FTC Drops The Hammer On A Revenge Porn / Reputation Management Scheme!

In: Online Reputation Management - ORM

2 Feb 2015
by Chris Silver Smith

I discovered last year that a few online reputation agencies are partners-with or owners-of the very reputation-damaging sites that their clients seek their help in addressing. Perhaps the worst of these types of sites are “revenge-porn” sites that encourage individuals with no ethics to supply nude photos of ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends for the purpose of embarrassing them and damaging their reputations.

 

FTC Shuts Porn Revenge Site, IsAnybodyDown.com

There are other sites that similarly focus on promoting materials that damage individuals’ reputations in addition to revenge porn — mugshots sites, arrest records sites, and tawdrier business review sites — and, these types of sites frequently are reliant upon thinly-veiled extortion demands. Essentially, the focus on obtaining defaming content and rendering it highly-visible through search engine results, and then they require people to pay them to take it down or modify it to be less-damaging..

A number of us who work in online reputation management (“ORM”) have sought to apply pressure to remove these sites’ ability to make money. These efforts have made a little impact, here and there. Some credit card companies have taken the step of refusing to allow merchant services for these companies, because they recognize that they’re highly distasteful. I suspect that there may have also been higher percentages of charge-backs on transactions as well. But, due to the rising barriers to the reputation attack sites, some have come up with schemes to dupe consumers into thinking they’re paying others to get the negative materials cleaned-up.

So, some reputation repair agencies are actually also the operators of the very sites that deployed the damaging materials in the first place. In other cases, the reputation repair firm is a separate company, but behind-the-scenes they’ve actually created a contractual partnership agreement with the attack sites. Basically, there are a number of cases where the reputation repair companies are fronts for reputation attack sites or are outfits that are laundering money for them.

Obviously, if you’re taking money to clean up someone’s reputation, but you’re responsible for defaming them in the first place — or, if you’re representing you’ll use SEO to supplant defamatory materials but you instead are paying sites to take the junk down — then what you’re doing is highly unethical and likely fraudulent.

So, enter the FTC, who have now taken unprecedented action against one of these porn revenge site operators. The site, “Is Anybody Down?” (“isanybodydown.com”) apparently employed multiple means to obtain nude photos of women (and men), allegedly publishing them with names and contact information. The site was owned by Craig Brittain, who was also alleged to have advertised damaging material takedown services, presented as separate sites/businesses. On Thursday of last week, the FTC banned the revenge porn site operator from publishing any more nude photos or videos of individuals without their “affirmative expressive consent”, and alleged that the site advertised removal services called “Takedown Hammer” and “Takedown Lawyer”, presented as third-party services that would delete materials from the site in return for payments of hundreds of dollars.

The FTC’s consent order is a sort of plea bargain — I conjecture that they had sufficient evidence that they could’ve sued him and fined him, but they instead negotiated a settlement agreement that halts him from posting nude photos without consent while also heavily warning him off potentially fraudulent activities such as representing takedown services as being separate, unrelated entities.

The IsAnybodyDown.com site homepage now reflects Craig Brittain’s own rebuttal and measured apologies. In the long, ranty text, he suggests that the domain was already taken down by him, that he didn’t financially gain from it, and that he wasn’t behind the “Takedown Hammer” or “Takedown Lawyer” alleged to be him. However, the long diatribe statements are terribly unconvincing — he makes apology here and there for unintentionally harming people, for making poor decisions, and claims he dislikes porn revenge, but he also disclaims some of the (unimportant) statements in news stories and the FTC allegations. He goes off on tangents, such as how he was actually supportive of women’s rights and involved with Gamergate — and, how he was being criticized and attacked in the media because of his critique of the media and his Gamergate work.

Yeah, dude: I’m sure that it’s your big Gamergate influence that go you into trouble versus the posting of nude images of people without their consent in order to shame and defame them, and your effort to profit off of inflicting that misery.

At a glance at the domain name information, I can see some heavy indications that he likely is/was behind both the Is Anybody Down? site as well as the Takedown Lawyer service, and attorney Marc John Randazza presented pretty good information that the same people are behind both (see here and here). Adam Steinbaugh, a writer on legal issues, also provided a chronology of inconsistencies in Craig Brittain’s representations about the takedown services, which further highlights the high likelihood that the operators are one and the same on the back end. Perhaps the clearest evidence that the “Takedown Lawyer” is no lawyer at all is that they offered to provide service for as low as $250!

As a public relations specialist, I have to tell Mr. Brittain that his rebuttal statement is terribly poor. I think that for this revenge porn victim and others, his “apologies” would read as terribly disingenuous. When making a public apology and representing that you’re trying to make amends, don’t add qualifications, disclaim guilt, and preach about freedom of speech. I do hope that he spends his life doing positive things from here on out, though, which he mentions a couple of times.

Ars Technica reported that Is Anybody Down was apparently an imitation of an earlier shaming / porn revenge site, Is Anybody Up, which was also eventually shut down.

For victims and those fighting porn revenge sites, there are a number of really great developments due to the FTC’s actions against this site:

  • Anyone claiming to provide online cleanup services, takedown services or reputation repair had better damn well disclose if they are operating the defamatory websites! They had also better disclose if they have a financial relationship with the sites that they are removing materials from. If not, they are then liable for enforcement under consumer protection and consumer fraud provisions.
  • If you uncover that the takedown service advertised on a reputation-damaging site is related to it, or operated by one and the same individuals, perhaps this provides you with leverage to demand that they remove your materials immediately, free of charge. Tell them that if they do *not* remove the materials, you will file complaints with the FTC, state attorney general, and other local law enforcement organizations as well as consumer protection organizations such as the BBB.
  • This type of enforcement may provide a new basis for obtaining court orders to petition search engines, social media services, website operators and internet service providers to take down objectionable content.
  • Many individuals cannot realistically afford attorney services to deal with these situations. But, if you’re a victim, you could file a complaint with the FTC as well as other enforcement agencies. Also, you may be able to locate a number of other victims on the site that defames you — there is strength in numbers. Contact these people and persuade them to also file complaints about extortionary practices. Or, perhaps you could team up with a number of these people and collectively hire an attorney to go after the badguys.

It’s understandable that victims will fall for these unethical reputation attack schemes. When you’ve been attacked, you want to make the pain go away as fast as possible, and it doesn’t take long for you to realize that your reputation is worth more than just a few hundred dollars.

But, don’t do it!

If you pay the fees for these types of sites to remove your materials, you’re feeding the monsters, keeping them in business, and opening the door to widening your victimization. Some of these companies own dozens to hundreds of sites, and once you’ve paid to remove materials from one site, you may discover the very same stuff popping up on another and another site. You’re also funding an enterprise that will then continue to inflict harm on others, just as you’ve experienced.

If a reputation agency doesn’t have a financial relationship with a defamation website, they cannot guarantee deletion or removal. Sorry, but they don’t have a magic trick. They shouldn’t offer guarantees. SEO agencies with ethics will attempt to build positive content and use search optimization methods to get that content to outrank and displace the negative stuff.

1 Response to FTC Drops The Hammer On A Revenge Porn / Reputation Management Scheme!

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Google Providing Aid To Revenge Porn Victims! - [Ag] Search Blog

June 20th, 2015 at 4:48 pm

[…] anti-revenge-porn laws, and I earlier reported on how the federal government has also started to target revenge porn sites, since they are often thinly-veiled extortion schemes. Current US law has it that web publishers […]

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