Beyond Vassar

Cyber Rights

By Bronwen Pardes '95
Carrie Goldberg '99
Carrie Goldberg '99

In late August, a hacker stole private nude photos of 100 well-known (mostly female) celebrities, apparently taken from the Apple iCloud, and placed them on a public website. An explosion of debate about reasonable expectations of privacy ensued. While these high-profile hacking cases are the most visible examples of this type of involuntary exposure, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

More and more, the lines between public and private disclosure are being blurred. As it becomes easier to share information, it becomes harder and harder to manage where that information goes and who has access to it. Thousands of women who are not celebrities face such exposure each year, often after disgruntled ex-boyfriends share private images online in an attempt to get revenge. (Ninety percent of the victims of revenge porn are women, according to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, and a recent Pew Research study found that women between the ages of 18 and 24 bear the brunt of online sexual harassment.)

An attorney since 2007, Carrie Goldberg ’99 is focusing more and more on online defamation, an emerging area of the law that has lately become her passion. She left an established job to start her own law firm, C. A. Goldberg, PLLC, in Brooklyn, New York, where she attacks the issue from every angle—representing victims (sometimes pro bono), advocating for new laws, and educating the public about a subject that, until recently, she herself knew nothing about.

Goldberg says, while it has always been possible to hurt someone’s reputation by spreading negative information, our ability to do so has been amplified in recent years. The most “lethal weaponry available” to online defamers is “doxxing”—sharing private information about someone (or something) online without consent. Often it is done with the intent to harm an individual who has the expectation of privacy. A doxxer might reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger. Or post personal details about an individual with the intention of causing harm. Often this is related to cyberstalking, bullying, or harassment.

Goldberg is concerned that issues like doxxing and cyberbullying are not being taken seriously, in part because of the notion that what happens in cyberspace doesn’t pose a danger in real life. But she argues: “You can’t say any longer that what happens online is separate from what happens offline. People spend so much of their time online. It’s where they shop, communicate with loved ones, post photographs, and socialize, so to draw a distinction between our online and offline selves—or online and offline dangers and risks—is disingenuous or uninformed.”

The country has long had laws against defamation, but as Goldberg notes, they are not adequately configured to address the nebulous circumstances found on the Internet. Take a recent case in Brooklyn, where a man posted naked images of his ex-girlfriend on Twitter, and also sent them to her sister and employer. His actions did not fit the charge of harassment, since he wasn’t sending the images to his ex. The charge of “dissemination of unlawful surveillance” would only have applied had he obtained the images illegally; in fact, his ex had sent them to him herself. And “public display of offensive sexual material” requires that the display in fact be public, whereas posting something on Twitter doesn’t constitute publishing it, said the judge, who referred to Twitter as “a subscription service,” even though millions of people use the service for free. All three charges against the defendant were dismissed.

“Judges might not be familiar with the technology and the scope of the problem,” says Goldberg. The judge himself referred to the defendant’s actions as “reprehensible” but went no further. “[This case] was a good illustration of the need for a carefully crafted law that addresses the exact problem,” Goldberg explains.

Before starting her practice—one of the first in the country to focus on online intimate privacy invasions and defamation—Goldberg worked at the Vera Institute of Justice Guardianship Project, which serves older adults and people with disabilities. She has worked with Holocaust survivors, noncitizen victims of domestic violence, and terminally ill people fighting for the right to die humanely.

Goldberg says, “I’ve always been moved toward emotionally charged jobs that leave me both miserable and proud at day’s end.” She left the Vera Institute in 2013 to start her firm because, she felt, “There is a niche and a need for more practitioners who are dedicated to the area of online privacy, particularly with regard to women and the special kinds of abuse that women face online.”

Her primary focus is what she calls the most common (and unaddressed) invasion of online privacy: revenge porn.

“A typical scenario is, a woman in a trusting relationship sends an image, frequently a selfie, to a boyfriend during good times, and later on when [the relationship is over], he exacts vengeance by posting the image online.” Several websites are dedicated to exactly this purpose, some of them owned and operated by services that charge exorbitant fees to remove the images.

Needless to say, the woman who discovers naked pictures of herself online—along with demeaning, often derogatory comments from strangers who have viewed them—is humiliated. But her suffering is not likely to end there. According to Goldberg, half of all revenge-porn victims have their personal information—city of residence, email address, phone number, and links to social media profiles—posted alongside the images, leaving no doubt as to who is depicted. Arguably the most damaging information to be posted is the victim’s name, as it ensures that anyone who searches for her online—friends, family, job recruiters, co-workers—will find these images. In many cases, she receives emails and phone calls from revenge-porn consumers. “And if nothing is done,” Goldberg adds, “the images can live on in perpetuity.”

Though it might feel like harassment to the victim, current laws do not classify it as such. A charge of harassment “requires a course of conduct and repeated action,” Goldberg explains. A jilted ex might post an image one time, but most of the actual harassment might be done by strangers. As Goldberg puts it on her blog, “The perpetrator . . . puts his naked ex-girlfriend and her personal identifying information on a platter, invites the Internet over for dinner, and leaves out the back door.”

Over the past year the number of states with revenge-porn laws has grown to 13, with 22 others having statutes pending. Opponents of these laws claim they will have a chilling effect on free speech—an argument Goldberg doesn’t buy. “It is not going to curb open expression and debate within our society for people not to be posting sexual images without someone’s consent,” she says.

In March, every senator in New York received a letter from Goldberg urging him or her to pass the proposed law. She has also begun working with the Vassar Feminist Alliance to encourage students to help lobby in Albany. And she’s optimistically at work on a public-service campaign—“think cheeky ads on subways and buses”—that will inform New Yorkers of the new law once it passes. She has conceptualized a task force, which, among other things, creates model police and detective protocol for dealing with revenge-porn complaints. And she’s been blogging and writing to raise awareness about an issue she says is not talked about enough.

Until recently, Goldberg herself knew very little about the issue. Then, in early 2013, she was briefly in a relationship with someone who, after the breakup, took out his anger at her online. Once that ordeal was over, Goldberg says, it might have been easier to put her experience behind her and move on. Instead, she chose to transform it into something positive—her firm.

She credits her group of Vassar friends in Brooklyn with helping her feel empowered enough to strike out on her own. “They make me feel protected,” she says. “I felt like, I’ve got this good, solid foundation, so I can take this risk.”

“For me, the focus of the firm is how I’ve been able to integrate that awful experience in a way that makes my life feel more like a continuum,” she notes. “I wouldn’t say I’m glad I had this experience or that I would have wished that upon myself or anybody, but ultimately, I’m better now than I was a year ago. I feel a real, sustained passion. I’m so energized about the issue.”