“Everything is going to be okay.” I said that to three people today. It choked me up each time.
Up until this past Friday there were lots of other words of comfort I’d use: “We’ll get you to the other side of this.” “I’m here to help.” “One day at a time.” “Breathe through this.”
However, before Friday, to falsely assure my clients, victims of online sexual privacy invasions, of future okay-ness, was not something I could in good conscience do. I’m a litigator who handles cases relating to nonconsensual pornography (NCP), Internet privacy, and sexual consent. A lot of my work with clients early-on, though, is crisis management and about keeping the sharp objects far away. I’m also a board member at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative through which we fought hard for Friday’s results.
When Google announced on Friday that it would respond to requests submitted from victims of NCP and remove nude and sexual images from their search engine results, I shrieked and cried. If it had been a sitcom, I would have grabbed the attorney down the hall by the necktie and kissed him deeply. Instead, I texted-tweeted-emailed-DMed manically with my litigation besty Elisa and my CCRI partners Mary Anne and Holly, giddy-groggy from a sleepless night anticipating this big announcement.
So many successes this past year were worthy of cork-popping: revenge porn bans from other tech behemoths (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Periscope), the number of states that have passed criminal “revenge porn” bills growing to 23 , prosecutions of some of the most pernicious site operators, and even the FTC built a case describing the peddling of NCP an unfair or deceptive business practices. New federal legislation is in gestation. Mainstream media jumped aboard with articles and specials.
None of that mighty progress toward ending NCP, though, enabled me to tell my clients things would be okay.
That’s because victims of NCP suffer an irreparable and long-lasting search engine crisis. Even when we remove the material from the Internet, sue the offender, obtain orders of protection, arrest, etc., the search engine crisis outlasts everything. It makes victims feel undateable, unemployable, and the object of spectacle. Search engines were both the vehicle and the highway by which revenge porn consumers — known and unknown to my clients — digitally arrive at their naked bodies. The more traffic to reach the destination, the more direct the route becomes with those pages rising above the victim’s intentional web information, profiles, and websites.
Even if we manage to clean up the search engine results, we still can’t relax because it may only be temporary. Not only is anybody capable of downloading, screen-shotting, and re-posting images they find online, but the bottom feeders of the human race see it as their life mission to monitor “revenge porn” websites and re-post images that have been removed. It was always a “it’s only a matter of time” situation, knowing that at any day – perhaps when they’re applying for a job or auditioning for a role or about to get married – the material could resurface when their name is typed into a search engine, thus sending us back into the lengthy quagmire of search engine rehab. This is particularly distressing with my youngest clients, some still in junior high school who could forever be tormented by an algorithm favoring the worst thing that ever happened to them.
Today, though, I got to say everything will be okay to a 24-year-old woman, a former sex worker, who turned her life around and is set to start social work school in the fall. Her ex-pimp, angry that she left the trade, created false advertisements for gangbangs publishing her name, address and phone number with it along with naked images on a dedicated website.
Today I said everything will be okay to a 40-year-old woman whose ex posted images of her on AnonIB. When she begged AnonIB to remove the images, they said only if she supplied a snapshot with her pictures and a sign advertising their site, which of course they intended to post.
Today I said everything will be okay to a young mother of two who left a physically torturous relationship only to find pictures of her vagina on fourteen different websites and fake Facebook accounts complete with her full name and contact information and information about her gynecological health. On one website, her image has already been viewed 32,000 times after only a few days.
In all those cases, the devastating discovery that their most intimate moments were publicly accessible was made when they typed their names into search engines.
Even better than telling my clients that things would be okay, was explaining why indeed they would be. The relief that washed over these faces as I described Google’s new policy delivered them from a place of agony to one of relief. Nobody who enters my office knows anything about the Internet – how easy or hard it is to remove images. They just know that it’s an overwhelming “blobby The Thing-type of thing” that they can’t see or understand or get inside of. Or control, that is, until Friday happened.
May Google make an honest woman of me and make everything really be okay.
By Carrie Goldberg
A letter to our supporters:
The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative is thrilled to have played a leading role in this week’s breaking developments on the issue of nonconsensual pornography. You know an issue is at the cutting edge of change when John Oliver features it. It was a delight for several of us to work with producers on Last Week Tonight’s feature about nonconsensual porn.
When we started the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s campaign to end “revenge porn,” we faced a seemingly impossible task. People told us we’d never get legislators on board; as of today, nearly half of all states have passed laws criminalizing this conduct and we are working with Congress on a federal bill. People told us “revenge porn” website operators were safe from prosecution, but yet we’ve seen one after another arrested and their sites darkened. People told us we’d never be able to convince tech companies to take action, and now one powerful company after another has announced policies banning nonconsensual pornography.
We are overjoyed to say that, after months of collaboration and dialogue, we can now add Google to that list. Google has announced a drastic change to its search policy: In the coming weeks, Google will honor requests to remove sexually explicit images that were published without consent.
“Our philosophy has always been that Search should reflect the whole web,” Amit Signhal, Senior Vice President of Google Search said in a blogpost today. “But revenge porn images are intensely personal and emotionally damaging, and serve only to degrade the victims—predominantly women. So going forward, we’ll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results. This is a narrow and limited policy, similar to how we treat removal requests for other highly sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers and signatures, that may surface in our search results.”
We are proud to see that our work to help current victims and to prevent future victims has had such an impact. The momentum is extraordinary, and we hope it will continue. We couldn’t have accomplished what we have so far or continued to fight against online abuse without your encouragement and support. Please consider donating to our cause to help us keep up the good fight.
So sincerely yours,
Holly, Mary Anne, Charlotte, Christina, Carrie, Annmarie, Anisha, Christa, & Natalie
Board of Directors & Volunteers, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative
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Prof. Mary Anne Franks (left) and Rep. Scott Drury (right) present the IL “revenge porn” bill to the Judiciary committee in Springfield, IL.
Just in time for 2015, Governor Pat Quinn (D) announced a New Year’s resolution for the state of Illinois: end revenge porn. On Monday Quinn signed a new law making it a felony to post sexual videos or photos of another person without his or her permission. It goes into effect June 1, 2015. The law, modeled after legislation crafted by Professor Mary Anne Franks, Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI)’s Legislative and Tech Policy Director, criminalizes the practice of non-consensual pornography. Illinois residents have Representative Scott Drury (D) to thank both for sponsoring this law and tirelessly defending its integrity during an unusually lengthy and tumultuous legislative process. Of the sixteen states that have passed some form of revenge porn legislation, Illinois’s law is the best. Here’s why:
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$10 helps us perform legal research and advocate for legislation against nonconsensual pornography.
$25 enables us to start giving presentations about nonconsensual pornography in middle schools, high schools, and universities around the US.
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*Please note: The links above will take you to the website for Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), the organization that runs the End Revenge Porn campaign.