The desire to see a celebrity naked is a foundation of fame itself. The global entertainment complex demands that we pay celebrities sexualized attention, develop fantasy “crushes,” gush over their impossible looks and despair when we see them succumb to age, addiction or plastic surgery. It’s disturbing how we slavishly covet these famous bodies, but in no way is it abnormal — this is how the whole game works. We want (and lust) for the unattainable.
But when technological vulnerability gave us the ability, at last, to glimpse the private parts of athletes, actors and musicians, we didn’t merely look for ourselves. We shared these images. We scrutinized and shamed. We were even a little disappointed to realize that none of these people live up to the controlled ideal of appearance put forth on red carpets and movie screens. The massive 2014 leak of celebrity iCloud photos, loathsomely referred to as “The Fappening” (referring to jerking off) by its drooling celebrants, was not just an invasion of the privacy of more than 100 individuals; it was also a public declaration of the nasty truth that fuels our obsession with stardom: The famous exist to be judged.
That much is confirmed by Celeb Jihad, the single high-profile hub for hacked celebrity nudes still active in 2017. The site cobbles together sex scenes from mainstream films, Photoshops, porn clips spliced with mainstream footage to create the illusion of sex between celebrities, and private images actually obtained via hacking, all under the banner of a “satirical” Islamic fundamentalist voice. “For surely we are entering a golden age of celebrity depravity,” a typical video caption reads, “which will result in the collapse of Western civilization as the infidels cease all activities outside of fapping online to the latest celeb leak… Thus allowing us Muslims to easily usher in the Islamic world caliphate.”
The operator(s) of Celeb Jihad go by the pseudonym Durka Durka Muhammad, and they revel in the exposure of famous women by mock-condemning the “sinfulness” of intimate selfies while anticipating the future triumph of Sharia law. In other words, it’s a shitposting-as-pornography site, antithetical to anything like decency.
So why doesn’t someone do something about it?
Because legal recourses against this kind of anonymous harassment are a work in progress. You may recall that the backlash against the iCloud hacking led to broad policy mandates among tech giants. Reddit, the key dissemination point for the photos, banned a viral “Fappening” forum as well as its many reboots in the weeks following the leak. Twitter banned revenge porn in March 2015. And Google followed suit that summer, removing such “fappening” material from their search results.
Back then, you could already see that it was up to corporations to crack down on the hosting of proliferation of illicit nudes, while the Justice Department was far better equipped to prosecute the hackers themselves or revenge-porn impresarios who also indulged in identity theft and extortion. “Broadly speaking: hacking into someone’s account and downloading their photos or anything else is unambiguously illegal, but revenge porn isn’t always a clear charge,” says Kevin Collier, a cybersecurity reporter for BuzzFeed News who covered the “Fappening” as it happened. “It’s safe to say law enforcement is more interested in hackers than a third-party website that hosts stolen photos.”
In the case of Celeb Jihad, “Durka” is given to insisting that they “have no idea if these photos were stolen,” which creates a useful smokescreen where potential criminal charges are concerned: We can’t say whether Durka filches the nudes directly or gets them from mercenary hackers. Which makes the push to criminalize the posting of nonconsensual porn all the more pressing. Until now, Celeb Jihad has only removed sensitive images of victims who have threatened lawsuits, including Emma Watson and, most recently, Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn. Otherwise, everything remains in place, consequences be damned. As Durka told me in a brief email exchange, “It is our sworn duty as celebrity jihadists to expose the depraved nature of heathen Hollywood celebrities in all of its forms.”
“The landscape for regulating cyber-exploitation is still incomplete, but it’s better than it was 7 to 10 years ago,” says Ari Ezra Waldman, an associate professor and the director of the Innovation Center for Law and Technology at New York Law School. (Last year, Waldman published “A Breach of Trust: Fighting Nonconsensual Pornography” in Iowa Law Review, outlining the ways in which this battle is far from over.) “Thirty-five U.S. states have criminal laws against nonconsensual pornography,” he says. “Localities are also passing similar laws. A bill has been introduced in Congress, but there’s no sign it’s making much progress.”
Even so, we’re seeing a heartening change in the conversation about cyber-exploitation, with many people “coming around to the idea that it’s just wrong.” This awakening of conscience has been critical not only with sexual harassment but hate speech, as we saw in the wake of Charlottesville, when Network Solutions nuked the white-supremacist site Stormfront, and the CEO of the content-neutral company Cloudflare revoked security protections for another neo-Nazi site, the Daily Stormer, calling them “assholes.” Both Google and the web-hosting company GoDaddy banned the Daily Stormer as well, and Russia pulled the plug on the Stormer’s new domain, citing a “very strict regime for combating any type of extremism.”
“It’s incumbent upon platforms to change the norms online and enforce their terms of us so people know what’s appropriate and what is not,” Waldman says. Trouble is, these companies (and countries) are left to do an independent cost-benefit analysis that doesn’t always shake out well for moral justice. “There has never been a public outcry against revenge porn the way there was against white supremacy and nationalism after Charlottesville,” Collier points out.
Indeed, a domain search reveals that Celeb Jihad is registered with GoDaddy (through Domains by Proxy, a service that shields the owner’s identity), and enjoys the services of Cloudflare — two companies that punished Nazi customers but apparently have no problem with nonconsensual porn.
Are the people behind Celeb Jihad not “assholes”?
And do they not violate GoDaddy’s terms of service — the rationale the company used to boot the Daily Stormer?
The fact is that executives have sometimes had to fall back on odd or circuitous logic to eliminate a clear wrong (Reddit took down the Fappening not for privacy concerns but because of copyright notices), yet GoDaddy’s regulations look crystal-clear: Users may not promote or encourage illegal activity (e.g., hacking) or violate the privacy of any other person.
I reached out to GoDaddy to ask, in light of the Daily Stormer shutdown, whether Celeb Jihad couldn’t be likewise shuttered for violating their user agreement. As of this writing, I’ve received no reply. No wonder Durka Durka Muhammad felt comfortable telling me, an “infidel,” that their “holy Islamic website” is untouchable. “We fear no legal consequences because as pious Muslims we only answer to Sharia law and are immune to the kuffar legal system,” they write to me.
Without intervention from a web infrastructure player like GoDaddy, they may be right.
Why aren’t we seeing that kind of response, then? “I think because they have to draw a relatively arbitrary line somewhere,” Collier says, “and they’ve chosen to draw it somewhere between white supremacism and posting sexual photos without their subjects’ permission.”
To make matters worse, Waldman explains, “there’s a federal law on the books that makes it difficult to regulate the platforms that allow this activity to occur.” This would be Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects web platforms “from lawsuits based on the actions of third parties.” In essence, this provision of a 1996 law was written to protect freedom of expression and innovation online — but it also means, for example, “that YouTube can’t be sued if one of its users uploads user-created contact that turns out to be harassing or tortious,” Waldman says.
In many cases involving Section 230, it enjoys a broad application, so that “the only time websites can be sued is when they create the content themselves” or play an otherwise significant role at the creative level. “Even setting yourself up as a website that invites revenge porn won’t automatically, without more, destroy your immunity,” Waldman says, which takes us back to Durka’s maneuver of playing dumb about the sources of their photos.
If there’s hope for an internet without sites like Celeb Jihad, it may rest on public sentiment. The spines of web companies that facilitate this repugnant behavior are only as strong as an attendant social movement that demands ethical decision-making. Terrorist violence and a subsequent call for the bulldozing of Nazi propaganda were necessary catalysts for a minor revolution in the way online space is policed, and a larger consensus on the evils of Celeb Jihad-style content must develop alongside the long-running government effort to legislate against it.
“The more we pass and enforce these criminal revenge porn laws, the faster these norms will change to make revenge porn a fringe, denounced activity,” Waldman says. And while Collier predicts that any federal law on that front will face “a natural pushback” for people concerned it would run afoul of the First Amendment, he also adds, “it’s fair to assume a large number of Americans, if you asked them directly, would want law enforcement to be able to stop assholes from ruining their exes’ lives with compromising photos.”
From there, we need only empathize with victimized celebrities — to view them as, you know, ordinary people.
Except the famous aren’t ordinary, are they?
This is, again, a seductive lie of celebrity: that they are somehow beyond our realm, there to be admired and destroyed, preferably all in one fell swoop. Then we can ask: “Whatever happened to her? Why couldn’t she stand the glare of the spotlight, when that was her whole ambition?” We have always invaded the lives of avatars for success and wealth, hounded them to misery and suicide, ensured they would lose whatever their careers might give them. Now that the paparazzi are obsolete — each actress carrying the means of a personal catastrophe around inside her own smartphone — we have a deeper obligation to muzzle our natural curiosity while fighting those who exploit it. Technology moves faster than the law, and there is no end to the abuse allowed by this gap; resistance first arrives as mere principle.
It’s simple really: Enough of this shit.
Next time, it could be your nudes.