The Internet brings up such interesting legal issues. Here is one example.
What it is
Disgusting is a good word for it. Revenge Porn Websites such as yougotposted.com allow visitors to post pictures online that are then viewable by everyone. They encourage people to post compromising, usually nude, pictures of ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends, often without their permission or even knowledge. Some of these pictures were taken without their consent. Many of the pictures were taken with their consent or by them, but only for private viewing. The clear intent of yougotposted.com is to embarrass and harass people. Here is what their sister website has to say:
Search results are your reputation.
Misleading, inaccurate or negative links in your search results adversely affect the impression you make when people Google you and can substantially impact you or your business. What Google shows people, whether it’s accurate or not, is your reputation.
Bad search results can be a real problem.
Unfavorable search results can influence how your job, school, neighbors, insurance companies, loan officers, landlords, clients, and even romantic interests view you.
The yougotposted.com website adds the caption in the form of “Jane Doe of Seattle Washington” to every set of pictures. Often these identifiers include other personal information such as what high school and college the person went to, place of employment and a link to their facebook page . As a result, if anyone searches for “Jane Doe Seattle Washington”, the first entry that comes up will be yougotposted.com’s nude pictures. Friends looking for Jane Doe, or worse, potential employers, will be directed to this website.
Unfortunately there are many similar websites, including IsAnyoneUp (now defunct), IsAnybodyDown, Pinkmeth, Texxxan (now defunct?), huntermoore.tv and 1upem. There are also websites with variations on the theme.
How they make money
Like many websites, yougotposted.com makes money from ad revenue. There appears to be an additional source of revenue as well: charging people $199 to have their pictures removed from the yougotposted.com website. yougotposted.com has a complicated procedure for requests to remove pictures and largely ignore those requests, even when their procedures are followed. The web page that tells you how to complain has an ad for another website that for $199 will protect your reputation. (“IF YOU NEED ASSISTANCE MANAGING YOUR REPUTATION ONLINE PLEASECLICK HERE –AD”) It appears that all that website does is get your pictures taken down within minutes of paying their $199 fee. There is evidence that the two website are owned and operated by the same people.
Legal Issue No. 1. Extortion and Blackmail
In my opinion, the most serious legal issue is the appearance of extortion. Extortion is illegal in most if not all states. In Washington it is illegal knowingly to obtain or attempt to obtain by threat property or services of the owner. See RCW 9A.56.110. Is it extortion if yougotposted.com encourages people to post compromising pictures of third parties and then insists that the third parities pay them money to have the pictures taken down (assuming it can be proven that the two websites are in fact linked?) It is not clear, but I will go out on a limb and say that I think so. Extortion and blackmail are closely related topics. I could not find a clear definition of the difference, but a common distinction made is that blackmail is a form of extortion that threatens to reveal embarrassing, disgraceful or damaging information about a person to the public, family, spouse or associates unless money is paid to purchase silence. yougotposted.com’s action also might constitute harassment, See for example Washington RCW 9A.46.
Legal Issue No. 2. Child Pornography
Many of the pictures were taken while the subjects were in high school or earlier when they were minors. It is against federal and state law to possess or display pictures of minors that are intended to sexual stimulate the viewer. From my experience, the website will take down any obvious pictures of minors. For pictures that are not obvious, they require so much information that it is practically impossible to convince them to remove the pictures. See their website contact page, which states
If an entry violates any state or federal law, please submit the following supporting documentation along with your request for removal: if the subject of a post is under the age of 18, a copy or photo of a driver’s license, or valid photo ID along with a copy of a birth certificate; Removal requests that are submitted without the appropriate documentation, or requesting the removal of entries not in violation of any state or federal law will NOT be reviewed or removed.
It is probably true that some people who object to their pictures being posted will claim to be underage when they are not. Can yougotposted.com be held criminally liable because they are encouraging other people to post underage pictures and they make it difficult for the pictures to be removed? The answer is not clear. The magazine and online website Backpage has been running prostitution ads for many years. It is generally accepted that many of the prostitutes that are advertised are underage. Law Enforcement officials have been trying to get Backpage to stop running these ads. They have not succeeded. (See for example Backpage Takes Heat, But Prostitution Ads Are Everywhere.) Is yougotposted.com in a similar position? Backpage cooperates with law enforcement in specific cases. If yougotposted.com is truly cooperative in taking the pictures down when asked, then I do not think they can be held criminally liable. If yougotposted.com does not cooperate in removing the pictures they might be liable.
Legal Issue No. 3. Invasion of Privacy
Most states allow for a private action for invasion of privacy. There is a common law right of privacy in Washington. This right has been described as:
One who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
If the incriminating pictures were taken without the person’s consent in a place where that person had a reasonable expectation of privacy, then posting them online would be invading their privacy. There are not clear lines of what constitutes privacy. What if someone participated in a public event such as a nude bicycle ride and someone took pictures. It is unlikely that posting of those pictures would be an invasion of privacy. What if the person visited a nude beach where no cameras or photography were allowed, and someone took pictures anyway? Not clear. The most relevant case for yougotposted.com is nude pictures that an individual took of themselves and shared with an intimate friend with the understanding that the pictures would remain private. It might depend on the facts and circumstance of each case. I would think that in the past this would be invading someone’s privacy. I hear that sharing of these pictures, often called sexting, is becoming quite common. If this is true, and it is common that the pictures get shared beyond the immediate recipient, an argument can be made that there is no longer an expectation of privacy in the pictures.
There are similar related causes of action such as false light, intrusion on seclusion, public disclosure of private facts, appropriation of name and likeness, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Legal Issue No. 4. Copyright Infringement
Some of the pictures are being posted without the copyright owner’s permission. For example, taking pictures taken from a persons facebook page and posting them would constitute copyright infringement. There is a limited safety net from copyright infringement for online publishers. Title II of the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) limits the copyright infringement liability of certain online service providers. The act protects online service providers who store and post content online at the direction of their users. In order to qualify for the protection, a service provider must establish a system for accepting claims of copyright infringement on its website and establish a procedure to remove materials from its website that infringe upon someone else’s copyright. There is a very specific procedure that must be followed. The procedure must be posted on the website. Provided that yougotposted.com posts the proper procedure and follows it, it can not be held liable for copyright infringement committed by its users. The website has posted the proper notices, and I have no reason to assume that they are not following the procedures.
Some of the other Revenue Port Websites do not follow the proper procedures. They claim to be protected by the DMCA but because they do not comply with its requirements, they are not entitled to its protections.
The DMCA only protects websites from liability for copyright infringement. It does not protect them from liability for other legal causes of action.
Legal Issue No. 5. Voyeurism
Most of the pictures on the website appear to have been taken by or with the subject’s knowledge. But some of them were taken without the subject’s knowledge or permission. These days almost everyone has a high quality camera available at all times in their cell phone. It is easy to take compromising photos of unsuspecting victims. In response to this new technology, and for other obvious reason, some states has passed laws making it illegal to take pictures of people without their permission when they should have a reasonable expectation of privacy, in public or in private, for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of any person. In Washington the law is RCW 9A.44.115. The person taking the picture violates this law.
Does yougotposted.com violate the law by posting the pictures? It is not clear. The Washington statue makes taking of the pictures a crime, but it says nothing about distributing the pictures. Maybe an argument can be made that yougotposted.com is assisting in the criminal activity or encouraging the criminal activity. I am not a criminal attorney, but those arguments seem weak to me. Again, if Backpage is not committing a crime by advertising underage prostitution, how can yougotposted.com be criminally liable for posting voyeuristic pictures?
There are other problems with holding yougotposted.com criminally liable as well. In most cases you can not tell by looking at the pictures if the person being photographed gave permission. What if that person notifies yougotposted.com that the pictures were taken without their permission and asks yougotposted.com to take them down? It would be impossible to distinguish between pictures that were truly taken without permission, and pictures that were taken with permission, but now that they are posted online, the subject has had a change of heart and has changed the facts to try to get the pictures taken down. I think it would be hard to hold yougotposted.com liable for posting the pictures until there has been some formal determination, probably in a court of law, that the pictures were in fact taken without the subject’s permission. The subject should probably focus on getting the person who posted the pictures to admit to yougotposted.com that they were taken without permission. If yougotposted.com refuses to take them down after being notified by the poster, then there is a good argument that yougotposted.com is liable at least in civil court, probably for invasion of privacy (see above).
Legal Issue No. 6. Intent
The courts have struggled for some time now as to how to deal with companies that develop technology or websites that people can use to violate the law. They have held these companies not liable unless there is clear intent to encourage the unlawful activity. Can yougotposted.com be held liable in civil or criminal court simply because it is encouraging and facilitating damaging and possibly criminal behavior in others?
The first major case was the Sony Betamax case, Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984). Sony had introduced the first successful consumer video taping machine. People were using the machine to tape programs and movies from television broadcasts. This was being done without the permission of the owners of the copyright in the materials. The court held that copying television programs and movies in order to watch them at a different time was not copyright infringement. The court went on to say that even though the Betamax machine could be used to make illegal copies of programs and movies, as long as the machine was “capable of commercially significant non-infringing uses” Sony could not be held liable for copyright infringement.
Another major case was A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., 239 F.3d 1004 (2001). Napster was a website that allowed users to store music files online and share these files with every other user of the Napster system. Most of the files were protected by copyright and posted without the copyright owner’s permission. The court held that Napster could not be held liable simply for posting the files, since the service could be used for non-infringing purposes. But the court held Napster liable because it continued to post the files even after receiving complaints from copyright owners.
The last court decision I will discuss is the Grokster case, MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. 545 U.S. 913 (2005). Grokster tried to replicate the Napster music sharing service with one significant change; the files remained on the individual users’ computers. Grokster merely facilitated the sharing of music files from one personal computer to another. The files were never stored on a Grokster-owned computer. Grokster blatantly advertised and promoted its website as a means to share copyright protected music files. The court found that the Sony test did not apply and a company can be held liable for copyright infringement when the company actively promotes the illegal activity.
Finally there is a case in the courts right now that challenges the limits of Grokster and Napster. Recently, consortium of U.S. federal agencies, working with police forces from around the world, shut down a series of file sharing/file storage websites best known as MegaUpload. They also arrested the senior executives of the companies behind the websites — including the flamboyant apparent leader of the group Kim Dotcom — and seized various assets of the company and the individuals. There is no doubt that MegaUpload was used for the illegal sharing of copyright protected files of all types, including software, movies, and music. MegaUpload encouraged people to post files on its system and encouraged copyright by paying users who posted files based on the traffic their files generated on the system. The more traffic a person generated, the more that person was paid. MegaUplaod did have a system in place to take down files when the copyright owner notified them of the infringement.
MegaUpload is a huge website. Based on the sheer volume of use, only a small percentage of infringing files were ever taken down. MegaUpload itself claimed that it had 50 million daily visitors and traffic on its websites accounted for 4% of all Internet traffic. The website could not possibly maintain 100% compliance with take down requests. They also made no effort to prevent the same files from being uploaded again. Does that make the owners of the website civilly liable for copyright infringement? Does it make them criminals? Those are tough question and ones where I do not think there has been any case law yet. See my blog post Why the MegaUpload Arrests Bother Me) for further discussion on this particular case.
yougotposted.com is clearly actively promoting its users to post pictures that in some cases are criminal in nature, and in many cases violate individuals’ civil rights. Can yougotposted.com be held liable under the Grokster theory? Only time will tell. I hope so, but it will be a difficult argument to win.
The strongest case against these websites is for extortion, because they are actively participating in that activity and directly benefiting from it rather than passively allowing it to take place.
Legal Issue No. 7. Violation of the Consumer Protection Act
Many states have broadly-worded consumer protection laws. In Washington there is the Consumer Protection Act, RCW 19.86 which prohibits unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce. Violators can be held liable for treble damages up to $25,000, and most importantly may have to pay the complaining party’s attorneys fees. It is likely that yougotposted.com’s activities are in violation of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act.
Legal Issue No. 8. Practical Considerations
There are practical considerations as well. There is considerable talk on the Internet about who is behind these types of websites. Specific names are mentioned. But suspecting that someone is responsible for a particular website and proving it are very different. If you can not prove a particular person is responsible for a particular website, you will not be able to get a judgment against them even if you can show that the website violated your legal rights.
It may also be difficult to locate these individuals. In order to start a lawsuit against someone, you must have that person personally served with a copy of the lawsuit. If you can not locate them, you can not serve them and you can not proceed with your lawsuit.
Even if a judgment is obtained, you still have to collect. It is unlikely that these individuals have much money. Their business model may result in several payments of $200 or so per day, but that is not a lot of money after paying for the cost of maintaining and defending the website. Also, in my experience the type of people who would run websites like these do not do well at business. They may be able to obtain small amounts of money with minimal work, but they are usually not capable of holding on to that money or converting it to large scale success.
It is very easy to identify the companies that are hosting the websites. These companies usually have nothing to do with the content of the websites they host. They are just computer operators. It may be possible to get them to remove the offending websites simply by asking. It would certainly be easy to serve them with a cease and desist order if you were to obtain one from the court. But there are many website hosting companies around the world. It is possible that shutting down a particular host will just force these people to place their websites with hosts in some far off country with lax law enforcement where it will be hard to enforce any court order.
It may be that these individuals are not sophisticated enough to avoid the law in which case one hopes that they will eventually be forced out of business.
Legal Issue No. 9. The People Who Post Can Be Liable Too
The people who post the pictures on these websites face similar liability. They are not responsible for extortion or violation of consumer protection acts. Depending on the nature of the pictures, they can be liable for invasion of privacy and voyeurism. They are criminally liable for child pornography if the pictures contain images of children. They are liable for copyright infringement of any pictures they post without permission that are protected by copyright. While the operators of websites may have to be given an opportunity to take down the pictures before they can be liable for copyright infringement, no such protection is available to the people who posted the pictures in the first place. As soon as they copy the pictures onto the website they have committed copyright infringement.
What do you think?
Have you had any experiences with yougotposted.com or any similar website that you care to share? Any thoughts on the law?
yougotposted.com is now ugotposted.com.
Other Articles on Revenge Porn Websites on My Blog.
Fighting Revenge Porn Websites – some useful links