You can feel the desperation in the woman’s short message.
“My boyfriend posted sexually explicit photos of me on an ‘ex-girlfriend’ porn site,” she wrote on a legal advice website, AVVO.com. “I want them removed, but the website charges $500. Can I take legal action? Against the website or my ex? What can I do?”
The web is now teeming with websites that try to extort victims by exploiting their most private moments for profit. Some encourage what’s now known as “revenge porn.” Others exploit what they call First Amendment rights by collecting mug shots and splashing them online, offering subjects a chance to remove them for a fee. Many victims are later found innocent, but no matter: on the web, everyone is guilty, forever.
Says one ex-girlfriend/ex-boyfriend site, “f you are an adult who has been submitted to this site tough luck.”
The New York Times has thankfully shined a spotlight recently on this, the most troubling fallout from our digital age. This past weekend, the Times took on mugshot websites and shamed some of them into disappearing (they’ll be back). Two weeks ago, the paper got victims of revenge porn to share their scary stories.
The problem, of course, is hardly new — here’s Wired’s story on mugshot sites from 2011. But it’s time we had a serious discussion about this insanity, so good on the Times for starting that talk.
We are, at the moment, trapped by word games played with the First Amendment, and by our own inability to see shades of grey in an increasingly complicated world.
Digital is forever. That’s a concept which many still haven’t wrapped their head around. It has to change the way we look at privacy, and at some very serious legal questions facing our society.
When legislatures around the country, acting on behalf of a voting public, settled on punishment for crime, they did not have “digital is forever” in mind. Someone convicted of petty theft, or smoking pot, or DUI at age 22 might serve his punishment by spending six months in jail; but that no longer represents paying his debt to society. Today, that debt cannot be paid. It lives forever on websites, in data broker databases, perhaps even in Facebook posts.
Perhaps as a society we think that’s appropriate. Fine. Pass a law that says so. Today, digital punishment is often worse than that the actual fine or jail sentence imposed by law. That must be reconsidered.
Perhaps you don’t care much for the plight of criminals. You will never end up in one of those databases, or on one of those mugshot sites. Perhaps. But you will end up dealing with the consequences.
Maybe your daughter or niece will end up on a revenge site. Forever. Maybe your wrongly-assessed overdraft fee will cause a late payment that ends up in your credit report. Forever. (Think there’s a time limit? Not always…) Maybe you’ll be a victim of identity theft and your picture, or your credit, will be disparaged permanently.
Extorting people through their photographs represents the worst side of humanity. But it also represents the logical end of our outright neglect for privacy in America. Ignore the scandal of mugshot sites and revenge porn sites at your own peril.