XXX in Tech

The Battle Over Revenge Porn: Can Hunter Moore, the Web’s Vilest Entrepreneur, Be Stopped?

Lawmakers, victims’ rights advocates, and anonymous hackers are on the case.

WEB_illo_2_ejThe king of revenge porn had just slept with a girl on her 18th birthday at an inconspicuous hotel in Chinatown, and he claimed he had the cell phone snap of her driver’s license to prove it. Though he lives in San Francisco, the notorious Hunter Moore was in New York to serve a community service sentence following an incident in which he’d headbutted a go-go dancer.

“I was so coked out,” Mr. Moore told Betabeat, as we made our way from the lobby of his hotel to a Broome Street bar called Lolita. Tall and thin with ink-colored hair and eyes to match, wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head, Mr. Moore sipped a rum and coke as we slid into a booth toward the back. Black tattoos reached like spiders across his arms.

Mr. Moore is the proprietor of Is Anyone Up, which until last Spring was the web’s most prominent revenge porn hub, a site where spurned exes post embarrassing images of former lovers. Deemed The Most Hated Man on the Internet by Rolling Stone, Mr. Moore revels in his position as a professional antagonist, gleefully flinging around his favored retort—“I really don’t give a fuck.” He doesn’t sleep well at night, but not because his day job haunts him: he’s an insomniac. As for guilt, he absolves himself by reasoning that it’s not him submitting the photos. He’s simply providing a platform for others to do so.

“Why should I care?” Mr. Moore said, taking a sip of his drink. “It’s not my life. It’s literally just a business. It’s stupid not to monetize it.”

Mr. Moore has built a lucrative career off of other people’s naked pictures, and he’s amassed a veritable army of fans in the process. Comprised primarily of young women who tweet him nude photos, and star-struck bros who wish they too could get paid to see girls naked, Mr. Moore boasts close to 100,000 Twitter followers eager to angrily and passionately defend him should anyone challenge his activities.

Prior to starting Is Anyone Up, Mr. Moore said he did party promoting and lived off of money he claimed he got from a lawsuit after he was sexually assaulted at 19 years old while working a retail job. “That’s some crazy shit you sue over,” Mr. Moore said of the incident. “Not some shit like you fucking stuck your fingers in your ass and sent it to some cute boy you met on the internet and then you wanna sue me for that?”

Last spring, following an incendiary Village Voice cover story on his empire, it appeared for a moment that Mr. Moore had had a change of heart. He sold Is Anyone Up to James McGibney, the owner of Bullyville, an anti-bullying site, and wrote a letter claiming that he was a changed man, no longer interested in facilitating the proliferation of revenge porn. It may have been his slyest provocation yet.

“I literally had a half pound of cocaine on a fucking table with like 16 of my friends and we were busting up laughing taking turns writing this stupid letter,” Mr. Moore said of the incident. “I think bullying is bullshit and it’s just a soccer-mom fad.”

Now, Mr. Moore is launching a new project: a revenge porn site called HunterMoore.TV, that will include all of the old content from Is Anyone Up, in addition to new material. Perhaps most astoundingly, he told us, the site will now allow contributors to post the address of a target along with the scandalous photos. HunterMoore.TV will then display the nudes on a map, showing exactly where the subjects of the pictures live.

“I know—it’s scary as shit,” Mr. Moore admitted, noting that the site’s new feature will go live in the coming month.

He checked his iPhone, which had been lighting up with text messages all night. His “friend/drug supplier,” was calling, and Mr. Moore asked if he could bring him “a little somethin’.” Betabeat took this to mean cocaine, which he told us on multiple occasions was his current drug of choice.

After he hung up, we swung back to the topic of the victims of his site and whether or not he feels badly for them. At the word “victim,” Mr. Moore made a motion with his hand to signify masturbation and rolled his eyes.

“In a perfect world there would be no bullying and there would be no people like me and there would be no sites like mine,” he explained. “But we don’t live in a perfect world.”

***

On an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, while eating lunch alone in a local restaurant, Sarah, a consultant then in her mid-twenties (she asked to use a pseudonym), received an email that would fundamentally alter the course of her life. Sent by an anonymous tipster, the email included a link to a website she’d never heard of, along with the message, “Someone is trying to make life very difficult for you.” When she clicked the link, Sarah was horrified to find nude pictures of herself filling up the screen alongside personal information, including her full name and a link to her Facebook profile.

“My stomach just dropped,” Sarah told Betabeat. “I froze, immediately asked for the check, and then everything that happened after that is just a blur.”

Throughout the harrowing weeks that followed, Sarah learned that a scorned ex-boyfriend had taken intimate pictures that she had sent to him in confidence and uploaded them to a slew of websites. For months afterward she continued to receive harassing emails from revenge porn aficionados who had seen her pictures online.

The nature of Sarah’s photos are typical of the revealing imagery that shows up on these revenge sites. She was in a long distance relationship at the time, and she had taken some nude photos at her then-boyfriend’s request; others had been taken by him while the two were engaged in sexual acts.

In addition to uploading the photos to hundreds of revenge porn sites, Sarah’s ex also sent them to everyone she worked with from an email address he had rigged to appear to come from her. “In the end, I decided to leave my job there because the pictures were all up in association with my position and the company,” she said. “I continued to receive harassing emails at my email address there, and honestly feared that sooner or later I would be physically stalked at work. There were some nights that I was working late and alone at the office, and would jump at every little sound.” Sarah says that despite the fact she never considered herself a gun-toting kind of gal, she bought a stun gun and never left the house without it; she also anticipates that “Santa will leave a gun under the tree for me this Christmas.”

Because her photos are on hundreds of revenge porn sites, Sarah also said that she’s constantly worried that people recognize her on the street. “I just feel like I’m now a prime target for actual rape,” she said. “I never walk alone at night, and I get chills when I catch someone staring at me. I always wonder to myself, ‘Are they staring because they recognize me from what’s on the Internet?’”

One of the fundamental truths of the Internet is that once an image is uploaded, it’s almost impossible to permanently scrape it from the web. When Sarah Googled her name, the first 10 pages of results were all links to her naked photos. She tried for months afterward to expunge her photos from the hundreds of revenge porn, regular porn and torrent sites that had picked them up. The police were of no help: they told her that because she was over 18 when the photos were taken, what her ex was doing was technically legal. Furthermore, because they were in his possession, they told her the photos were technically his property.

Unable to afford expensive legal fees that would allow her to file a civil suit, Sarah researched other options that could rid the web of the photos that haunted her. She filed Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown requests claiming that her ex was engaging in copyright infringement and battled with foreign webmasters who knew that because their servers were hosted elsewhere, they were beyond U.S. jurisdiction. None of her efforts worked: to this day, her photos are online. She even had to change her name because of it.

“It’s just horrible,” she added, the pain in her voice palpable. “I don’t think that society really realizes how rampant it is. And right now, there’s not a lot that victims can do about it.”

***

Mr. Moore (Photo: Nate Igor Smith)

Mr. Moore (Photo: Nate Igor Smith)

There are several ways your risque snaps could end up on a revenge porn site without your consent like Sarah’s did. The most popular is that they’re submitted, along with links to your social media profiles, by a spiteful ex whom you once trusted with such intimate material. Some posters are men who feel rejected and punish one another’s exes out of a twisted sense of duty and brotherhood. Unlike spray-tanned, airbrushed porn manufactured by studios, revenge porn offers a rare, voyeuristic window into the private lives of couples, revealing how they see and lust after each other. It’s amateur porn in its purest sense, which is likely a generous part of its appeal. But revenge porn doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and even if you put aside issues of consent, there’s also a disturbing subtext that perhaps women deserve to be punished for trusting their male partners.

But both men and women, of all ages, have been victimized by revenge porn, and with HunterMoore.TV’s imminent launch, the number of people impacted by it will only grow.

To date, hosting and disseminating revenge porn is a legal grey area, though victims have sued on a host of legal grounds, including copyright infringement, privacy and publicity statutes, and even laws that require pornographers to maintain written records of the ages of their subjects, put in place to keep children out of the porn industry. Nevada-based copyright lawyer Marc Randazza is currently representing a client who is suing Mr. Moore on copyright grounds, after her photos appeared on Is Anyone Up and Mr. Moore declined to honor her takedown request. He’s also representing Mr. McGibney, the Bullyville founder, in a defamation case against Mr. Moore after he publicly accused Mr. McGibney of being a pedophile.

There are some federal cyberstalking laws created to protect victims like Sarah from retaliatory exes. “Under criminal law, state and federal law there exist cyberstalking laws that cover the very activity that [Sarah’s] perpetrator is engaged in, which is repeated online behavior designed with the intent to cause substantial emotional distress,” said University of Maryland law professor and cyberstalking expert Danielle Citron. “That kind of behavior is covered by federal cyberstalking law as well as her state’s stalking law. The key problem is that it’s not enforced. So often cops say, ‘Oh, just turn off your computer, you’ll clean up your online search, boys will be boys, they’ll just forget about you.’”

“Cops are fucking useless,” Mr. Randazza agreed.

“We need to educate law enforcement and the courts on the importance of bringing and prosecuting these cases and give them the resources to do so,” said Erica Johnstone, a lawyer at a firm in San Francisco that focuses on IP and privacy law. “Right now we have laws, but don’t have resources to prosecute them.” To help promote legal awareness about cyberharassment, Ms. Johnstone helped found Without My Consent, which “provides knowledge with tools about how to reclaim your reputation.”

Meanwhile, proprietors of revenge porn sites like Mr. Moore are currently protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that websites are not liable for content submitted by users. “No one can do shit and I don’t give a fuck,” Mr. Moore said. “I have a legal team and we’ve never even heard of these fucking people [suing us].”

Because courts have never dealt with revenge porn sites before, there isn’t a clear legal precedent. But Mr. Randazza, who specializes in copyright law, is so determined to destroy sites like Is Anybody Up that he’s waiving legal fees for any victims who have appeared on the site. On his blog, he argued that more consensually taken naked photos of women would make the world a better place.

“The fact that guys will do this makes it less likely that any woman will send you a naked picture of herself,” Mr. Randazza said. “Just from the perspective of not being a douche, any guy who meets anybody who runs one of these sites should punch them in the face.”

“And if you do, I’ll represent you for free,” he added.

***

A few days after meeting with Betabeat, Mr. Moore told a reporter at Salon that he was so coked out and drunk that he didn’t even remember our interview. He claimed that HunterMoore.TV would not include an address submission field, and only he would be posting the addresses of people who had burned him. But his backpedaling may have been for naught: Mr. Moore had riled the Internet’s most notorious sleeping giant, the hacker collective Anonymous, which immediately launched an operation to destroy his revenge porn empire. Along with a foreboding video and a call to arms for all members to take Mr. Moore to task for his behavior, Anonymous published extensive personal information about Mr. Moore, including his home address and the names of his family members.

It seemed strange that Anonymous, which has been known to publish the personal information of its targets—much like the vengeful lovers who flock to Mr. Moore’s site—would go after someone who is effectively guilty of the same crime. However, a faction of the group has recently taken to punishing bullies, and helped to track down a ring of pedophiles that allegedly blackmailed 15-year-old Amanda Todd, who committed suicide following the cyberharassment. And KY Anonymous, the Anonymous operative who launched the campaign, reasoned that Mr. Moore’s willingness to harm the blameless makes him a worthy target. “We won’t stand by while someone uses the internet to victimize and capitalize off the misery of others,” said KY Anonymous. “We are all about free enterprise, but we are not about the things that Hunter Moore and other revenge porn sites are guilty of.”

The collective’s move raised some thorny questions: Is it possible to protect people from revenge porn while also supporting an open Internet, free from censorship and unnecessary government interference?

Charlotte Laws, an NBC commentator and California city councilwoman, believes it’s possible to create legal protections for revenge porn victims while also valuing a free web. She’s working to put tougher laws in place, a campaign she began after her daughter was the victim of a hack that led to her private photos being uploaded to revenge porn sites.

“Like a traditional rape victim, my daughter just balled up and didn’t want to face it or talk to anyone,” Ms. Laws recalled.

“I don’t think a minor legislative change regarding revenge porn would hamper that ‘freeness and openness’ of the Internet in any serious way,” she added. “My goal is only to limit speech when it comes to non-consensual graphic sexual photographs and videos. Nothing more.”

Ms. Laws pointed to 18 USC 2257, a law created for the pornography industry that requires commercial porn websites to index anyone who appears nude alongside a copy of their driver’s license proving that they’re 18. She argues that if a website operator like Mr. Moore had to produce a 2257 form and driver’s license for every person submitted to his site, “he would basically be limited to publishing ‘self-submits’ or photos approved by the ‘actor’ or ‘actress.’”

Meanwhile the University of Maryland law professor, Ms. Citron, suggested that more states adopt video voyeurism laws like one currently on the books in New Jersey that criminalizes publishing what she calls “pictures that are sexual in nature and naked pictures of sex acts without the person’s consent.”

“We’re working on what would be the best avenue for hopefully tweaking one of the current laws or making an amendment,” Ms. Laws added. “It’s really insidious and in some respects there’s components that are even worse than being physically attacked or bullied or harassed, because you have that component of the anonymity.”

***

Despite Mr. Moore’s defiant attitude, HunterMoore.TV’s potential new mapping feature–which may or may not come to fruition–could be the fatal blow to his invocation of Section 230. Ms. Citron argues that by encouraging users to include addresses with their submissions, he could be facilitating stalking. “If he is putting up fields with someone’s address and a field ensuring that there’s a map to facilitate stalking, I think there’s an argument to be made that he is engaging in cyberstalking under federal criminal law,” Ms. Citron told Betabeat. “Section 230 explicitly does not immunize federal criminal law violations.”

Sarah, the victim in her late-twenties, is also working with Ms. Laws to pass more stringent legislation. She started End Revenge Porn, an online hub for victims to congregate, share their stories and take action. The group is currently collecting signatures for a petition that seeks to halt revenge porn.

“People call it cyberrape, and it absolutely is,” Sarah said. “That’s why we’re pushing to have the law make it a felony. It equates to just how much damage this does to someone’s life.”

She added, “Once those pictures go up, they never come down.”

A version of this story appeared on A1 of the New York Observer.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com

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