TECH
09/08/2014 03:29 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

If You're Not Famous, Good Luck Getting Reddit To Take Down Your Nude Photos

The social news site Reddit took down a forum over the weekend that spread stolen naked photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, saying users were reposting the images that had been removed for violating copyright law.

But another Reddit forum dedicated to sharing nude images of non-celebrities continues to thrive. That forum, which is called "r/photoplunder" and has nearly 30,000 readers, shows women in various states of undress under the tagline: “They should know better.”

The forum's existence highlights the challenges facing "revenge porn" victims who try to get their intimate pictures removed from the Internet. While about a dozen states have laws that criminalize posting revealing pictures on the Web without the subject’s consent, women or men who've had their private photos posted can struggle for years to get websites to remove the images.

Victims describe an exhausting and embarrassing process of getting hundreds of websites to remove naked photos that they originally sent privately to their exes -- only to find those photos have already gone viral and spread to hundreds more websites.

“You don’t have control over it,” Holly Jacobs, a 31-year-old revenge porn victim, told HuffPost. “Anybody can download and upload them. The original poster automatically has an army.”

In 2009, someone -- Jacobs believes it was an ex-boyfriend -- began publishing nude images of her online without her consent. At first, he changed her Facebook profile photo to a naked picture of her, she said. Six months later, a dozen nude photos of her appeared on a porn site. She hired a lawyer and got the sites to remove them by threatening to sue under copyright law.

"I breathed a sigh of relief," she said.

But when she started dating someone new two years later, the images had reappeared and spread to more than 300 websites, she said. Jacobs spent a month requesting that each site take them down. A few weeks later, the photos reappeared on 300 more sites -- with her full name attached. She began receiving messages from people who saw the images and asked to meet her in person, sent her explicit pictures of themselves, and solicited her for sex, she said.

One of the images identified her as a professor at Florida International University, where she was getting her Ph.D. at the time. Worried that she would get kicked out of school, she took the drastic measure of changing her name from Holli Thometz to Holly Jacobs to disassociate herself from the pictures. She also hired a company called DMCA Defender to send takedown notices to websites that still hosted the photos. Some of the photos are still on the Internet, she said.

"If anyone comes across these photos, at least they know the story behind them now," she said.

Today, Jacobs has become an advocate for revenge porn victims. She started the website endrevengeporn.org, which pushes for legislation against revenge porn and provides resources for victims.

While Jacobs struggled to get her nude photos taken down, she may have had an easier time than other victims. That's because her images were “selfies” that she took herself, so she owned the copyright to them and could threaten to sue websites hosting them under copyright law.

If someone else had taken the photos, she may not have been able to make such a threat, she said. That legal distinction is reportedly preventing Jennifer Lawrence from getting her nude photos removed from a porn site. The porn site is claiming that Lawrence doesn’t own the copyright to them because she didn’t take the photos herself, according to TMZ.

The controversy over the celebrity photos comes at an awkward time for Reddit, which has 133 million visitors each month and was bought by the magazine publisher Conde Nast in 2006. Reddit is trying to raise a round of funding from venture capitalists that would value the site at $500 million, according to the tech news site Re/code.

The Reddit forum for non-celebrity nude photos states the images were not stolen by hacking and that "all the images you see here are taken from accounts that have their security settings set to public."

"Regardless with how these images were obtained, uploading them here is not against Reddit's [terms of service]," it says.

Reddit did not respond to questions of why the site was still hosting the forum. But on Saturday, Jason Harvey, a systems administrator at Reddit, published a blog post to explain why the site removed the celebrity nude forum.

Harvey said the site had tried taking down naked images of minors and photos that celebrities requested be removed under copyright law. But he said the images were being reposted "constantly” on the forum and “it quickly devolved into a game of whack-a-mole.”

In response to why Reddit wasn’t banning other forums that “contain deplorable content,” he said, “We remove what we're required to remove by law, and what violates any rules which we have set forth."

"Beyond that," he said, "we feel it is necessary to maintain as neutral a platform as possible, and to let the communities on reddit be represented by the actions of the people who participate in them.”

Legal experts say websites are allowed to host nude images of revenge porn victims because a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act shields them from being liable for content posted on their sites.

But in the wake of the celebrity hacking scandal, some are calling on Congress to amend the law to help revenge porn victims erase their embarrassing digital histories.

“The bottom line is this: When websites know they’ll be socked with lawsuits that they’ll lose, they will take these photos down,” Emily Bazelon wrote on Slate.com last week.

She added: “It’s time to extend the protections copyright offers to victims of involuntary porn.”

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