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'This Isn't Speech:' Attorney Carrie Goldberg On Revenge Porn

Nov 16, 2019

When Carrie Goldberg broke up with her boyfriend of a few months, frightening things started happening. He sent her hundreds of threatening messages. He contacted her friends, family and even work colleagues on Facebook to spread vicious lies about her — and that wasn't all. One night she opened her laptop to find email after email containing intimate pictures of her, including a graphic video filmed without her consent. Goldberg, a lawyer, went to the police and was told there was nothing that could be done.

Thousands of dollars in legal fees and a restraining order later, Carrie Goldberg has turned her traumatic experience into a career. She started her own firm to represent people who, like her, have been the targets of this kind of abuse — and she's written a new book: Nobody's Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls.

The book covers a range of situations, from a client who was impersonated on a gay dating site by an ex-boyfriend claiming he had rape fantasies, to a woman who was stalked by her ex, who ended up sending bomb threats to Jewish community centers all over the country. But Goldberg says most cases of nonconsensual porn involve women. "Almost every sextortion case I've ever heard about are women or girls," she says.


Interview Highlights

On what happens to people who are targets of revenge porn

So when it comes to images, I mean, we've had clients that have been fired from their job because of naked pictures being on the Internet. We just got contacted by a teacher who was forced out of her job because a student reported that they had found a picture of her on a porn Web site. And one of the other things that really is traumatic for victims is that there's a huge consumer base of non-consensual porn who share detailed personal information with one another. And so there's there's a lot of stalking by strangers of the victims.

On what would make the situation better

Well, I think that we need to be able to hold our platforms liable for the harms that they cause. Right now there's absolutely no pressure on Facebook, on Twitter, on these humongous companies that so profit from our communication and our data. They have no pressure from the marketplace to be creating products that are responsibly designed. I feel that our court systems are designed to be the great equalizer. You know, just for the cost of an index number, my client, who might not have a penny to her name, could sue Jeff Bezos. Or in one case, my 13-year-old client sued the New York City Department of Education, a multi-multi-billion dollar entity. And when we as individuals ... can't get justice against a company, what incentive do they have to be creating anything that's that safe?

On the free speech argument

This isn't about speech ... this [is] about conduct. And when activists and libertarians conflate everything as speech and think that, you know ... they used to make this argument with non-consensual porn, that if we criminalize that, then we would lose all speech on the Internet. And now, you know, we have 46 states that have criminal revenge porn laws. And I think speech is still pretty robust. But there has to be limits. You know, we're talking about criminal actions, terroristic threats, deepfakes, people being impersonated and their lives being completely overturned. This isn't speech.

On advice for people who are experiencing this kind of harassment

My first piece of advice is is very practical: Don't delete anything, screenshot everything, on your phone, online. And then just recognize that you're not alone. In the back of my book, I have pages of of resources for everybody from victims of revenge porn to child sexual assault to sextortion, resources for the LGBTQ community. And I think that it's so important that victims and survivors have somebody that's on their side, you know, that they can tell, that they can confide in, because the scariest part of the entire process is feeling like you're under attack all by yourself. And the isolation.

On telling her own story in this book

It's empowering to have told my story. But I have to admit that there are moments of confusion and fear, and "Oh my God, did I really put all of that in that book?" And now, you know, when people tell me that they've read it, you know, there are parts of the book that I hadn't really talked about with almost anybody. ... But, you know, there is still some some discomfort with the fact that I've put all of this and all of these personal stories into the book. But I'm proud of it. And I feel that it's important. And one of the reasons I did it, you know, that I put so much personal information in it is because my clients give me everything. They tell me the most personal details of their stories. And then I put it into legal complaints, and those become public documents. And so, if they're being so willing and so trusting to expose themselves in order to advance their case and advance the law, then what am I doing if I'm not following that same model?

This story was edited for radio by Janaya Williams and Natalie Winston Friedman, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Carrie Goldberg broke up with her boyfriend of a few months, frightening things started happening. He sent her hundreds of threatening messages, contacted friends, family and even work colleagues on Facebook to spread vicious lies about her. And that wasn't all. One night, she opened her laptop to find email after email containing intimate pictures of her, including a graphic video filmed without her consent. Goldberg, a lawyer, went to the police and was told there was nothing they could do.

Thousands of dollars in legal fees and a restraining order later, Carrie Goldberg turned her traumatic episode into a career. She started her own firm to represent people who, like her, had been the targets of this kind of abuse. That's the focus of her new book, "Nobody's Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs And Trolls." And Carrie Goldberg is with us now in our studios in New York. Carrie Goldberg, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CARRIE GOLDBERG: I'm so happy to be here.

MARTIN: So there are so many eye-popping stories in your book, including your own. It's hard to know where to start. I mean, could you just give us a sense, as briefly as you can, of the range of things we are talking about here.

GOLDBERG: This book covers stories that range from revenge porn to young people who've been sextorted to a high school student who was sexually assaulted outside of school.

MARTIN: There is also a man you write about in the book who was also subjected to vicious behavior by a vengeful ex. Just tell us briefly what happened to him.

GOLDBERG: So when Matthew (ph) first came to me, he told me about when it first started. Somebody had approached him while he was outside smoking a cigarette and walking his dog and recognized him. And Matthew had no idea who this man was and came to learn that he'd been sent through the gay dating app, Grindr. And Matthew's like, I don't even have an account on Grindr. There must be some mistake.

And then a few minutes later, somebody else came. Over the next few months, it continued happening almost a thousand times. It turned out that Matthew's ex-boyfriend was impersonating him on Grindr. And Matthew did everything that any one of us would do. He made a dozen police reports. He got an order of protection against his ex. He flagged these profiles and nothing stopped it.

MARTIN: So I wanted did to ask you about that. I mean, one of the points you make in the book is that the legal system hasn't caught up to the technologies that a lot of people use. For example, like, why is this site allowed to continue posting his image and his address even after he's contacted them and told them that it isn't him and it's being used to harass him? How is that possible?

GOLDBERG: Well, we ended up getting a restraining order against Grindr, demanding that they exclude this particular user. And when their lawyers came to court, they told us that Grindr didn't have the technology to exclude a user. And that was flabbergasting to us. So we ended up bringing a consumer protection lawsuit, basically saying that Grindr had released into the stream of commerce a defectively designed and produced product. And turns out that there's a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act, which has been interpreted so broadly over the last 23 years that Grindr basically had immunity from liability.

And so this law, Section 230, is a protection that so many social media companies, websites, platforms hide behind. Basically, it gives them this false sense of confidence that they are outside the reach of our courts. So there's an argument that our laws cannot keep up with the technology. But, in actuality, we've had stalking and hacking laws. And now nonconsensual porn laws are in 46 states. We have the laws. But, sometimes, they're just really horribly interpreted. And that's the case with the Communications Decency Act.

MARTIN: What about people, though, who do, as I understand it, continually make the free speech argument? And what do you say to that?

GOLDBERG: This isn't about speech. Matthew's case - we weren't suing for anything that his offender said. We were suing for a products liability issue, you know? This was about conduct. I mean, they used to make this argument with nonconsensual porn, you know, that if we criminalize that, then we would lose all speech on the Internet. And now, you know, we have 46 states that have revenge porn laws. And I think, you know, speech is still pretty robust.

MARTIN: How do you feel now that - you know? You went through this terrible experience. You turned your worst moment into a career where you can advocate for others who've gone through it. But now this book - I mean, I know that you're very well-known in legal circles, you know, for example. And you're certainly well-known in - among the community of people who've experienced this who have found, you know, legal counsel. But now you've written this book, and your story is there, you know, in the world. How does it make you feel to tell your story in this way?

GOLDBERG: It's empowering to have told my story. But I have to admit that there are moments of confusion and fear and, oh, my God. Did I really put all of that in that book? And now, you know, when people tell me that they've read it, you know, there are parts of the book that I hadn't really talked about with almost anybody and something that I talk about in the conclusion, which was a really personal and frightening experience for me. And it's like, oh, my God, you know? Like, I've never even talked to my parents about that they know about it from the book.

But, you know, there is still some discomfort with the fact that I've put all of this and all of these personal stories into the book. But I'm proud of it. And I feel that it's important. And one of the reasons I did it is because my clients give me everything. They tell me the most personal details of their stories. And then I put it into legal complaints, and those become public documents. So, you know, if they're being so willing and so trusting to expose themselves in order to advance their case and advance the law, then what am I doing if I'm not following that same model?

MARTIN: Well, your book is very brave. And I think it will be very helpful. So thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for your important work.

GOLDBERG: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: That's Carrie Goldberg. Her book is called "Nobody's Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs And Trolls." Carrie Goldberg, thank you so much for talking with us.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.