Reddit and Vanity Fair are both owned by Condé Nast

The Internet’s dark side, how much is enough?

The recent theft and online release of a number of female celebrities’ private photographs is only the most recent link in a chain of online abuse that stretches across the globe. In this instance, the only reason it grabbed headlines and gained its own juvenile hashtag (#Fappening2014) was because the victim list was a who’s who of high-profile Hollywood actresses.  Some characterized the release of the stolen photos as being an isolated incident, a product of the dark recesses of the Internet, of a lone sick-o hacker. If only that were true. The sad fact is that women (and men) are subjected to online attacks like this everyday.

This type of digital damage, a form of virtual sexual assault, a type of revenge porn, needs to be seen for what it is–a crime.  Unfortunately it’s one that, more often than not, goes unpunished.  Most women (and men) who are victimized by these networks of anonymous cowards don’t have the resources to fight back.  Even when they do–as in the case of Jennifer Lawrence, this episode’s most prominent victim–mechanisms to combat this type of digital abuse are limited.  The FBI claims to be investigating, but what are its agents doing about the not-so-famous women whose photos end up shared and used as click-bait on seamy forums (and sub-forums) hosted by sites like Reddit?  Do victims of these crimes have any options to fight back?

In the short term Lawrence and the hacker’s other victims are employing the only tool available to them, the tired old DMCA notice.  The DMCA allows copyright holders to demand that content removed from a hosting website by claiming copyright infringement.  Of course, only sites beholden to U.S. law are obligated to remove “infringing” content and most of the sites that traffic in stolen content are hosted offshore, beyond the reach of U.S. law.

In the past Reddit, owned by publishing giant Condé Nast, often deflected DMCA notices, instead advising senders to contact the actual host of the link to request takedowns.  Yet in the wake of this latest onslaught, site administrators have changed their tune.  Why now?  Why are stolen nude selfies of famous actresses more worthy than similar images stolen (and posted) from private citizens?  I also wonder how receptive these actresses will be next time Vanity Fair comes a calling for them to do their annual Hollywood issue? Could that have influenced Reddit’s decision-making?

Reddit administrators of course made no mention of Condé Nast’s corporate interests in explaining their decision to disable the /r/TheFappening (hacked image thread) and related subreddits:

These subreddits were of course the focal point for the sharing of these stolen photos. The images which were DMCAd were continually being reposted constantly on the subreddit. We would takedown images (thumbnails) in response to those DMCAs, but it quickly devolved into a game of whack-a-mole. We’d execute a takedown, someone would adjust, reupload, and then repeat. This same practice was occurring with the underage photos, requiring our constant intervention. The mods were doing their best to keep things under control and in line with the site rules, but problems were still constantly overflowing back to us. Additionally, many nefarious parties recognized the popularity of these images, and started spamming them in various ways and attempting to infect or scam users viewing them. It became obvious that we were either going to have to watch these subreddits constantly, or shut them down. We chose the latter. It’s obviously not going to solve the problem entirely, but it will at least mitigate the constant issues we were facing. This was an extreme circumstance, and we used the best judgement we could in response.

As of now, this explanatory post on Reddit has more than 9,o00 responses, pro and con. In another blog post on the issue that featured a lofty headline, “Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Soul” a Reddit administrator named Yishan explained their reasoning this way.

While current US law does not prohibit linking to stolen materials, we deplore the theft of these images and we do not condone their widespread distribution.  Nevertheless, reddit’s platform is structurally based on the ability for people to distribute, promote, and highlight textual materials as well as links to images and other media. We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize. Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event.
The reason is because we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.

So, hands off until really, really famous people are involved?   Only “change our content policies” when people can afford to hire legal representation with teeth?  Reddit operators claim that above all else, they are in the business of protecting “free speech.”  That is, apparently, until said “free speech” gets them in hot water and attracts unwanted scrutiny.  Timothy B. Lee explored this contradiction in a post on Vox, “Why Reddit just banned a community devoted to sharing celebrity nudes”:

Reddit critics also accuse the site of being unduly influenced by media attention. For example, Reddit used to have a subreddit called /r/jailbait that — unsurprisingly — attracted pornographic images of underage women. It was popular enough to win a “subreddit of the year” vote in 2008. It was shut down only after it was the subject of unflattering coverage on CNN. Reddit also banned a subreddit called /r/creepshots, dedicated to “upskirt” photographs, after a Gawker expose on its founder. But other subreddits with equally disturbing content but less media attention remain open for business.

It’s important to note that Reddit’s “business” is ad-based.  And,  like so many enterprises on the web, attracting users by offering access to tainted goods.  T.C. Sottek writing for The Verge pulls no punches, characterizes Reddit as a “failed state:”

…Reddit feels really bad that your stolen nude photos are being shared all over its website, but won’t do anything about it unless you’re privileged enough to understand the copyright system or able to afford a lawyer who does. And unlike (many) governments, Reddit has profit motives — it makes money when people share nude photos because men are pervs and there’s a huge audience out there for naked women, perhaps especially for naked women who haven’t given us consent to share their bodies.

…If Reddit wants to be thought of as a government, we’ll call it what it is: a failed state, unable to control what happens within its borders. At minimum, Reddit is a kleptocracy that speaks to lofty virtues while profiting from vice. It might be forgivable if we were talking about taxing cigarettes and booze, but we’re not talking about that. What we’re talking about is more like sexual assault, condoned by a state that earns revenue from it. “Reddit doesn’t have much of an interest in banning questionable content,” Wong wrote last year. “‘Family-friendly’ is out, ‘edgy’ is in.” Are those the words of a president, or a pimp?

Yishan‘s pompous post offers the notion that Reddit should be thought of as “the government of a new type of community…that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers,”  Of course those lofty, utopian guiding principles are quickly abandoned when bad publicity threatens to undermine the site’s net-worth. Funny how quickly the illusion of (ill-conceived) idealism can be shattered by cold, hard cash. The truth is that Reddit’s days as a freewheeling cesspool may be numbered if hopes to succeed with efforts to transform itself into a larger (legitimate) moneymaking enterprise. As  Mike Issac  explains in a piece for today’s New York Times:

…The site has lately redoubled its efforts to become a thriving, profitable business, stepping up its advertising efforts and going on a hiring spree.

“The Achilles’ heel for a lot of these sites is that their plans to monetize themselves often directly affect how they structure their platforms,” said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group.

Reddit is also reportedly in the process of raising more than $50 million in venture capital, according to the technology site Re/code, which could value the company at upward of half a billion dollars.

Reddit, then, may have to rethink its classic laissez-faire approach to content, especially if it wants to be courted by big-budget advertisers.

Reddit online sewerWhile market influences may be one factor in influencing a limited clean up of websites like Reddit, isn’t it time to ask whether our laws need to be updated to better manage this type of online crime?  Free speech is often touted as the reason we must allow these sites to exist (and thrive) often at the expense of victims not as well known as Jennifer Lawrence.   Yet theft and dissemination of stolen photographs is not speech, it’s abuse, and it’s time to acknowledge as much. Free speech absolutists, like Reddit’s operators, argue that any push back would stifle “innovation,” but what’s really innovative about sharing stolen selfies?

While it’s impossible to scrub the web of seedy threads like those on Reddit, can’t we at least try to make progress in limiting the damage?  If sites like Reddit take pride in being user-driven, why not put more legal liability on those users? Also, why not put more pressure on parent companies like Condé Nast to stem this illegal and abusive behavior on its properties?

Supporting and sustaining a healthy Internet and ridding it of abusive and illegal content need not be mutually exclusive.  At the very least lawmakers at the federal level should confront this issue as some of their state counterparts have done in enacting laws against “revenge porn.”