At a talk today with members of Covington’s Privacy and Data Security Group, Danielle Citron highlighted the need for more remedies for victims of online harassment, including women harassed by so-called revenge pornography.
Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, focuses on information privacy law and is the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Her book argues that online harassment of women is a civil rights issue, a position made more compelling in light of the recent online assaults on women in the Gamergate and iCloud photograph hacking scandals.
Citron grouped online harassment into four different models: (1) using the internet to terrorize a victim, such as by cyberstalking, (2) using the internet to destroy a victim’s reputation, such as by defamatory postings, (3) using technology to invade a victim’s privacy, such as by posting private materials and (4) using technology to essentially shove a victim offline, such as by cyberattacks.
Victims of these types of online harassment often face unsatisfying legal options, Citron said. Although they could bring civil tort suits for claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress and public disclosure of private facts, such lawsuits are expensive and the defendants are often judgment-proof. Criminal options can also be limited, particularly in the many states where state harassment laws do not cover online abuse posted on third party sites, she said. Although a victim may have a valid copyright claim – if, for example, she took a photo herself that was later posted to a revenge-pornography website by someone else – victims are often working with local counsel who prefer to pursue remedies in state court, where copyright claims are unavailable.
More optimistically, Citron noted that recent actions by the state of California and by the FTC constituted “some progress” in this area. Last week in California, the owner of a former revenge porn website was sentenced to 18 years in prison, after prosecutors alleged he created one site where angry lovers could post explicit pictures of women, and a second site that charged women hundreds of dollars to remove those photos. In January, the FTC took action against a similar site, charging its owner with using deception to acquire explicit photos of women that he posted online, and then referring women to a site that told them the photos could be removed for several hundred dollars.
The real question, Citron said, is the net effect of these actions. While she wished she could be “more bullish,” “the sites are still here,” Citron said. There are more than 3,000 websites trafficking in revenge pornography and similar material, Citron said, and despite the recent actions they are not closing up shop.