Google Being Targeted Over Leaked Celebrity Nude Photos

Attorneys for celebrities caught up in the leak of nude photographs are targeting Google.

Google

As may recall, just about a month ago there was a leak of nude and semi-nude photos of celebrities including The Big Bang Theory’s  Kaley Cuoco, Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, and model Kate Upton, as well athletes such as Olympians Hope Solo and McKalya Maroney. Rather quickly it was determined that the leak occurred because someone, or a group of someones had managed to gain access to the iCloud accounts of a number of people and thereby gain access to photos that they had taken with their iPhones and other devices. Quickly, the photos started showing up on sites such as 4Chan and Reddit, and while those avenues were eventually blocked the photos were available long enough that they were copied and posted elsewhere around the web to the point where they began showing up in the search results of Google and other search engines. Now, an attorney who is apparently representing a number of the celebrities caught up in the incident is threatening Google with a massive lawsuit as a result of its alleged role in disseminating the photographs:

A celebrity attorney whose firm represents more than a dozen high-profile women whose personal photos were stolen and then posted online has threatened Google with a lawsuit potentially seeking $100 million or more in damages related to the distribution of those images.

The Internet giant, however, said Thursday that it had quickly taken down “tens of thousands of pictures” and “closed hundreds of accounts” related to the photo hacking incident, which is being investigated by the FBI.

Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton were among the first celebs targeted when the pictures went online over Labor Day weekend on sites including 4chan and Reddit. Since then, personal photos of many other famous women whose Apple iCloud accounts were hacked have been similarly disseminated.

Attorney Martin Singer’s Wednesday letter accused the Internet giant of failing to act quickly and effectively when asked to remove the personal pictures from sites it owns, including YouTube and Blogspot.

The letter referenced “over a dozen female celebrities, actresses, models and athletes” whose photos had been stolen, without mentioning specific names. Amber Heard, Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Hudgens, Emily Ratajkowski, Megan Good and others are among those who had pictures stolen.

“[B]ecause the victims are celebrities with valuable publicity rights, you do nothing – – nothing but collect millions of dollars in advertising revenue from your co-conspirator advertising partners as you seek to capitalize on this scandal rather than quash it,” the letter said. “Like the NFL, which turned a blind eye while its players assaulted and victimized women and children, Google has turned a blind eye while its sites repeatedly exploit and victimize these women.”

The letter demanded that Google remove all of the stolen images from sites it owns, suspend users who posted the pictures, suspend sites that solicit or facilitate the distribution of the pictures, and remove related results from its search-engine returns.

Google responded to the letter last last week by announcing that it was removing “tens of thousands” of images, but that doesn’t seem to be good enough for the attorney involved:

[T]he Attorney’s representing the Hollywood stars cites that the action didn’t happen quickly enough and that the company benefited financially from the leak. Marty Singer, the attorney in question, claimed that Google ignored initial requests to take the personal photos and data down, before actually beginning to afterward.

“Google has taken little or no action to stop these outrageous violations. Google is making millions and profiting from the victimizations of women,” Singer said in a letter written for a news outlet in Hollywood, describing the fight he would be taking to Google.

Many have contested that the leaked photographs are still on sites like Blogger, YouTube and even general Google searches, even though Google has said they’ve eliminated tens of thousands of photographs from their site and closed hundreds of accounts which were perpetuating the photographs.

(…)

If Google acted maliciously, or failed to remove the images as quickly as they could then clearly they will face a lot of litigation, and will potentially lose hundreds of millions in losses from the situation. However, it remains to be seen whether this is a matter of Google fundamentally failing to act, or acting maliciously to drive their bottom line – or if it’s simply a matter of litigation in an effort to assign blame for the breach and perpetuating of inappropriate, private photos.

In many respects, the claims that are issue seem similar to those that are implicated by the ruling earlier this year by the European Court of Justice which created the so-called “right to be forgotten.” In that case, the Court ruled that citizens of the European Union would have the right to demand that Google and other search engines remove links to material about them that had been indexed by the search engine’s spider. The most unique thing about that ruling, of course, is that it covered not only material that is defamatory, but also things that, while true,might prove to be embarrassing for one reason or another. As I said at the time, this ruling was troublesome not only because it seemed to be almost impossible to implement but because of the manner in which it assigned liability to Google for something over which the company had no real control, the presence of allegedly “bad” material on web servers that the company has no real control over. Obviously, the question is different when it comes to sites like YouTube and Blogspot that are part of Google itself, but even in those cases it seems apparent to me that Google cannot be held responsible for photographs that it isn’t necessarily aware of until someone brings them to the company’s attention. With respect to information in the search engine database, though, the liability would seem to be even further removed considering that, in essence, Google is really nothing more than an indexing service for the Internet. Looked at that way, it seems absurd for Google to be held liable under for material over which it has no real control, and when you do so you are likely to end up with the same absurd results that we are seeing in Europe as the company tries to implement take down requests there.

In this case, of course, the Plaintiffs wouldn’t be proceeding under European law, they would proceeding under various privacy laws, including the California Celebrities Right’s Act, which given celebrities and their estates certain rights to control how their image is used in public. Even under this law, though, it’s hard to see where Google’s liability for anything that isn’t under its control would lie. Again, we’d still be dealing with the fact that Google did not steal the images, was not involved in security for the service where the image was stored, and did not post the images elsewhere. All of those actions were done by third parties that Google has no real control over. Even when the images are posted on a site that it does have control over, such as YouTube, it likely wouldn’t be aware of that fact until someone notified them of the fact. How that leads to liability either in the legal or the moral sense of the word is quite baffling.

The attorney’s appear to be saying that Google didn’t move fast enough in removing the images, and that they left them up in order to increase traffic and,presumably, their ad revenue. This claim seems to be especially weak to me, though. There doesn’t appear to be any time limit under applicable law during which a party notified that they are hosting or linking to material that violates the law must act, for example, and the amount of time it did take would obviously have to take into account the technical means necessary to track down the offending material and either remove it from Google’s servers or remove links to it from the search engine’s database. Additionally, it’s hard to say what damages the Plaintiffs would have actually suffered from the fact that there was a delay of a couple of days or even a week during which the photos remained available for anyone looking for them. So, unless the attorneys are able to uncover some kind of smoking gun document where Google decided to “slow walk” removing the images in order to enhance traffic and revenue, it would appear that this claim isn’t really going anywhere.

Jazz Shaw makes this observation about the whole case:

[H]opefully it won’t come as too much of a shock to anyone to learn that Google doesn’t have a huge room full of people sitting and scanning every site in the world, picking out which articles, pictures or fascinating recipes for fish tacos on various blogs to select for inclusion on search returns. Once the pictures are out there and showing up, Google also faces a daunting task to find and block them all even if they wanted to try. A desirable photo such as that of Kaley Cuoco with her shirt off (bad move, Penny) is going to go viral in seconds and be replicated on more sites than you can count. Google would be playing whack-a-mole on a cosmic scale to keep up with and purge them all. But for this they are the target of the lawsuit?

The answer, obviously, is that they are a target because, other than Apple, which has its own exposure here due to what many have alleged was the lax security of iCloud before the leak was uncovered, they are the potential target with the deepest potential target. The party, or parties, responsible for hacking into the accounts and initially posting the photographs are unlikely to have significant assets, and neither are the numerous other parties who took them from the initial postings on 4Chan and Reddit and posted them elsewhere on the Internet. Legal arguments aside for the moment, it’s natural that the attorneys for these celebrities would look to Google as potential source, not the least because the company may find it cheaper to settle the matter out of court than fight it out in court. As a matter of principle, though, I would suggest that Google not give up so easily because if these parties are able to assert claims against them in an American court on what seem to be pretty flimsy legal theories, then its only a matter of time before they’re dealing with the same headaches they are having because of a completely non-sensical ruling from a European court here in the United States.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Law and the Courts, Popular Culture, Science & Technology, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    Apart from the legal issues here, it is amazing how many celebrities take these revealing ‘selfies’ and then upload then into the digital cloud which we all (ought to) know by now is not a completely secure place.




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  2. PJ says:

    To make sure that these images can’t be searched for, Google should return a blank page for any search that includes the actresses suing.




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  3. Ron Beasley says:

    This is absurd! If you don’t want pictures of you naked on the intertubes don’t upload them. My major concern is that our financial system is imperiled by hackers. I used by debit card at Home Depot during the period they had the data breach. I have to check my account on line daily to make sure there are no fraudulent transactions – there haven’t been any. I have talked to my bank and they are unwilling to issue a new debit card.
    I have little sympathy for the starlets although I must admit I don’t have any skin in the game (pun intended) who wants to see a nude picture of a bald 69 year old guy?




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  4. Stonetools says:

    Look the main portion of the blame should fall on the perverts who hacked those celebrities . Let’s not lose focus on that.
    That said, this is a tough lesson for these young ladies. From here on in, part of the price paid for being young, beautiful and famous must be hiring a computer security consultant to secure their Internet accounts.
    The lawyers here are really bottom feeding , but hey, greatest legal system in the world, amirite?




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  5. bill says:

    @al-Ameda: reminds me of when pamela andesron was whining about all those homemade porn videos of her- dennis miller had a great answer, something along the lines of “…maybe stop f***ing people on film”?




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  6. wr says:

    @bill: Yeah, that’s a great line, hah hah. Of course I’m sure there’s absolutely nothing that you do you don’t want to have plastered all over the internet, right? I mean, that’s why you let everyone know your full name and occupation — oh, wait.

    I guess it’s privacy for you, and those sluts can take care of themselves, right?

    (Plus, not only has Dennis Miller not been funny in decades, he almost ran over my dog once, so he’s dead to me.)




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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Ron Beasley: Just lie to your bank and tell them you lost your wallet.




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  8. Scott says:

    The real solution is to not ever take nude pictures of yourself, ever, because these days it means that they’re digital. Even if you take analog pictures (if you can find actual film), you better have your own dark room and destroy the negatives afterward because some enterprising teenager working at a photo lab can take a snapshot of your print with his phone, and voila, you’re all over the internet anyway. Short of that, you do not want any data you care about going to the cloud, because all the “cloud” means is someone else’s server, and anything can happen between here and there.




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  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @Gustopher: Better if I tell them I left it in an ATM machine.




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  10. beth says:

    @Scott: Better not to use a credit card or bank or shop online, right? It’s all digital and on someone’s server and anything can happen so you deserve whatever happens right?




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  11. MBunge says:

    @beth: How about someone explain how amateur porn became a normal part of romantic relationships? Unless I’m mistaken, the vast majority of these photos were taken by the women’s then-significant others or by the women for their then-significant others. When did that become so common as to make this sort of thing possible? Did guys used to have nude Polaroids of their girlfriends as standard dating benefits and I just missed out on it?

    Cultural norms often change because of technology. It seems long past time we have a public discussion on phone porn and come up with some new norms for it.

    Mike




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  12. beth says:

    @MBunge: Perhaps you should visit an art museum sometime. There have been naked pictures of women since humans have been able to produce images with whatever tools are available.
    If you dropped your credit card on the ground and someone found it and used it, would you just say oh well I should have been more careful and pay the charges and chalk it up to experience? Consent and ownership matter. Just because you may find the subject matter unpleasant doesn’t change that fact.




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  13. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Google will not be bothered a bit by this, and the lawyers suing will reap their hourly rates regardless of the outcome. Anyone foolish enough to use the “cloud” for anything but silly pictures invites trouble. There is no such thing as online privacy. If Americans didn’t have an 8th grade understanding of sexulaity and gender identification, no one would care.




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  14. Trumwill says:

    Wow, I guess I get to take down my Conservative Resistance banner and be the resident liberal for once.

    The women here are not to blame. Not even close to blame. Not “Yeah, it’s the pervs BUT” to blame.

    They took private pictures. Those pictures were automatically uploaded to the cloud. If you have a smartphone, chances are not bad your pictures are automatically uploaded to a cloud as well. Which is great if you lose your phone. Not so great if you are taking pictures of sensitive things. This is all relatively new, and some people haven’t completely thought through the ramifications on all that.

    But beyond that, it’s not up to them to live their lives so that somebody unlawfully breaking into their private zones can’t find anything worth posting on Reddit. It’s up to us in the collective sense, to provide a level of safety so that people can live their lives. Which means, among other things, the right to take private pictures. Apple failed. Much of the online community failed. (I’m undecided on whether Google failed.) These celebrities did not fail.

    There are lessons to be learned here. But I’m relatively certain that these celebrities know the cost of celebrity – particularly the costs to their privacy – far better than we do. So while I might offer some tips to opt-out of automatic cloud uploading, we ought to aim at a world where our condemnation lies on those who fail to live up to their obligations – like Apple – or most particularly those who actually violate privacy, rather than those whose privacy is violated.




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  15. Eric Florack says:

    Before we judge about “don’t upload them”, let’s recall that uploading pictures is usually not a positive act anymore… these are likely automatic backups we are talking about.




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  16. stonetools says:

    @Trumwill:

    Apple provided people with a system for taking and sharing photographs easily. Nowhere did they promise that the system would be secure for the taking and sharing of nude photos. The celebrities assumed that. Now I do agree that the perverts who hacked into their accounts are mostly to blame. But that’s not Apple’s fault.
    There are in fact third party apps that do enable the secure sharing of sensive photos. Fifty of them at least. But people didn’t bother to do their research before taking and sharing photographs.
    Maybe Apple and Google have to put a disclaimer in fine print in their ads. But I presume they just did not think people would be sharing nude selfies on a regular basis.




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  17. Trumwill says:

    @stonetools: If you’re going with an opt-out system, the impetus is on you to provide security. Now, granted, maybe Apple was the only cloud service to say “Hey, we don’t take your privacy and security seriously at all.” In which case, yes, they’re off the hook.




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  18. Rafer Janders says:

    @MBunge:

    When did that become so common as to make this sort of thing possible?

    As soon as cameras were widespread and portable, so for, oh, about 80 years now.

    Did guys used to have nude Polaroids of their girlfriends as standard dating benefits and I just missed out on it?

    Yes.




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  19. Tony W says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I have talked to my bank and they are unwilling to issue a new debit card.

    Sounds like you need a new bank. Or better yet a credit union.




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  20. Rafer Janders says:

    @Trumwill:

    But beyond that, it’s not up to them to live their lives so that somebody unlawfully breaking into their private zones can’t find anything worth posting on Reddit.

    Well said.




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  21. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    I presume they just did not think people would be sharing nude selfies on a regular basis.

    Nonsense. They knew very well that they would. Why? Because they already know that tens of millions of Americans do this.




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  22. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders: @Trumwill:

    You and I will have to part company on the this. I never for a moment thought that Apple by offering a system allowing the easy taking and sharing of photos were LEGALLY OBLIGATED to offer by default a system that provided hacker-proof security for the sharing of nude photos. I don’t think it matters how many people are doing it. That’s like saying that people who offer to build houses must by default build houses with security system and burglar-proof locks, because burglaries happen. But we’ll see what courts say.




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  23. R.Dave says:

    @beth: Better not to use a credit card or bank or shop online, right? It’s all digital and on someone’s server and anything can happen so you deserve whatever happens right?

    Bingo. If someone wants to argue that women posing for sexy photos intended to be private somehow cede their right to complain when those photos become public had better never complain about having their own personal information or credit card details stolen.

    Now, having said that, for these particular women to be suing Google over it is ridiculous.




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  24. Trumwill says:

    @stonetools: I wasn’t speaking from a legal perspective so much as a moral/business/PR perspective. Legally, we all know who is to blame, and it’s not Apple or the celebrities. I’m talking more about “Who we should be condemning here?”

    The celebrities fall far, far down on this list, if they are on it at all. Yet that’s the place a lot of people go to first (or after a perfunctory condemnation of the hackers). When someone steals a bunch of credit card information from Home Depot, our response isn’t how stupid it is to buy something with a credit card from Home Depot (though some atypical people above), it’s a black mark on Home Depot. That should be the case here as well.

    Legally speaking, it depends on a lot of the particulars. As you say, the courts will sort that out.




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  25. Eric Florack says:

    @MBunge: it became such with harold land’s interesting little adaptaion.




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  26. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tony W: Well, that was the answer that I came to in a similar situation many years ago. A replacement bank (I, too, prefer credit unions) can issue a replacement debit card lickety-split.




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  27. bill says:

    @wr:

    I mean, that’s why you let everyone know your full name and occupation — oh, wait.

    says “wr”….. if you want to txt an stuff just gimme ur cell #…..nah, don’t. so are you supporting the whiny bimbos vs the liberal heroes at google? yes, the same google that evades taxes just like every other major company.
    but seriously, if dennis miller was still a moderate democrat instead of a moderate republican you’d be licking his boots and wishing he ran over your dog so you’d have something to talk about at starbucks or something.




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