The Rape Victim Who Is Challenging One of the Fundamental Laws of the Internet
Before their arrest, a pair of predators used Model Mayhem to find young women to sexually assault. Now one of those women is attempting to sue the website, and fighting Google and Facebook in the process.
Illustrations by Matt Rota
Jane Doe woke up on the wrong side of the bed with her world upside down. Through the haze of a hangover, the 22-year-old surveyed room 527 at the Red Roof Inn near Miami International Airport and tried to figure out why she was facing the window. She'd only had some Smirnoff wine cooler the night before, and what she calls her "extreme OCD" would never allow for any deviation from her normal bedtime habits. But as she became more and more alert, the panic started rising in her chest.
Her double bed was soaked. The floor was covered in clothes and she was wearing a crop-top she'd planned on showing off at the beach but didn't remember ever taking out of her suitcase. When she touched her face, she felt her lips—perfectly painted the night before – were now bloody and busted. When she urinated and wiped, the toilet paper came back stained red.
So at 9:55 in the morning on February 18, 2011, she grabbed her cell phone with trembling hands and dialed. In a Texas twang, Doe tried to tell a 9-1-1 dispatcher how what seemed like a dream opportunity quickly turned into an unimaginable nightmare.
"I only came to Miami because I thought this would be a benefitting opportunity for me," she said, according to a transcript of the call. "And I, I feel like I've been molested, maybe, or raped. I don't remember anything from last night. I don't remember how I got in my bed. I woke up in my bed with my panties off."
Months earlier, a man named Lavont Flanders had contacted her on the website Model Mayhem—sort of a MySpace for wannabe video girls and amateur models. Although he was actually a disgraced ex-cop turned bus driver, Flanders presented himself as a casting agent.
Thinking it was her chance to break into the big time, she'd flown down from Brooklyn, and was picked up from her hotel by Flanders and taken to a Kinkos so they could make copies of her ID and portfolio. Then she was instructed to do a test shoot in a nearby parking lot. Flanders handed Doe a drink and instructed her to say some lines as she consumed it. "I want to see how you work under pressure," he explained.
When they got back in the car, Doe felt very drunk and asked for something to eat, but was told she couldn't have anything because the audition needed to be completed quickly. They headed back to the Red Roof Inn, where Doe held her ID up in front of a camera and said she was 18 and not being held against her will.
The last thing she remembers is opening the door for Lawson's colleague—but while she was blacked out from the Xanax Flanders had slipped her, she had been raped by a heavily tattooed Jamaican porn star named Jah-T, and filmed without her knowledge for a series called Miami's Nastiest Nymphos.
Later, she'd find out that she was far from alone. Hundreds of police and court documents reviewed by VICE show how Flanders and Callum raped dozens of women between 2006 and 2008 using Model Mayhem and another site called Black Planet. When they were arrested and let out on bail in 2009, they—unbelievably—went back to the same scheme, and raped dozens more. A federal complaint puts the number of total victims at "about 100."
Not only that, but civil court documents show that the owners of Model Mayhem knew about the first wave of rapes but failed to issue a warning to users. The FBI told VICE in response to a FOIA request that they are actively investigating the site.
Doe is currently fighting for the right to sue the site through which her rapist contacted her, and her efforts have turned a case about sexual assault into a case about free speech on the internet and the responsibility social media websites have when their users commit crimes. Facebook, Google, and Craigslist are desperate to prevent her from seeking damages; the three companies claimed in a court brief that such a decision would have a "chilling effect" on the web and inhibit free speech. However, others claim that re-tooling (or at least re-interpreting) the part of the law that shields online publishers from liability is necessary in the age of revenge porn and the trollish harassment of nearly every woman who expresses an opinion online.
Today, when Doe recounts waking up that February day, her teeth start to chatter from fear. She's moved to the Deep South and now works a nine-to-five job; she spends her off time trying to keep a rambunctious one-year-old from climbing on the furniture. "Everything is scary for me," she explains. "I never will look at a fashion magazine again."
To understand the First Amendment issues involved in Doe's lawsuit, you have to go back to 1994, when an anonymous messageboard user wrote a post claiming that brokerage house Stratton Oakmont, the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street, was involved in some seriously shady dealings and that Danny Porush—the basis for Jonah Hill's cocaine-hoovering character—was a "soon to be proven criminal."
Naturally, Porush and Stratton sued for defamation, but since he couldn't sue the anonymous user, he sought $200 million in damages from Prodigy Services, the company that owned the messageboard, for giving the user a platform for the insults. Back in the mid 90s, the question of whether a website was a publisher, like a newspaper, or a mere distributor of content, like the mail, was a novel one.
In May of 1995, the New York Supreme Court issued a summary judgment saying Prodigy was a publisher rather than a mere distributor of content. Judge Stuart L. Ain based his decision on the fact that the company employed moderators who were tasked with making sure the service's boards adhered to certain community guidelines.
The problem was that this created a divide between websites that monitored their content and those that gave their users a sandbox and stepped aside—and if they exerted control over posts, they could be liable for damages. As Heather Rafter, the legal affairs director for software company Digidesign told Variety at the time, "The more you try to maintain control, the more you open yourself up to liability."
In response to the ruling, Congressmen Christopher Cox and Ron Wyden proposed an amendment to the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230, as it became known, made internet service providers and website operators distributors rather than publishers, which meant that they couldn't be held accountable for information distributed by a third party using their services. Without Section 230, Facebook and Twitter and Reddit would likely be deluged with lawsuits over the bad behavior of their occasionally hateful, libelous, copyright-violating user bases. Section 230, in a way, made trolling possible.
On April 25, 1995—shortly after the Oklahoma City Bombing—an anonymous AOL user posted an advertisement for "naughty Oklahoma T-shirts." If people wanted to buy apparel with slogans like, "Visit Oklahoma... It's a BLAST!!!" they were instructed to call a man in Seattle named Kenneth Zeran.
"Advocates of the First Amendment have a knee-jerk reaction, and that's problematic in terms of the big picture."
Zeran wasn't actually selling those offensive shirts, but he was soon inundated with death threats. Within five days, he was getting a call every two minutes, and an Oklahoma City radio personality even told listeners to barrage Zeran with calls. "One minute I and the entire country are grieving over the Oklahoma City Bombing," Zeran told the New York Times. "The next thing I know, I'm associated with it."
Because of Section 230, Zeran had no legal recourse against AOL, even after he asked the service provider to remove the postings and they did not. A district court judge in Virginia said print publishers had time to check on every statement they made and make sure it wasn't defamatory, but "the sheer number of postings on interactive computer services would create an impossible burden in the internet context."
The Zeran case became a cornerstone in a body of case law that insulates social media networks and other websites from the criminal acts—from libel to death threats—committed by their users. Today, Zeran imagines himself as something of a crusader for Section 230 reform. The 68-year-old says that the Model Mayhem case is the perfect example of Americans being overly precious about free speech.
"Advocates of the First Amendment have a knee-jerk reaction, and that's problematic in terms of the big picture," he says. "My point of view is: Did somebody in control of that information know that this stuff was damaging someone? Was it criminally damaging someone? If they knew that, and they had control over that server, that's not a very good situation is it.
"They owned the server and they chose to do nothing about it."
Model Mayhem was founded by Tyler Waitt, a student at Florida State University who was the son of a publisher who produced magazines for strip clubs. Many of Waitt's dad's advertisers were using One Model Place, a website where aspiring models could post photos and hope to be discovered. Wiatt, a self-taught coder, thought One Model Place was "crappy," he tells VICE, so in 2005 he purchased $50 of server space and launched Model Mayhem. His tagline was "MySpace for models," and he posted a couple bulletins to the actual MySpace with hopes of recruiting users. "Two people would sign up, then the next day ten people would sign up," he says. "Suddenly it was a million people."
Revenue from Google Ads paid for his servers, but he couldn't afford to hire employees. Instead, his mom and grandma were recruited to manually sift through dick pics and approve or reject users—a time-consuming task, because, at Waitt puts it, "dealing with models pulls all the psychos out of the woodworks."
Despite the long wait to get approved, Model Mayhem became the number-one site for the young women and men who wanted a chance to break into the glamorous worlds of the LA and New York fashion scenes from behind computer screens in obscure, square-shaped states.
"It's just sort of a fantasy in America where you're validated if you become a model," says Meredith Hattam, an advisory board member for the advocacy group Model Alliance. "It's a job that little girls grow up dreaming of, and Model Mayhem offers girls entrance into this elite industry they know nothing about. If you live in a small city and literally google 'How to become a model,' Model Mayhem is what pops up."
Is Model Mayhem responsible for allowing these men to prey on the young women who used its services?
But the website was also used by a predator named Emerson Callum—who, under the name Jah-T, starred in and distributed porn videos, including a series called Miami's Nastiest Nymphos—and his partner Lavont Flanders. Police records show that at least five women claimed they were drugged, sexually assaulted,and filmed by the two men between August 2006 and May 2007 in South Florida, and that at least one of them was "not 100 percent sure" what county she was assaulted in. The overwhelming majority of the victims were black, and all were first contacted by Callum through Model Mayhem.
The Broward County Sheriff's Office finally arrested Flanders and Callum in July 2007 and charged them with criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and sexual battery.
On May 13, 2008, while the two men were being held in prison, Waitt sold Model Mayhem to Internet Brands Inc. He didn't disclose any information about a pending criminal investigation regarding the site, according to a civil suit filed by the California-based new media company in 2010. (Today, Waitt says he sold the site because he wanted to party with his friends rather than run a business.)
In May 2009, Flanders and Callum were let out on bond, and by the end of the following year, most of the charges against them were completely dropped. Victims—especially those who weren't from the area—had difficulty telling police which county they were assaulted in, making the crimes difficult to prosecute. But even as a detective with the Miramar Police Department tried to help the feds put together a case, the rapists got right back to their depraved scheme that had landed them in jail the first time, terrorizing Jane Doe and scores of other women.
Eventually, the feds indicted Flanders and Callum in August 2011 for using fraud to cause seven women to engage in commercial sex acts and for giving them controlled substances. They were convicted that December and later sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms apiece. (Both are currently appealing.)
Then, in 2012, Doe sued Model Mayhem owner Internet Brands, raising a thorny question that hadn't been considered during the trial of Flanders and Callum: Is the site responsible for allowing these men to prey on the young women who used its services?
Although a California Circuit Court judge initially said in 2014 Model Mayhem wasn't protected by Section 230, Facebook, Craigslist, and Tumblr joined together and filed a brief in support of Internet Brands on November 10. They argued that if Doe's failure-to-warn argument holds, their sites could be held liable for all the people injured who gathered at Occupy Wall Street (a protest largely organized on social media), for people who hurt themselves while doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, or for people who bought bikes on Craigslist and were subsequently hit by cars.
Eric Goldman, a law professor and staunch defender of Section 230, says the court has "mucked up" in not shutting down Doe's lawsuit immediately. He says that there's no doubt in tech companies' minds that the suit will fail, but if it's not summarily dismissed on Section 230 grounds, that means there's a loophole that needs to be closed ASAP. He adds that the argument that Model Mayhem should have been required to warn its users about the rapes is bogus.
"We live in a society that is rampant with disclosure, and if the solution was 'Well, they should have just told me,' you know what that means in practice," Goldman says. "Do people really heed warnings?"
The question of how much responsibility websites have for their users' behavior has become increasingly complicated. Over the past several months Twitter has revised its policies on abuse and harassment multiple times in an effort to curb the number of violent threats tossed around on the social network that are disproportionately directed at women. This month Reddit took steps to hide its most toxic, hateful communities from the average site visitor; earlier this summer administrators banned five subreddits that were being used "as a platform to harass individuals."
"They're arranging these real-world interactions and all of a sudden they say, 'Oh, we have no responsibly for anything that goes wrong.'"
More serious crimes seem likelier to occur on sites that encourage users to engage in IRL interactions—Uber, for instance, has maintained that it's not liable for any actions committed by its drivers, which the company considers to be independent contractors, not full employees. "Uber's first line of defense" against lawsuits over drivers' bad behavior, according to Forbes, "is that it's a marketplace and not a transportation provider."
"They're arranging these real-world interactions and all of a sudden they say, 'Oh, we have no responsibly for anything that goes wrong,'" says Tom Slee, an author who writes about technology and politics. "Section 230 has been stretched in so many different directions its becoming a travesty of what it was originally intended for."
Lawmakers have tried to topple Section 230 before and failed. In 2012, Washington State passed a law that made it a crime to publish "any advertisement for a commercial sex act... that includes the depiction of a minor." The intent was to force Backpage, the classified site that's come under fire by everyone from Alicia Keys to the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof, to take steps to verify that all of the escorts who advertise on it are of legal age and that none of them were victims of human trafficking.
Three months after it passed, Backpage and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit that advocates for the broad application of Section 230 on free speech grounds, sued Washington, arguing that the new rules violated not only Section 230, but the First and Fifth amendments. In the end, the state backed down, agreeing to repeal the law and pay Backpage $200,000 in legal fees.
And victims of rape and exploitation haven't had more success fighting Backpage in the courts. Last year, three women who were the victims of trafficking and had been raped hundreds of times sued the site for enabling child trafficking in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In May, a federal judge in Massachusetts dismissed the case, citing Section 230 and rejecting the plaintiffs' argument that the law should be regarded as out of date.
Doe's lawsuit doesn't appear to stand much of a chance if judges in her case follow suit. But, she argues, Section 230 was written two decades ago, when interactions on the internet were relatively rare, and before people were routinely using the web to get everything from jobs to transportation to shelter to sex. Do we want the giant companies that facilitate these online transactions to be so thoroughly protected that Model Mayhem isn't liable for not taking any steps, no matter how small, to protect users from rape?
"This is a new age of time," Doe told me. "This is how we network, and there has to be changes to it. When my one-year-old son is old enough to use the internet, I want it to be secure."
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