Reddit Revamps Privacy Policy, Leads The Way In Shifting “Revenge” Porn Landscape

Over the past two months, the so-called “revenge porn” issue has seen a rather dramatic development, as operators of roughly half of the dedicated involuntary porn sites (that is, sites which exist solely to allow people to post nude photos to harm another) have been convicted, will likely be convicted in the next few weeks, accepted plea agreements resulting in prison time, or settled with federal authorities.  While there are a few significant sites remaining, and continued efforts of law enforcement are necessary to shutter them, their days may be numbered.

But the practice is not limited to these sites.  Rather, other forms of social media are co-opted: photos posted on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and so forth are not only increasingly likely, but potentially more damaging.  On a ‘dedicated’ site, an individual would be subjected to an anonymous audience (and usually extortion), but it was somewhat less likely that friends, family members, employers, and other acquaintances would see the photos.  On social media, however, the results are immediate and more personal: the social circle around the victim sees the photos within minutes or hours. 1

The question, then, becomes one not necessarily of law (i.e., the operators of involuntary porn sites being arrested for peripheral offenses like extortion), but of policy.  How do social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (which are, like ‘dedicated’ sites, exempt from most liability due to CDA 230) prevent or remedy this type of abuse of their networks?  Of course, as the sites are largely exempt from liability due to CDA 230, they don’t have to do anything at all, but this approach would yield criticism.  As Yahoo!’s CSO recently noted, “[w]e can’t tell people not to take intimate photos. We need to make that safe because that’s how people are using the technology.”

Reddit is taking the right — albeit not perfect – approach.

Last fall, Reddit was a central distribution point for the en masse posting of approximately 500 nude photos of celebrities, resulting in significant criticism of the company, even though it was a breach of Apple’s iCloud security through which the photos were collected and the photos were hosted on (and distributed by) other sites.  Reddit, known for taking an aggressive stance on free speech issues, was mired in debate over whether it should remove the posts as it became a central repository for linking to the purloined photos.

In a post today, the company acknowledges that it was slow to respond and announces a change in its privacy policy:

Last year, we missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy — something we’ve cared deeply about since reddit’s inception. At our recent all hands company meeting, this was something that we all, as a company, decided we needed to address.

No matter who you are, if a photograph, video, or digital image of you in a state of nudity, sexual excitement, or engaged in any act of sexual conduct, is posted or linked to on reddit without your permission, it is prohibited on reddit. We also recognize that violent personalized images are a form of harassment that we do not tolerate and we will remove them when notified. As usual, the revised Privacy Policy will go into effect in two weeks, on March 10, 2015.

We’re so proud to be leading the way among our peers when it comes to your digital privacy and consider this to be one more step in the right direction. We’ll share how often these takedowns occur in our yearly privacy report.

The amended privacy policy reads, in relevant part:

involuntary pornography

reddit is committed to your privacy. If you believe that someone has submitted, without your permission, to reddit a link to a photograph, video, or digital image of you in a state of nudity or engaged in any act of sexual conduct, please contact us (contact@reddit.com), and we will expedite its removal as quickly as possible. reddit prohibits the posting of such content without consent.

Reddit doesn’t have to do this.  By virtue of the CDA, the company could simply throw its hands in the air and say, “blame the poster, not us.”  That, however, is not always a palatable approach in terms of publicity, and sites which act in this matter only further (largely misplaced) calls to rein in the CDA.

Here’s what reddit gets right:

  1. Providing a clear policy.  The policy draws a clear line: if a person claims that they are the person in the photo and did not consent to its distribution, it will be removed, no matter who they are.  The policy as written, however, create the possibility that the site has created a contractual or quasi-contractual relationship with the reporting party, and failing to adhere to its promise to “expedite its removal as quickly as possible” may subject the company to liability, assuming Barnes v. Yahoo! remains good law.
  2. Providing a way to contact the right people quickly.  It’s often unclear to victims — particularly when they’re seeking an immediate resolution — how, exactly, to report the post.  Is it impersonation? Is it harassment? Is it a threat? Is it an intellectual property issue?  This type of conduct doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes social media outlets provide, which can mean users are confused and don’t act at all, or may send their report to a team that isn’t trained on how to handle it.  That creates the potential that the report won’t be acted on at all or action delayed while it’s re-routed to the appropriate team.As above, social media companies don’t have to do any of this.

    Nobody expects them to police every piece of content before it’s posted.  But providing clear lines of communication and quick resolution can ensure that the sites are not seen as hives of abuse.

    Reddit, and similar sites, should take this another step by establishing an email address which allows a victim to contact the team or person who is familiar with the policy and can act immediately, just as many social media outlets have a team which can address suicide or threats of violence immediately.  I assume that Reddit is small enough that reports to this general email address will be seen and acted upon quickly.

  3. Using the right term.  Not all non-consensual pornography is ‘revenge’.  As the celebrity photos issue demonstrated, the involuntary publicity given to nude photos might be merely salacious curiosity.  By removing qualifications with respect to the poster’s purpose, Reddit can avoid a nuanced debate on whether the purpose matters.  This may limit the rare instance in which a nude photo might have some lingering newsworthy merit (see, e.g., Anthony Weiner or, arguably, the celebrity photos themselves), but that’s a line in the sand that Reddit is free to draw.
  4. Being transparent.  Providing a tool to quickly remove unwelcome content creates the potential that it will be abused.  To be sure, it’s unlikely to be abused (how often will someone seek to remove a nude photo that’s not them?), but the potential is present.  By keeping track of the statistics, Reddit shows not only that it does act on such requests, but tells their users how often it acts.  Reddit could improve on this in two ways.  First, it should make clear to the reporting party that its statistics will not reveal any identifying information, reducing a victim’s potential fear that his or her name will be publicized.  Second, its statistics should also keep track of how often requests are denied, which might assist in clarifying the policy in the future (if clarification is necessary) and in deterring abuse (to the extent the policy can be abused.)

Reddit’s approach isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction that should be followed by others.  Others, including Tumblr, Google, and Facebook, have vague policies or otherwise make themselves difficult to contact.  By establishing clear policies and methods of communication (and acting on them quickly), other companies can avoid the possibility of a tarnished reputation — and, more importantly, minimize the possibility that they’ll be utilized for distinctly anti-social, harmful conduct.

Notes:

  1. I’m drawing some big black lines lines in a gray area here, of course.  Some sites may provide the same anonymous mass audience, which perpetrators may utilize to impersonate their victims and harness strangers to do their stalking or harassment for them.  See, for example, the case against David Elam, who is alleged to have impersonated an ex-girlfriend on Craigslist and OKCupid to solicit strangers to visit her home.

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