Kate, who’s asked me not to use her last name, signed up for Facebook in her freshman year of college, as soon as she got her university email address. This was in 2004 when Facebook required one. She had it for only three or four months when she started getting unsettling emails and Facebook
“Facebook was, I think as some of us remember, was not – it had no privacy settings,” she says.
These messages were from strangers. They were calling her sexy, making comments about her body and her appearance, they were propositioning her for sex, and many of them were asking where she lived.
One day, she Googled herself.
“I had discovered at some point that some of my photos and my name had made their way onto another website,” she says. “It was like a forum used for rating girls looks.”
It turned out that someone had lifted photos off her Facebook page and posted them to this site. Commenters would argue back and forth about whether or not she was fat, and whether or not they’d have sex with her. The posting included her full name and linked back to her Facebook profile.
“At that point, there was like no real, reasonable way to be able to take them down,” she says. “I had to contact the web host owner and the domain owner actually found it kind of funny.”
They were mostly candid photos. Her with her friends, one or two from Halloween. A lot of them were taken in her dorm. And in addition to the comments on the website, Kate kept getting messages. Some were simply annoying but many were much worse.
“I was probably only 19 when that happened, and it was extremely scary,” she said.
She remembers about one especially bad message.
“So, uh, what actually had happened is one of these people who had sent me a very sexually harassing message, detailing lots of graphic things that they want to do to me and it was really terrifying.”
At one point, the guy described wanting to force her to perform oral sex on him until she puked.
Then, two days later, she was walking back to her dorm from the school store. It was the middle of winter.
“A snowball hits me in the back of the head. And I turn around, and it’s that guy who had been sending me these messages,” she says. “It looks like he went to my school, or he at least had enough information to at least figure out what school I went to or even where I lived. And that was pretty terrifying, I just took off after that.”
She ran back to her dorm in the ice and snow and spent the next several months terrified that she would see him on campus again. She never did. And eventually the messages tapered off. But after a few months the same photos kept popping up on other websites.
They’d show up on MySpace or LiveJournal, or people would create fake accounts on dating websites like OkCupid using her photos. Often, they didn’t use her full name, so it got harder for her to track them down. But her friends that used these sites would come across them and tip her off.
“I am 28 and it has continued for almost a decade.”
This same thing still happens to her every few months, with the same photos from college. They crop up, and then Kate has to go through the whole process of trying to get them down again. It’s kind of like whack-a-mole. Except there’s actually a term for it.
This is called doxing.
“People know now that it’s something that you can automatically do – like, I don’t like them? Post their information to 4chan and watch the hell begin.”
Doxing is when someone researches you, finds out things like your full name and street address, and posts them in an open forum online. A lot of times, they’ll be matched up to a photo. The term comes from the slang “dropping dox.” “Dox” is short for documents. The term was coined by hackers in the ‘90’s, and it basically meant dropping someone’s “documents,” meaning personal information, onto an online forum. It was meant as a way to get revenge.
So if this happens to you, what do you do?
When it happened to Amanda Hess, a staff writer at Slate, she called 911.
“A police officer came to my hotel room where I was staying, and I explained the content of the threats to him and showed him on my phone and he looked at them and he said ‘What is Twitter?’”
Hess wrote about her experience in a magazine called Pacific Standard.
“I have heard from police officers who have read the story and said that they found it very interesting and some departments who have shared it with their officers, and so I do think that training could really help,” she says. “But of course, training is expensive and local police forces don’t have a lot of money.”
Hess says, perhaps the burden of regulating harassment should land on someone else.
“Tech companies, have all of the money in the world,” she says. “So that is why I think activists have really focused on them and hounded them to find some sort of solution to help at least mitigate the effects of those crimes.”
But there’s a bigger problem. As more of our real lives become integrated with the internet – our jobs, our social lives, even our love lives – so too does our personal safety.
“Explaining to these people that you live your life on the internet as I basically do – it’s where I work, it’s where I talk to my friends – is difficult,” Hess says.
Ari Waldman is the Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School. He says even lawyers have a hard time understanding the implications of online harassment. That’s why he plans to open a legal clinic that would provide free legal representation for victims, and train lawyers to handle these types of cases.
Waldman explains, “Pictures of women have been posted online, they’ve been connected to addresses and that has resulted – their physical addresses – and that has resulted in physical harassment or stalking.”
Waldman also says there’s one type of doxing he’s seen more and more of in recent years: revenge porn. It’s when someone posts nude photos of another person without their consent. For instance, A jilted lover posts a picture of a young woman online next to her address and then posts a Craigslist ad saying, ‘I’m interested in rough sex.”
But Craigslist is not the only avenue for this type of doxing. In fact, there are whole websites dedicated to revenge porn. Hunter Moore used to run one of the most notorious of these sites. It was a site called “Is Anyone Up?” It no longer exists.
In 2011, Moore appeared on Anderson Cooper 360. During the interview, Moore talked about he enjoyed profiting off of doxing, telling Anderson Cooper, “Why wouldn’t I? I get to look at naked pictures of women all day.”
However, when Moore posted photos of Charlotte Laws’ daughter on his website, Laws was furious. And when he would not take the photos down, Laws took action.
Laws who had once worked as a private investigator, started contacting Moore’s other victims and building a case. Laws remembers, “I was often the first person to tell them they were up there. They were freaked out .I felt like a suicide hotline.”
Eventually, Laws brought her big fat file on Moore to the FBI and got them to open up their own investigation. Eventually, Moore was charged with conspiracy, unauthorized access to a protected computer and aggravated identity theft. He’s plead not guilty to all counts, and will stand trial later this year.
Moore wasn’t charged specifically for the offense of revenge porn, because the US has no federal law against it — despite the fact that countries like Israel, Australia, France and The Philippines, do. In fact, the United States hasn’t passed a law to regulate the Internet since the 1990’s. Regulating the internet is not a popular idea. SOPA and PIPA, two proposed laws that sought to protect copyright holders, faced opposition from Google, Yahoo, Mozilla, Ebay and a slew of other internet giants. Both bills were shelved in 2012.Still, after her encounter with Moore, Laws advocated for a revenge porn law in California, and in 2013, it passed. There are 14 states with laws against revenge porn.
But here is still some controversy over those laws. Last year in Arizona, not long after the state passed a revenge porn law that prohibited posting nude images without the consent of the people pictured, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state. Dan Pochoda is the senior counsel of the ACLU of Arizona. He says the ACLU chose to sue because the law was too broad.
“It criminalizes the display, publication and sale of non-obscene images that are fully protected by the first amendment including artistic, historical and newsworthy images. A defendant can be convicted under the act if there was neither malicious intent nor harm done. A defendant can be convicted even if the person depicted had no expectation of privacy.”
In November, a judge put the law on hold so that the legislature can re-work its language. The ACLU is working with the legislature to do so because they do recognize that revenge porn is a crime.
But the fact remains that if you live in a state with no revenge porn law currently on the books, you are out of luck. Ari Waldman says if a state doesn’t have a revenge porn law, victims don’t have much legal standing to combat their harassers. Waldman says, “There have been many attempts to use old tort laws to try to address this problem. There’s harassment statues in various states, there are some laws that have been expanded to online usage, there are copyright laws.”
Copyright law is actually the most common defense in these situations. Asserting your ownership of content is now, in most cases, a quick way to get a website administrator to get rid of your photo. This is done under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, sometimes called the DMCA.
Kate, from earlier in the story, actually started a website called undox.me devoted to helping women get these images off the internet through the DMCA. But while the DMCA is useful in these cases, it was not meant to be used this way. The law, passed in 1998, was meant to protect copyrighted works like art and movies.
And while using the DMCA works in some cases, the process forces the victims to police their harassers. And going after them takes a lot of time. Amanda Hess remembers how she had to call several different law enforcement agencies to get one person to listen to her case. “It ended up taking days out of my work, especially when I was a freelancer, that meant that I wasn’t making money. And it all adds up to a kind of tax on me and on other women who are experiencing the same thing online.”
Editor: Ann Heppermann
Producer: Kaitlin Prest
Advisory Panel Scholar: Laura Beth Nielsen