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Cyberstalkers, revenge porn creeps, and other tales from the World Wide Hate

California Attorney General Kamala Harris had exhilaration in her eyes as she publicly announced in late 2013 that her eCrime Unit finally had shut down one of the most notorious revenge-porn websites in the world. The men charged were innocent unless proved guilty in court, but the website of stolen, pornographic and debasing photographs was something no one should have to endure, she said.

The website was considered so disgusting and destructive that a couple of detectives in two different countries had begged me not to mention its web address for fear of further humiliating and endangering the women whose naked photos had been posted by vindictive ex-lovers or “friends.”

Eventually, the police pulled the plug on the site, but what I saw before that happened is hard to forget: thousands of photographs — more than 10,000 it turns out — of women, teens, and underage girls captured in revealing positions never meant for prying eyes; of youthful drunken group sex; and of confident women in revealing lingerie whose partners would one day turn their personal information and photographs over to strangers as part of their hateful revenge campaigns. I cried the first time I found the site, plastered with the smiling, unsuspecting faces of girls and women, along with desperate pleas for mercy from the victims and their families alike.

“PLEASE HELP! I am scared for my life! People are calling my workplace, and they obtained that information through this site! I did not give permission for anyone to put up those pictures or my [and]. I have contacted the police, but those pictures need to come down! Please!” reads one post, which is now entered as evidence in an extortion case.

In another message posted to the now defunct website, a new husband begs the owner to show a semblance of humanity for his devastated wife. When her nude photograph — taken years earlier at a party — was posted, he said she lost her teaching job, which also hurt her students, who loved her. They fled their community after locals turned against them. (No word on what happened to the two naked men in the candid photograph.)

Revenge-porn victims around the world no doubt rejoiced when they heard Kevin Christopher Bollaert, a 27-year-old San Diego man, had been arrested in connection with the site. In court documents, police alleged Bollaert had set up a callous criminal scheme to capitalize on men’s desire to humiliate or harm women. Internet technology makes it easy for the angry, the vindictive, the mentally ill, and the intoxicated to shatter lives. There are many more sites online that routinely post stolen intimate photographs and videos, often of underage girls, but this particular site had an additional grim twist, police say.

He posed as a ‘good guy’ running a scrub website; in exchange for hundreds of dollars, he removed the very same photographs he’d solicited and posted

Bollaert allegedly got help from family and friends to set up the extortion website, through which he asked for images, but also personal details of the victims: full names, ages, addresses, telephone numbers, and [and] accounts, which, police say, he then made public. The scheme was to allegedly get other people to join in the harassment and tormenting of the targets. The more people harassed and stalked the victims, the greater the odds that they’d unwittingly turn to Bollaert. Why? Because he’d allegedly also set up a sister website, called changemyreputation.com. There, police say he posed as a “good guy” running a scrub website; in exchange for hundreds of dollars, he removed the very same photographs he’d solicited and posted. Police shut that one down, too.

Pleas for help from the women, like the ones that made me cry, were also entered into evidence by the California prosecutor: “I have gone to the police, I’ve had a restraining order put in place because of this site [and] my phone has been going off EVERY 2 MINUTES with strange men sending inappropriate things to me.”

Another woman posted: “It’s disgusting. Also, I’ve had to … have a sexual harassment charge put in place in court because of this. I don’t know what gets you off about ruining people’s lives, but I was underaged in the photos posted of me so, yes, you are showing child pornography.”

In the media, Harris announced 31 felony counts against Bollaert, and made it clear that she was on the warpath for more arrests. But minutes after Bollaert’s arrest flashed across the newswires, I checked the notorious site; it was “parked” on the French server, Gandi. So, it was still there, lying low, on standby. The website’s documentation shows Bollaert appears to have used his own name when registering both websites in 2012, and that he’d applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a site trademark.


It’s remarkable that Melissa Nester will even talk about the last few years of her life spent in the Web net of an adult cyberstalker who cost her the career she loved, all her money, and the sense of security that comes from growing up in a privileged American family. Ironically, all Nester had wanted to do was share her good fortune with a woman in need. “No good deed goes unpunished, right,” she says when I reach her by telephone in northern California.

Nester’s nightmare began when the divorced mother of two, who at the time was working at a charity fundraiser, joined an online forum where women shared tips about kids, food, books, love, and life. “Mary” quickly came to the group’s attention. “She was kicked out on the street, had no money, said that she was starving, that she has no jewelery. She had these pets that were her only thing keeping her alive that she loves so much, and that her husband would beat her … and basically she might as well end it.”

Nester and other forum members stepped up, sending Mary cash and gifts, beginning in 2010.

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Revenge porn law in California could pave way for rest of nation

A bill that would criminalize revenge porn — nude or sexual photos, generally of former wives or girlfriends, posted online by an angry ex — could pave the way for other states to adopt similar laws, putting perpetrators in jail for six months if convicted a first time, and up to a year for repeat violations. The bill, already approved by the California Senate, is expected to go to the state Assembly as soon as this week, despite concerns from some lawmakers and experts who fear it could curtail First Amendment rights.

“It’s traumatized real victims; it’s a growing problem,” California state Sen. Anthony Cannella, told NBC News. “Technology moves much faster than our laws,” said Cannella, a Republican, who authored the legislation. “When we identify a problem, it’s our responsibility to deal with it.”

If passed by the Assembly, SB 255 will go to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval. It’s not clear whether Brown will support it. “Generally, we do not comment on pending legislation,” Brown press spokesman Evan Westrup told NBC News.

One supporter with whom Cannella has been working is Holly Jacobs, a Florida woman who founded End Revenge Porn after her own nightmare with the issue began more than four years ago.

Like many other couples, Jacobs and her boyfriend had private photos of intimate moments — photos not meant for public consumption. After their breakup, Jacobs saw her photos plastered everywhere on the Web, including on Facebook and several revenge porn sites. Her email address was part of what was shared, “so I had harassing emails constantly coming in,” she told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in May. “My work location was posted up and there, so I was terrified. I was so afraid that someone would physically stalk me.”

In the era of instant uploads, a slimy sub-industry of sites have emerged that are dedicated solely to such “revenge porn” shots and videos. It has become a money-making “sport,” of which one of the most notorious players is Hunter Moore, who was under FBI investigation for his controversial site, Is Anyone Up.

Though the sites often include personal information about the victims, including names, email addresses and even links to their Facebook profiles, the sites themselves are protected from liability because of Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which says that websites and Internet service providers can be treated as a publisher for “any information provided by another information content provider.” With little legal recourse, these victims are left feeling helpless and humiliated.

Jacobs’ fear turned to anger, and she decided she would no longer be a victim. She filed criminal and civil charges against her ex. The ex, through his attorney, has denied the charges against him, contending he is just as much a victim as Jacobs, and that the reason the photos and video were shared is that his computer was hacked.

Those who might think, “Well, you shouldn’t have taken those photos … ” aren’t living in the real world of what has become, especially for a younger generation, a cultural-technological phenomenon as normal as tweeting and texting.

“It’s absolutely just a new version of victim blaming,” Jacobs said in May. “What I would say to victims when they hear that is, just hold on to that little voice inside of you that says, ‘This is not right.’ What’s happening to me is not OK, and there need to be laws in place against this.”

The California legislation, Jacobs told NBC News, “is so important because it has the potential to set a precedent for other states considering to criminalize revenge porn.”

Precedents and objections
The state that comes closest to doing that now is New Jersey, which since 2003 has had an invasion-of-privacy law aimed at video voyeurs, people who secretly videotape others naked or having sex without their consent, according to a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General in that state.

That law was one of those used to prosecute Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi, found guilty last year after setting up a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, in 2010. Ravi livestreamed the video and tweeted about his roommates’s activities. Clementi, 18, committed suicide after learning about the public humiliation.

“Legislators did not discuss the issue of ‘revenge porn’ in passing this law” in 2003, Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the New Jersey attorney general’s office, told NBC News. “Nonetheless, the language of the statute is quite broad and arguably applies to allow prosecution of an individual in a ‘revenge porn’ situation.”

Other revenge porn law efforts could soon be underway in Texas, Wisconsin and Georgia, Jacobs said.

While most everyone will agree that the revenge porn practice is reprehensible, crafting legislation that doesn’t inadvertently restrict free speech is the challenge.

In Florida, where Jacobs lives, an attempt at a revenge porn law failed this year partly because of concerns the way the law was written could interfere with free speech. Jacobs cited another concern: a requirement that personal information, such as the victim’s name and email address, also be posted as part of the photos or videos shared.

“I’m sure the revenge porn posters would have easily found a way around this,” she told NBC News. “Our personal information is already posted when our faces are in these pictures.”

Florida State Sen. David Simmons and state Rep. Tom Goodson, both Republicans, plan to try again with a new bill with different wording next spring when the legislature is back in session.

Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said a “balance needs to be struck properly,” and he is not sure the California law will do that.

“You need to be extraordinarily careful in criminalizing privacy law because of the risk you’re going to deter legitimate speech,” he told NBC News. “With the California bill, I don’t see an exemption here for material that’s legitimately newsworthy.”

Take for example, he said, “circumstances where photographs exist of a political candidate who has run their campaign on their squeaky-clean image,” but there are photographs of that candidate in a compromising position.… Read the rest