Reddit's Revenge Porn Policy Still Puts the Onus on Victims, Advocates Say

"At first I thought this announcement was Reddit trolling us."

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Feb 26 2015, 3:00pm

​Image: Flickr/Eva Blue

​Reddit announced a ban on "involuntary pornography" on the site Tuesday, but advocates for victims of the crime aren't celebrating yet.

"At first I thought this announcement was Reddit trolling us victim advocates," Carrie A. Goldberg, an attorney who litigates online sexual privacy and revenge porn, sexually explicit media posted online without the consent of the subject, told Motherboard in an email.

The new policy says any nude photograph, video, or digital image that is posted against the subject's will can be reported to site administrators, who will work to get it taken down as quickly as possible. Reddit says its current community management team will handle these requests, and it won't be hiring more staff members to take on the issue.

"Reddit's new commitment is laudable, but it would be amnesic to consider Reddit a leader in protecting revenge porn victims from ongoing sexual humiliation and exposure," Goldberg said. "They've historically been anything but."

Reddit is not known for effectively responding to these kinds of things. It only shut down several well-known subreddits featuring non-consensual porn due​ to public outcry, and many of these communities just found new homes under different names. Goldberg said she has seen the lives of several people become "totally overturned" after nude images of them were posted on the site.

Reddit won't be hiring more staff to take on the issue

Reddit executives have res​ponded flippantly to these issues in the past, saying the site is just a "repository" for content and they can't regulate what turns up there. Just six months ago, Reddit handled the posting of nude images of celebrities disastrously, Goldberg said, referring to the massive photo leak that affected hundreds of people including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. The event, known as The Fappening—a masturbation reference—saw the mass distribution of private photos on Reddit, and may be part of the impetus for the new policy.

Holly Jacobs is the founder and director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, an organization that offers free resources to victims of revenge porn that she launched after becoming becoming a target of the crime herself. She said the new policy is a step in the right direction, but isn't perfect.

"The burden is still going to be on the victims to reach out and contact Reddit, tell them their image is up there," she said. Reddit told Motherboard in an email it will not require proof of identity to have images in question taken down, but did say publicly that it would be "ea​sier for us" if victims file a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown request asserting their ownership of the photos.

Goldberg said there are many issues with the new policy, including the fact that Reddit does not host image files. She said unless Imgur, the main hosting site used to post images on Reddit, is included in the policy, it won't impact the distribution of these images.

"Aside from that issue, removal needs to be enforced in a way that's minimally burdensome," she said. "Reddit also needs to implement a method to ban the people who post the images."

Under the current policy, there are no special repercussions for people who post these images.

"Users who break the rules of Reddit consistently will be treated the same as they always have," a Reddit spokesperson told Motherboard by email. "Their accounts may be affected but there is no automatic punishment."

However, Jacobs said any time a major platform like this takes a stand against revenge porn, it is helpful to potential victims.

"In terms of what tech companies are capable of right now, this is one of the best things they can do, but we need to do other things to prevent it from going up in the first place," she said. "I hope that a lot of other online platforms follow in their footsteps and take a stand against this and announce they are doing so."

Policies like these are especially important as incidents of involuntary pornography appear to be on the rise, Jacobs said. In 2014, 1,500 victims of non-consensual pornography reached out to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative for help. In the past, the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative website would get an average of 10,000 visits a month. In January of this year, it got 96,000.

"The numbers have absolutely shot up."

"The numbers have absolutely shot up," Jacobs said. "We are seeing incidents happen a lot more, but we don't know if it's because it's happening more or it's getting a lot more attention."

Reddit has said it does not expect to see a large number of these requests. "Our community team is tasked with handling the takedown requests and is fully capable of handling the volume we receive at its current size," the spokesperson told Motherboard.

Jacobs said she suspect's Reddit's new female CEO Ellen Pao, who is currently pursuing a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer, is behind the change in policy.

"For one, she's a woman who may be able to identify better with victims in this situation," she said. (Previously, Reddit's CEOs have all been men.) "She was also a victim of sexual harassment herself, so she may be be able to relate to this more."

Jacobs said she and advocates like her have a lot of questions for Reddit as to how they will enforce the new policy. She is skeptical of the fact email is the only outlet of reporting instances of non-consensual pornography.

"When victims are going through this, they're often scared to use a computer," she said. "They are so paranoid and they'd so much rather pick up the phone and talk to somebody."

Jacobs said she hopes Reddit enlists the help of advocacy groups to develop the best plan possible.

"They should really reach out to an organization like ours who really know how to provide support."

Goldberg said the fact that Reddit is taking a public stand against revenge porn shows the site is responding "to a cultural shift that's sweeping the country"—16 states have passed laws banning revenge porn, and others have laws pending.