Dozens Join 'Revenge Porn' Lawsuit

ABC News
Dozens Join 'Revenge Porn' Lawsuit
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Dozens Join 'Revenge Porn' Lawsuit (ABC News)

Love may not last forever, but a recent lawsuit suggests digital images just might.

Dozens of women are seeking revenge on a sliver of x-rated cyberspace known as "revenge porn," where people post explicit photos of their exes out of spite, through a class-action lawsuit against Texxxan.com and the website hosting company, GoDaddy.com.

Mariana Taschinger is one of the women. She said she had just turned 18 when she reluctantly sent topless photos of herself to her then-high school boyfriend, whom she had been in a relationship with for more than a year and a half.

"He was like, you know, 'I love you, I would never do that, I would never want to share you with anyone,'" Taschinger said. "And now, five years later, it's coming back to haunt me."

Now a college student, Taschinger said those photos wound up on Texxxan.com and she confronted her ex-boyfriend about posting them.

"Of course, he denied it," she said. "But he posted pictures of 14 of his ex-girlfriends, so it is pretty easy to narrow down [who] it is."

Hollie Toups said she has no idea who posted dozens of topless photos of her on Texxxan.com, but she became outraged to learn that whoever acquired the photos also posted them with her name and personal information.

"I couldn't breathe, and then I started crying uncontrollably because I felt really helpless," Toups said. "Knowing that someone could, with a click of a button, take whatever information they wanted from you is really troubling. It almost makes me want to shower with my clothes on."

Lawyer John Morgan filed the lawsuit on invasion of privacy grounds against Texxxan.com and GoDaddy.com, which provides Web space for 54 million websites, including mainstream businesses. The class-action lawsuit began with 17 women, but dozens more have signed on in the past two weeks.

"I've also been getting a lot of emails and calls from women who have been victimized by other sites," Morgan said.

The lawsuit claims the sites are "designed to cause humiliation and emotional distress."

"This is a form of cyber human trafficking," Morgan said, "or as it has been termed, 'revenge porn,' has been termed 'cyber rape,' because they take photos of women for the purpose of dehumanizing them, for the purpose of degrading them, and they go even further."

What makes this case unusual is that the lawsuit is also going after the websites' subscriber lists in an effort to tear away the mask of anonymity from the people who prowl the sites and the content providers.

Toups said she believes the subscribers are just as guilty as the people providing and hosting the content.

"[The subscribers] should be held accountable because they are logging on, they are putting their credit card in, they are paying to see us exploited," Toups said. "And again, if there weren't those degusting people paying, then maybe there wouldn't be a website."

But Eric Goldman, director of the Santa Clara University School of Law's High Tech Law Institute, said the women's legal case is weak because courts have ruled repeatedly that websites and Web hosts like GoDaddy.com are not legally responsible for material other people post.

"The plaintiffs can't win against the Web hosts, against the Texxxan.com website and against the subscribers due to a law that Congress enacted that said the only people liable for content online are the people who post it," Goldman said.

But that doesn't mean Texxxan.com will flourish. In fact, the website put up a message saying it is down and posted a statement saying, "The framework was simply built as an image submission platform for viewers to use that could have been taken down many different routes, even though we have now seen the main route that it has taken and the controversy it has caused. We are now assessing the situation and will do our best to make the best decisions pertaining to this issue that will hopefully benefit all individuals involved."

"The websites are going to die by their own power," Goldman said. "They won't survive, not because of the law, but because the marketplace will drum them out."

There's also a change.org petition to "End Revenge Porn," that has more than 1,100 signatures and growing.

Kelly Hinson, another woman involved in the lawsuit, said she was approached by a stranger at Wal-Mart about explicit photos of her online.

"An older man probably in his 50s [was] telling me he saved my photos to his computer," she said. "I literally ran away from this guy. I was so terrified because now my safety is involved."

Hinson is pregnant and she said seeing intimate images of herself online left her emotionally shattered. She said she was almost hospitalized because of high-risk pregnancy concerns and still can't sleep.

"It is horrible to see that you are plastered all over this site," she said. "And your family sees it and you just think, 'OK, great. I can't have a kid in this area because everyone is going to remember this.'"

But so-called "revenge porn" sites are often operating in secret with phantom email addresses, phony names and fake information.

"As they register the domain and pay for it, that address is theirs," Morgan said.

In fact, the women's lawyer received an email threatening to re-post his clients' "photos and their names and addresses ... for all the world to see," simply because the women had come forward to expose the men who had exposed so much of them.

Morgan said part of his job is to gather clues in email addresses and other corners of cyberspace.

"My job is to gather the footprints and have the appropriate professionals who can put them together and find out what shoe fits and find the owner of the shoe," he said.

These women are painfully aware that they have lost control of their own images, as well as their reputations.

"On the website, he was calling us his exploits and talking about us like we are sluts," Taschinger said.

But they feel their only recourse is to speak out, even if the backlash is, at times, as harsh as the initial betrayal.

"It's totally stressful, it has been eating me up," Taschinger said. "But coming forward and speaking out about it has really made me feel a little bit stronger and less helpless."

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