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This article was published on May 21, 2018

What this revenge porn site’s shutdown means to one of its victims

What this revenge porn site’s shutdown means to one of its victims
Guðrun í Jákupsstovu
Story by

Guðrun í Jákupsstovu

Former writer, TNW

The Dutch police recently located and shut down the servers of Anon-IB, a message board notorious for revenge porn, i.e. nude photos that have been obtained and reshared without the owner’s consent.

In 2011 nude photos of Emma Holten, a Danish feminist activist, were hacked from her email account and posted online, including on Anon-IB. She later received international attention for how she chose to handle the situation, by publishing a nude photoshoot of herself, in an effort to emphasize the difference between consensual and non-consensual sharing of personal data.  

In wake of Anon-IB’s closure, TNW talked to Holten about what this means for victims of revenge porn and how shutting down Anon-IB was a milestone for fighting it.

What Anon-IB represented

Before it was shut down, Anon-IB was a message board where anonymous users could post content largely unmoderated . According to Holten, because of how the site functioned it also enabled a huge amount of “doxing” — the gathering of information to abuse and extort victims — making Anon-IB one the most notorious sites for revenge porn.

Anon-IB managed to pretend as if they were a deep web site, but in terms of accessibility they were surface web. They were among the only sites left where you could still access material, without a kind of filter, like accessing a group or a Dropbox folder.

Holten explains most revenge porn victims have at some point showed up on Anon-IB. The site was the easiest to access and had the largest outreach, and thus symbolized the final stronghold of an obvious presence of revenge porn online. Its take-down has been one of the sole aims of the anti-revenge porn organization, Badass Army.

From floating freely to hiding underground

It’s been seven years since Holten’s pictures were hacked, and according to her, a lot has happened since. Obtaining revenge porn was much easier, pictures were floating freely on major sites like Facebook, and revenge porn sites would show up as first results in simple Google searches.

Holten explains that, thankfully, awareness about this has raised significantly and online users don’t accidentally stumble upon these things anymore. This isn’t due to revenge porn becoming illegal — governments have sadly been slow to react — but because server companies have taken it upon themselves to stop hosting it. Holten also emphasizes the Right to be Forgotten was an important step for victims of revenge porn to take better control of what one could find about them online.

Around 2013, revenge porn sites were almost completely wiped out of the mainstream areas of the internet, but they didn’t totally disappear. Holten explains that it was at this point that sites like Anon-IB became deep web material and accessing it required more deliberate effort — like entering a dedicated group or a folder.

It was great that revenge porn wasn’t as easily available, but Holten points out that when the sites became more underground, it made the prosecution of the people behind them all the more tricky:

The thing about these sites is that the servers are often located somewhere in Asia, while the site is hosted in, say, the US. And often the case is, that the crime is not committed where the click is made, but rather where the servers are located. This leaves victims with no real opportunity to get justice, because they’re often located in another country. Authorities do not cooperate across borders on these matters, like they do with child-pornography.

Safety and privacy in next generation of social media

Holten has been an outspoken voice on the topic of revenge porn and digital rights for years. The reason she doesn’t get tired of it is because social media’s pervasiveness has completely altered and challenged our views on freedom of speech and privacy.

The most basic thing about the internet is that we can’t give our consent to everything that’s being posted about us and we can’t choose to not be present online either. The challenge is: how do we remain in charge of our own persona and how can we ensure safety from abuse and exploitation when navigating online?

Two years ago, Emma Holten held a keynote at TNW’s conference where she urged the makers of the next generation of tech to consciously build safety into their basic algorithms — which is still sorely lacking. “Revenge porn might not be easily available on Facebook anymore, but it’s still the main platform people use to track me down, to threaten and blackmail me,” she explains. Holten says the responsibility for the distribution of revenge porn lies partially with social media companies:

I think the original creators of social media have been naive. They thought everyone would be nice to each other and behave. But that’s not the reality, and we see it, especially for marginalized groups, that social media platforms, in many ways enable abuse instead of preventing it.

The fact that social media is being used for abuse opens new discussion on how to deal with it best. Social media amplifies the ways we express ourselves, and so, freedom of expression gets a renewed meaning. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t think revenge porn should be punishable by law, because they think it falls within the parameters of free speech.

Some argue that we can’t fully eradicate revenge porn online, as it’s a direct result of the internet’s openness. They argue we should instead focus on helping victims by taking away the shame that comes with being targeted and that way lessen its negative repercussions. But for Holten, this completely misses the point:

This isn’t about shame – I’m not ashamed about having taken naked pictures. It’s about my right to keep it to myself. My right to privacy. I, and no one else, should have the option to choose whether this was private or public. It seems like we’ve reached a point where insisting on your right to privacy is seen as something extreme or radical.

Holten further makes clear that revenge porn is not about sexual pleasure, but rather about violence and humiliation. The goal has to be to create digital environments free of violence and abuse – not accept the violence.

New times ahead

Much has changed since Holten’s photos were hacked in 2011. Not only has revenge porn content largely disappeared from mainstream media, but also victim-blaming is a rapidly disappearing response.

For many years I had to defend myself. Every time the photos were brought up, the problem was not that I had been hacked and my privacy violated, but rather that I had taken the photos in the first place. This has changed significantly only in the last few years: from being an issue concerning individuals, to be a bigger question of principle and legal certainty that’s relevant to us all.

But how can we be sure that another site, similar to Anon-IB won’t pop up and create the same damage? Holten admits we can’t be sure of that, and creating these kinds of sites is incredibly easy. However, maintaining the sites is also a lot of work and it takes years to build up a similar outreach and influence to what Anon-IB had.

According to Holten, these sites are not kept alive because they are lucrative but rather driven by misogyny. Shutting down a site like Anon-IB won’t stop people from hacking and violating privacy, but it will be a blow for violations on a bigger, organizational level.

The fact that the servers of Anon-IB were located in the Netherlands is interesting to Holten. Prosecution of revenge porn cases has rarely worked out in the victims’ favor, she explains, “but if Dutch authorities choose to do something real about prosecuting the people behind this, that will be a big step for revenge porn victims getting justice for the crimes committed against them. It will be exciting to see.”