Dec 11 9:00 PM

Harassed online: What can you do?

Annmarie Chiarini said she felt helpless and hopeless when an ex-boyfriend told her he was going to destroy her life by distributing nude photos of her.
America Tonight

“I will destroy you” were the last words Annmarie Chiarini’s ex-boyfriend said to her, before he put a CD of 88 naked photos of her up for auction on eBay. Fourteen months later, the 42-year-old single mom received an anonymous email directing her to a profile on a porn site where she found the nude pictures, her full name, the college where she works and a solicitation for sex. The ex-boyfriend then put the images on a DVD and mailed copies to Chiarini’s boss, her parents and her son’s elementary school teacher.

Chiarini attempted suicide. “It was that helplessness, that hopelessness,” she told America Tonight's Adam May. “My actual thoughts were, ‘This is my life. This is never going to end. So I need to end my life. Because I could not live like that.’”

In October, California became the second state in the nation to criminalize “revenge porn”: posting nude images or videos of a person on the Internet in an attempt to humiliate them. Other states are considering similar legislation as revenge porn proliferates, along with websites dedicated to showcasing it.

"This is my life. This is never going to end. So I need to end my life."

Annmarie Chiarini

But these laws have provoked the concern of free-speech advocates, since they criminalize posting online – a form of speech – images that were obtained legally. “It really is a gray area of human behavior where people at one point consented and later do not,” Lee Rowland, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told May. “And there are limits on how much we can address it with the law because of the robust protections of our First Amendment, which I for one am glad for.”

Revenge porn is only the tip of a giant mountain of online brutality, which is incredibly difficult to fight back against. On top of the free-speech issues, this is simply a very new kind of crime. The law and the police, experts say, just haven’t caught up.

So what can people do when they suddenly find themselves the victims of a determined campaign of online viciousness? America Tonight turned to victims and attorneys who specialize in online harassment to explore the possible recourse that exists when your Google search results are hijacked by someone out to ruin you.

Going to the police

If the online harassment includes a realistic threat of violence, then it’s definitely the domain of the police. “Like if someone sends a text message, ‘I’m going to come kill your kids. I know where you live. I’m coming tomorrow,’” Salar Atrizadeh, a Beverly Hills attorney who specializes in online harassment, told America Tonight. “But it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

Forty states have laws addressing cyberharassment, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures. These statutes go beyond credible threats, and make posting things online to intentionally alarm, annoy, torment or terrify someone a misdemeanor or third-degree felony. There is also a federal statute against cyberharassment in the Violence Against Women's Act, which was reauthorized earlier this year. 

In 2004, Robert James Murphy was reported as the first person to be sentenced for cyberstalking. He admitted to sending dozens of harassing emails and faxes to an ex-girlfriend in Seattle and her co-workers, including false information about her background and pornographic material. He was sentenced to five years of probation, 500 hours of community service and more than $12,000 in damages.

But how often do the police really take on these cases? “My initial hunch is that they won’t,” said Atrizadeh. “… It’s not worth their time and efforts. They do have limited resources.”

The police under-enforce online harassment statutes because they simply aren’t trained for the task, according to Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and the author of the forthcoming book, “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”

“They have no idea how to turn on the Internet, let alone figure out what this is,” she said. “… Or often they’ll say, ‘Turn your computer off. Boys will be boys.’ They just don’t get how important it is, so often victims have to educate the officers.”

Asking the websites

Caroline Criado-Perez (far right) stands with member of Parliament Mary Macleod, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England and Stella Creasy at a presentation of the new Jane Austen banknote. Criado-Perez campaigned for the concept, and endured a torrent of rape and death threats on Twitter.
Chris Ratcliffe/AP

Many websites will take down abusive material if you ask. “Facebook is amazing,” says Citron. “They are so proactive. They have four safety officers, and they’re pretty clear in how they define hate speech. They do their best when there’s a report.”

Twitter was more laissez-faire about vitriol-spewers, Citron said, until a British woman was inundated with rape and death threat Tweets earlier this year after successfully campaigning to get author Jane Austen on British banknotes. The woman started a petition to get Twitter to add a “report abuse” button, which garnered more than 140,000 signatures. Twitter complied.

Even if a website takes something down, it can take a while for Google to "refresh" and for the post to stop showing up in cached search results. Google is very wary about anything that could infringe the free speech of its users and has a mixed record over taking down abusive material. Miriam Lazewatsky, 29, told America Tonight that she’s submitted more than 50 takedown reports to Google over harassing posts, which the Internet search giant frequently denied.

One time, she said, she contacted Google to take down an offensive post about her on its Blogger platform and was told it was a “personal matter between you and the blogger.”

A screenshot of Miriam Lazewatsky's Google takedown request page. Many of her requests have been denied.
Miriam Lazewatsky

“They wrote, ‘This is a fucking slut, she only shuts her mouth when she opens her legs,’ and you’re telling me this is a personal matter and I need to talk it out?” Lazewatsky said. “That’s like telling a 50-pound kid to talk to the 100-pound boy who’s beating him up and stealing his lunch money.” 

And of course, some revenge porn sites are unlikely to be responsive to takedown requests since abusive content is their bread and butter.

Asking the host

All websites are hosted somewhere, usually by a service like GoDaddy or Dreamhost. And if contacting the website doesn't work, reaching out to the host can do the trick, says Carla Franklin, who claims she managed to get around 2,000 harassing posts removed through a combination of asking the websites and the hosting services. 

"No one wants to get their hands dirty in that way," she explained, "just like they don’t want to be associated with kiddie porn."

That isn't always true. GoDaddy in fact refused to take down nude images and identifying information, posted without the women's consent, on the revenge porn website, prompting a group of women to sue earlier this year in a landmark class action suit. GoDaddy is actually named as a defendant in the case, which calls it a complicit and willing partner in the harassment. Many are skeptical, however, that the suit has teeth. 

Suing the websites

You probably can’t sue a website hosting content posted about you. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 has a part called Section 230 declaring that providers of an “interactive computer service” are in no way liable for what their users do. “People at the [Internet] companies convinced Congress that the Internet couldn’t function if there was any screening,” said Ann Bartow, a professor at Pace Law School, who specializes in privacy and technology law. “They weren’t publishers, reviewing copy. They were really just a conduit.”

But if a website actively encourages the abusive content, it isn’t necessarily immune. In a historic case earlier this year, a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader won more than $300,000 in a defamation lawsuit against, which had posted submissions claiming she had slept with every Bengals player and had STDs. A U.S. District Court judge concluded that website owners aren’t immune if they encourage and comment on the content enough to be considered “co-developers” of it. The ruling was a radical departure from precedent and it deeply rattled free-speech advocates.

Suing the harasser

While you may not be able to go after the website, you can go after the harasser. With enough proof, you can likely at least obtain a restraining order that compels the person to end their harassment. The perpetrator will be informed by the authorities, and there's a good chance he or she will demur. 

A victim of online harassment may also have a civil case on grounds such as defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress or copyright infringement, if the harasser posted and doctored photos owned by the victim, perhaps posting a face from a social media profile onto the naked body of someone else.

In this case, the victim has to lawyer up, and subpoena for the identity of the nefarious poster. Because of the nature of online crimes, this can be a particularly labrythine process. "If [the website] is based in Calif., and the hoster is based in Texas, and I’m in New York, a New York court order doesn’t mean anything to them," says Franklin, who is now an advocate for cyberharassment victims, and is in the middle of a civil suit herself against her own alleged harasser.  

"For that court order to be enforced there, it might be another $5,000," Franklin told America Tonight. "That’s the really insidious thing about this."

Atrizadeh, who has handled hundreds of online harassment civil cases, say the upfront fees are usually between $3,000 and $5,000. Of course, the success of the case depends on the severity of the violations and the volume of evidence, but he said he’s earned some awards in the six figures. 

Paying a reputation service

In the last couple years, a cottage industry of private online reputation management has sprung up, offering to clean up your Google search for a price. Over the last few years, Patrick Hamm, 33, says he’s paid (formerly Reputation Defender) more than $10,000 to scrub the belligerently hateful posts out of online presence (his girlfriend was being harassed before they started dating, and soon the harasser made him a target too). These services have various strategies, and one is to attach your name to positive content on the Web, which will hopefully, eventually beat out the horrible stuff.

“I have a gazillion profiles on obscure, professional networking sites, full of good information,” says Hamm, who claims this pushed most of the viciousness to page 27 on Google. But he adds: “This was a pricey undertaking.”

Some, like Bartow, the attorney, don’t think the solution to online harassment is in the private sector. “The more hate that’s out there, the more money they get,” Bartow says about these services. “... And the big money was always helping people hide their tracks from the bad things they did, helping companies, helping harassers hide their harassment.”

Mobilizing against abusers

Some women have had some success – or at least some empowerment – by publicizing their harassment. In 2011, Think Progress reporter Alyssa Rosenberg started posting the violent threats she received. Inspired by this response, then-editor at Fast Company magazine Nancy Miller encouraged bloggers to share the threats they fielded on Twitter with the hashtag #ThreatoftheDay. Sady Doyle, a writer at In These Times, expanded this to all kinds of harassing comments (sexist slurs, rape fantasies and the like) with the hashtag #mencallmethings.

To combat harassment, others turn to unmasking perpetrators, if possible. Last year, a reporter at Gawker “outed” the man who moderated some of the most disturbing message boards on Reddit, including r/rapebait, r/incest, r/picsofdeadkids, r/jailbait, and r/chokeabitch. Once exposed, Michael Brutsch was promptly fired from his real-world job.

What’s the solution?

Attorneys say it would be helpful if more police appreciated the damage of cyberharassment pursued charges more vigilantly. But many also feel that the law granting total immunity to websites is a tad outdated and ripe for reform.

Bartow said an exception could be carved out in Section 230, like the one for copyright, where websites receive a takedown notice if they’re hosting content stolen from somewhere else. The website could then choose to leave up the post, but if a judge finds it unlawfully harassing, the website operator wouldn’t have a shield of immunity to hide behind.

“It gives a lot more remedies to people who are wronged,” Bartow said. 

Citron, however, believes such a takedown regime would be mighty arduous for websites, and could potentially encourage a worrying level of censorship. She suggests a much narrower exception that would force liability on only websites that are “principally devoted to tortuous or criminal activity.”

What could prompt such a change in the law? “It could be just that courts get disgusted,” she said.


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