind of amazed.”
It’s not an exaggeration to call Laws a leading expert on how much the internet hates women. She’s a women’s rights activist, former talk show host, and columnist, and she has a Ph.D. in social ethics. She’s also regularly contacted by women from all over the country about what to do when their intimate pictures end up online. She’s the revenge porn fixer, the Erin Brockovich of leaked nudes.
The most common stories you hear about revenge porn are ones of jilted men who leak their ex-girlfriend’s naked photos. In reality, she says, it’s not always so personal. “One girl lost her cell phone and some guy from South America got it and posted her pictures off her phone onto the internet,” Laws says. “I got a call from a teacher who actually had to quit her job because of this whole thing. Some of the people are hacked, some of the people are photoshopped.”
On Jan. 10, 2011, Laws' then-24-year-old daughter Kayla, who at the time was pursuing an acting career, was at the restaurant where she waitressed when she got a phone call. It was a panicked friend who told her that her name, the city she lived in, and her Twitter handle were on Is Anyone Up. Next to her personal information was a topless photograph she took of herself and a slew of other intimate snapshots. She was confused and scared. She hadn’t sent the nude photos to anyone.
Kayla walked back into the restaurant and finished her shift, still crying. She soon discovered that her Is Anyone Up page was emailed to everyone in her workplace. Her boss threatened to fire her over it. She called her mom, distraught. Laws figured the pictures wouldn’t be too difficult to yank down — Kayla took them; she owned them. But Hunter Moore wasn’t paying any attention to takedown notices.
Over the next year, Laws gathered every piece of information she could find on Moore. She watched his Twitter feed closely. She got him kicked off Facebook. She had his PayPal account shut down. She even went so far as to call his mom’s workplace.
“I used to be a private investigator in the 1980s and I basically just started contacting anybody and everybody associated with him,” Laws says. “He was always aware of what I was doing, but he didn't know it was me." She laughs, noting that the irony of the situation is not lost on her.
Laws finally came face-to-face with her nemesis and his fans when she went undercover at one of his club nights at a hotel in Long Beach. “I had on white, pasty junk all over my face, a black wig, a beatnik cap, a velvet jacket,” she says, cringing. “I get out of my car, and guess who the first person I run into when I get out of my car is? Hunter Moore!”
Moore didn’t recognize her. She followed him and his friends into the run-down hotel. The place was packed, Laws says, except for the room Hunter was DJing in. “I couldn't believe how empty it was,” she says.
At the time, Laws says everyone was terrified of Moore and what he could do. There was an aura of unpredictability around him. It was rumored that he was a master hacker who could fill anyone’s computer with viruses. When Laws saw him in person, however, the reality was a lot different.
“So he starts out the gig and he has his cup of beer and he throws it into the air and messes up his laptop,” she says, laughing. “The whole evening he had trouble getting the music to play. It kept sputtering and it would stop.”
Laws’ one-woman investigation took its toll on Kayla, though. She became withdrawn. She abandoned acting. Now she’s hoping to start over working in real estate.
“She believes in the cause and she likes the fact that we've been able to help victims,” Laws says. “But on the other hand she doesn't like the fact that she's linked with this issue because she's worried that it could negatively impact her career in the future.”
One of the first revenge porn victims Laws was able to reach out to was a Houston-based yoga instructor named Melissa Riedel. On a Friday afternoon in 2011, the then-25-year-old was checking her Facebook when she noticed hundreds of friend requests rather than her usual one or two, many from guys in bands.
A day or so later, a producer for Anderson Cooper’s Anderson Live called her and told her she was featured on Is Anyone Up and that they were hoping she’d come on the show and talk about it. She checked out the site and discovered Moore had posted a topless photo of her along with a fake bio saying that she had slept with hundreds of rock musicians. “I had to deal with these random people from around the world sending me degrading, disrespectful messages and saying things that weren't true,” she says.
Cooper had Riedel and another Is Anyone Up victim, Daveeda Smith, confront Hunter Moore on the show. The women tried to explain to him how it felt to discover they were on his website. Moore didn’t back down.
“No one put a gun to your head and made you take these pictures. It's 2011, everything's on the internet,” Moore told them in between cuts to angry-looking members of the studio audience.
After the episode aired, Riedel received a Facebook message from Laws telling her about her investigation into Moore’s site. Moore claimed that all of the photos on Is Anyone Up were given to him in some capacity, which confused Riedel because she couldn’t remember giving anyone the topless photo Moore posted.
“Charlotte reached out to me and said that there's a possibility this guy was hacking into people's computers to retrieve their photos,” Riedel says. Sure enough, she had received messages from Yahoo saying that someone had tried to reset her password, right around the time her photo went up on Moore’s site.
Riedel was disillusioned. She says she appreciated Anderson Cooper’s desire to go after Hunter Moore, but after watching the episode, she believed it had been edited to give Moore the most screen time. “I kind of felt like my efforts were pointless,” she says. “I just went on there to expose myself for nothing.”
Laws was the only person who really seemed to have a plan about what to do. With the knowledge that she might have been hacked, Laws asked Riedel if she’d be comfortable putting her name on the FBI investigation. Riedel agreed.
“She is such an amazing and inspiring woman,” Riedel says of Laws. “She kind of took on this motherly role with me, and I felt very supported by her through all of this.”
By spring 2012, Facebook was blocking all links to Is Anyone Up and had disabled the "like" button on the page. Hunter Moore finally took the site down on April 19, 2012. A few days after that, Moore and Laws finally officially met for the first time during a heated interview on The Dr. Drew Show.
"Basically this is cyber rape; that's all it is," Laws said.
"I mean, cyber rape, that's way worse than real rape," Hunter shot back sarcastically. "I'm sorry your daughter was 'cyber raped,' but now she's educated on technology."
By the time Laws had left Dr. Drew, there were 20 viruses waiting for her in her email. She also started receiving death threats. When Is Anyone Up finally went down, Hunter Moore had amassed a pretty substantial fanbase who followed Moore’s tweets with a cultlike fervor. They call themselves “The Family," stylized on Twitter as #TheFamily, and after Dr. Drew they knew who Charlotte Laws was. Moore and his brand of revenge porn were not only cool, but a serious lifestyle choice. Laws and her one-woman crusade gained the same boost, though.
Women like Holly Jacobs were seeing Laws on TV and reaching out to her for help. Jacobs, 31, first discovered nude photos and videos of herself online in 2009, which she believes were posted by an angry ex-boyfriend. Laws and Jacobs began emailing back and forth and talking about the lack of resources out there for victims trying to get similar kinds of images pulled down. Jacobs set up the site endrevengeporn.org anonymously in 2012. A year later, she decided to shed her anonymity and begin publicly talking about what had happened to her.
Jacobs then formed the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), a nonprofit made up of women fighting to end revenge porn through legislation. CCRI’s core tenet is that cyberharassment is a civil rights violation and that revenge porn is a form of sexual assault. CCRI and its End Revenge Porn campaign act as a central hub for victims, providing legal resources, a vetted list of lawyers who specialize in revenge porn law, and how-to guides for petitioning lawmakers.
These battles are being waged internationally as well. In January, Israel became the first country to legally classify revenge porn legally as a sex crime. Countries like Australia and the Philippines, as well as several European countries, have digital distribution and copyright laws that can be used to prosecute users who nonconsensually share intimate photos online.
There are currently 12 states in the U.S. with laws that protect individuals from revenge porn. Alaska, Texas, and New Jersey have privacy laws targeting harassment and stalking that can be applied to revenge pornlike content. Utah, Pennsylvania, California, Idaho, Virginia, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona have all introduced laws that specifically combat the nonconsensual distribution of sexual content.
Whether something could be enacted nationwide is up for further debate: In March, Jackie Speier, a congresswoman from California, announced that she was drafting a federal law that could criminalize revenge porn, but nothing has been passed yet. Also, experts fear a federal law in the U.S. may have unintended consequences on free speech. A criminal law might result in internet companies proactively overstepping and seriously shrinking users’ access to open internet.
If your state doesn’t have an applicable criminal law, there are other ways of going after leaked images. A Houston woman in February sued an ex-boyfriend for emotional distress after he posted intimate screengrabs of a Skype conversation. The jury awarded her $500,000.
“The first question I ask is if it's a selfie,” says attorney Mary Adkins. “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.”
Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), people who've taken selfies legally own the copyright and can issue takedown notices and sue for copyright infringement. According to TMZ, Jennifer Lawrence’s attorneys are currently fighting with a porn site that’s hosting images of Lawrence that were posted this week. The porn site claims that Lawrence doesn’t own the copyright because she didn’t take the photos herself.
Adkins is one of the newest additions to CCRI’s network of revenge porn lawyers. She’s an attorney based out of New York City, and over the last year she’s begun to focus heavily on these types of cases. She has a background in both domestic violence and copyright law, which she says is an oddly perfect fit for hunting down the Hunter Moore copycats that keep popping up.
Photos can be difficult to remove if they aren’t selfies — and even more difficult if the person behind the site doesn’t comply with takedown notices. More than anything, though, Adkins hates that women feel the need to spend money on a lawyer to send a takedown notice when they can do it themselves; a lot of the people behind revenge porn sites will listen to a lawyer quicker than they will a victim. Another crucial part of it is that to file a takedown notice means the victim has to face what happened.
“Dealing with it requires returning to it and linking to it and discussing it and attaching it,” Adkins says. “The very thing you are horrified about. Emotionally, it's asking a lot.”
She says that revenge porn victims being nervous about taking things into their own hands is not that different from what you see in a sexual assault case — it requires the victim to confront the source of the trauma. Also, just like sexual assault, Adkins says, revenge porn is all about power.
"[When] you read the comments alongside photos on these sites, it's very hard not to think of Elliot Rodgers," Adkins says. "The violent rhetoric, the anger, it's a frightening thing to see happening.”
Adkins says like any systemic problem, revenge porn creates more revenge porn. The more of it people see pop up on places like Facebook and Twitter, the more people will that realize it’s a possibility and that it’s not even considered a criminal offense in the majority of the country. It’s a domino effect.
“This is not something that belongs in a certain place anymore,” she says. “It can just flagrantly appear on the social media site everyone on the planet uses.”
Adkins hopes we’re at the peak of this, but she doesn’t think much can happen without the proper laws in place. The importance is spreading the message that revenge porn is unacceptable. “Part of why this is even happening is that we live in such a prudish culture where exposition of a woman's body means she is the one who should be ashamed."
Hunter Moore's former followers and aspiring copycats don't seem to be getting that message. In January of this year, Moore and his partner Charles Evens were both charged with conspiracy, seven counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer, and seven counts of aggravated identity theft. Their court date is scheduled for November. If they are convicted, each faces up to five years in prison.
Jarrett Russo, 26, and his partner Leo Betancor, 24, idolize Moore. They run a clothing brand and party-promotion company called Project Revolution out of their basement in New Jersey, which recently held a fundraiser club night for Moore’s court costs. The Family identity, for them, is about more than revenge porn — although it’s definitely part of it.
“Me and Hunter got along because we've been doing the same thing; he just found a way to make money off of it,” Russo says.
Russo flips through his phone as the rest of the group huddled around the basement make fun of him. He says that girls have been sending him nude photos ever since he was a teenager. He estimates he’s got about 7,000 of them. As Project Revolution got more popular, thanks to the parties they did with Hunter Moore, Russo got more nude photos.
“I don't post them online because I have enough shit to worry about,” Russo says with a scowl. “Girls send us stuff. Right now I'm in the process of getting four,” motioning to intimate text conversations with girls on his cell phone.
Two years ago, Project Revolution wanted to throw a huge rave on one of the Circle Line boats that winds its way around Manhattan and decided to call Hunter Moore’s booking agent. To their surprise, Moore agreed to DJ the event. “He flew out, we picked him up in a limo, and we became good friends after that,” Russo says. “We still keep in contact with him after all that's going on on his side.”
They’ve thrown three parties with him since. During their recent fundraiser, Moore was Skyped in and projected on a screen in the club. For the members of Project Revolution, and anyone else who watched the meteoric rise of Is Anyone Up, Hunter Moore is a success story: He’s a guy from a similar music scene who made a name for himself and had a similar talent for throwing outrageous parties.
“The only thing that makes him cool is that he does what he wants and he's not going to stop just because you don't like it,” Russo says. “If I had a daughter, yeah, I'd be upset. I'd be more upset with her that she was stupid enough to send us something like that.”
Moore, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, is facing only five years if convicted, and he wasn’t charged for actually posting the nude photos. Russo and his friends understand that what Moore was doing — putting the nude photos online — was at the very least a “hassle,” but there are almost no legal consequences for the casual revenge porn participant.
This summer, there was “game” that gained a ton of traction on Twitter called the #TwitterPurge. The rules of the game were that users tweeting with the hashtag could say anything they wanted or “expose” any picture they had on their phones. The game quickly devolved into users, mostly men, “purging" naked photos they had. The majority of the “purged" photos were sexts from women and young girls the men had received. The hashtag was modeled after the horror movie The Purge, and according to Twitter analytics website, Topsy, it was tweeted almost 800,000 times in the month of July.
This time there wasn’t a villain. There wasn’t a Hunter Moore pushing people to start using #TwitterPurge, and there wasn’t a formal movement like The Family. This was a just bunch of kids on their phones who all decided that humiliating girls on Twitter and Instagram would be a funny way to pass the time.
For the most part, revenge porn feels like inescapable fact of life now. Is Anyone Up copycats are eventually shut down, lawsuits are filed, photos are removed, and sometimes their owners may even go to jail. In January, Kevin Christopher Bollaert, a 27-year-old man in San Francisco, was accused of running a revenge porn site and extorting money from victims and pleaded not guilty to 31 felony counts.
But someone always seems to add a new dimension to Moore’s formula. There’s a newer site activists are going after right now called My Ex. It collects user-submitted photos — often nude photos — of men and women with a few details about why they were a terrible boyfriend or girlfriend. The catch is if you find yourself on there and want to remove yourself, you have to pay for it.
And then, most recently, there was what happened on 4chan over Labor Day weekend. Laws says she’s already working on getting information on the FBI’s investigation into the hack. She doesn’t think they’ll tell her much about the case, but to her it sounds pretty close to what Hunter Moore was doing.
The anonymous hacker leaked a massive amount of stolen photographs belonging to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst. The hacker posted them on 4chan asking for donations via bitcoin. It appears as though some of the photos were possibly stolen by hacking into Apple’s iCloud service.
But it doesn’t really matter how it happened: Hunter Moore was hacking into emails, this time it was celebrities’ iCloud accounts. Moore was making ad revenue, now it’s bitcoin donations. Next time it will be something else.
“It's really the same thing as what thousands of victims go through every single day,” Laws says. “It's silencing women on the internet, it's attacking them. It harkens back to the days of women being property.”
Laws also thinks it’s interesting that Apple and the FBI issued a response so quickly. She doesn’t think they would have been so quick to act if it were hundreds of photos of nonfamous women.
“The fact that they're in entertainment is, if anything, a saving grace," Laws says. "Because it's one of the few industries that's more lenient about this kind of thing. If you're a teacher, it's almost impossible to keep your job.”
Also, even without an investigation, celebrities have the resources to go after individual hackers. Last time this kind of breach happened to a group of celebrities in 2012, the culprit, Christopher Chaney, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for hacking into personal accounts belonging to Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, and Christina Aguilera.
While lawmakers are starting to take this subject seriously, Laws still believes that nothing will be solved until people understand that everyone — not just high-visibility celebrities with vast resources — is vulnerable to this kind of attack. Blaming victims for taking the photos in the first place is nonsensical to her. Especially if you consider the fact that if someone wanted to, they could just fabricate nude photos with Photoshop.
Incidentally, just last month, Meryem Ali, of Houston, sued Facebook for $123 million over nude photos photoshopped by an anonymous user — that’s 10 cents for each of the 1.23 billion users that could have seen the photos. The anonymous user created a profile page full of photoshopped nude photos of Ali and began friending her friends and family. It took Facebook four and a half months to take the profile down.
That’s the issue, Laws says. It actually has nothing to do with whether or not nude photos were taken. It’s about harassment, it’s about theft, and it’s about consent.
“What if the person had broken into their house and stolen the pictures from their bedside table?” Laws asks. “You shouldn't have ever had them? I mean, it makes no sense.”