from the could-Section-230-free-him? dept
As was noted here in early February, a California court found revenge porn site owner Kevin Bollaert guilty of six counts of extortion, along with 21 counts of identity fraud. Bollaert not only ran revenge porn site YouGotPosted but also operated ChangeMyReputation, from which he would remove photos posted to his revenge porn site for a fee.
Adam Steinbaugh attended Bollaert's sentencing last Friday, tweeting out his observations and insights, including fun facts like:
More than six hours after the proceedings began, the judge handed down Bollaert's sentence. A wrist slap it is not.
- Bollaert had $20,000 in cash on him when arrested, apparently from his ChangeMyReputation sideline.
- Bollaert apparently believed Obama would pass restrictive gun laws that would make certain firearms extra valuable, and began stockpiling weapons. But buying 31 guns using only a P.O. Box for an address has a way of attracting ATF agents…and a conviction for making false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm.
- During sentencing, Bollaert's attorneys mentioned the FTC's wristslap of Craig Brittain as an argument that Bollaert deserved a similarly light punishment.
- The judge quoted an interview with Bollaert where he blew off Marc Randazza's lawsuits.
- A Cub Scout observed the sentencing.
Kevin Bollaert was sentenced by a San Diego court to 18 years in prison following his February conviction on twenty-seven counts of extortion and identity theft.This was much harsher than most people expected, even considering the heinousness of Bollaert's actions. Some expected a lighter sentence coupled with an extended probation period, and Steinbaugh's tweets mention a previous plea deal that was rescinded or rejected. None of that matters now. As Steinbaugh points out, if Bollaert serves every year of his term, he'll be in jail longer than some of his site's victims were alive when their pictures were posted.
The sentence will most likely be appealed. Steinbaugh advances the theory that Section 230 protections could be used to undo the extortion and identity theft charges. (Although he is careful to preface his legal speculations with this warning: "It’s rather boring — and I’m probably wrong, but someone has to raise these issues, even in defense of a revenge porn site extortionist. Only Nixon could go to China, I suppose.")
If Bollaert does appeal, he has a good chance at success with respect to the identity theft charges (assuming Bollaert himself didn’t seek out the victims’ personal information). Simply publishing content submitted by users — even if the avowed purpose of the site was to promote invasion of privacy and tortuous conduct — is immunized by §230.Whether or not the Section 230 argument will work against criminal extortion charges remains to be seen, but previous civil cases seem to present a few possibilities.
The courts which have addressed extortionate behavior in the civil context have indicated that §230 likely immunizes that conduct. §230 applies to website operators even when they exercise traditional editorial functions.As ugly as it seems, the protections afforded operators of sites hosting user-generated content could keep Bollaert from being incarcerated -- or at least take a huge chunk out of his 18-year sentence. But that's the dual edge of these sorts of protections. Much like the First Amendment protects ignorant, hate-filled racists and the Fourth Amendment protects child porn enthusiasts, Section 230 can protect revenge porn site owners from the content submitted to their sites.
In Ascentive, LLC v. Opinion Corp., a federal district court in New York addressed consumer gripe site PissedConsumer.com’s “Corporate Advocacy Program”, a “premium reputation management service” under which PissedConsumer would remove negative reviews (if the consumer refused to allow PissedConsumer to act as an intermediary in resolving their complaint) and resolve new complaints before they are posted. The plaintiffs brought RICO claims against PissedConsumer, including predicate acts of “commercial bribery or extortion.” The district court, in denying the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, ruled that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the extortion allegations.
Bollaert's sideline removal service complicates things, but despite profiting from both ends of the equation, the content was posted by others and his extortion-esque secondary business never asked for money to prevent the posting of submitted content, but rather the removal of already-posted photos and contact info. Pure, vile nastiness to be sure, but with enough legal loopholes to potentially jeopardize his conviction.
Additionally, Section 230 protections have previously only served to defend site owners in civil cases, rather than against criminal charges. It's highly unlikely this will be applicable to appealing the criminal charges, but these are state charges rather than federal charges, so this may provide him an opportunity to test California's statutory interpretation of Section 230.
If his conviction is overturned (Steinbaugh believes the state will do everything possible to prevent this) using Section 230 as leverage, we can expect more legislative attempts to gut these protections -- from lawmakers who are content ignore the harm it will cause site owners far more respectable than those trafficking in misery and exploitation simply because the targeted activity is so repulsive.