On an average day, I delete hundreds of files from my computer. Photos, white papers, e-Books, drafts of articles, failed Excel spreadsheets… If something doesn't work for me, I grab it and drag it to the trash. Poof! It's gone before I even know what happened to it.
Unfortunately, it's a heck of a lot harder to handle the deletion of items that appear on a search engine like Google. There's no handy "trash this" button, and often, photos that are deleted seem to pop right back up within minutes.
Let's examine the unfortunate case of Jennifer Lawrence as an example.
Back in August, nude photographs of the actress were leaked. Many bloggers who covered the issue at the time tried to toe the line between journalism and voyeurism by discussing the leaking issue while asking readers not to click on the photographs. A blogger on Bustle did this quite well, I thought, and I appreciated the idea that I could follow the story without being somehow complicit in the violation of privacy that these photos represent.
Unfortunately, many people seemed to feel no guilt at all about both looking at and downloading these photographs. I can't find specific numbers that tell me how many times such photos were viewed, but I would assume that we're talking about thousands (if not millions) of hits.
Not surprisingly, given the fame and the resources Lawrence has at her disposal, legal action quickly followed this leak. In October, an entertainment lawyer representing victims of the leak sent a letter to Google, threatening to sue the company for $100 million because the photos were still available on the search engine.
And here's where things get snarky.
According to Google's response to that letter, the company has been deleting those photos. In fact, Google says that tens of thousands of such photos have been deleted so far.
Yet, when I run an image search for "Jennifer Lawrence leaked photos," guess what I see? Yep. I see eight copies of a nude photo of the actress, out of the first 16 images that pop up on my screen. Half of the shots are images she doesn't want out there.
Hide and Seek
In an interview with a writer for Vanity Fair, Lawrence compared the incident to a sex crime. She felt violated and angry and exploited, and I can totally understand her rage and frustration.
But what can she do about it?
That's a hard question to answer. The actress continues to explore her legal options, and according to a piece in Salon this week, those efforts are starting to pay off. Some user names have been deleted, and two sites have been de-indexed. That has to feel like victory.
But unfortunately, that same Salon article also suggests that web users are very, very sneaky and willing to bend the rules in order to publish the content they want. Some sites that were removed altered their domains, and that means they were re-indexed by Google and back up with the same photos in no time at all.
Some users also downloaded the photos, and they're reposting them on their own sites, which means that the lawyers would have to provide separate requests for those images.
It's a lot like Whack-a-Mole, and Jennifer Lawrence is losing.
The easy answer, say some purists, involves never taking nude photos with any kind of electronic device. No racy selfies, no interesting videos, nothing. If it's taken with bytes, it's too easy to steal.
But I understand the plight of Lawrence as well. When she took these photos, she told Vanity Fair, she did so in the context of a committed relationship. She was far away from her partner, and she wanted to keep him interested in her. It was a way to keep that relationship alive, and it made sense to her. She never dreamed that she'd see these photos up for the whole world to see.
Sadly, though, I think her romantic ideals are a little dated. In fact, I think the days of taking photos and hoping for the best are long gone. An image could be shared maliciously on a revenge porn site (which I will not link to), or an image could be held in a cloud database and accessed by hackers and unveiled to the public. If it's nude and it's electronic, it just seems irresistible.
If this story has you freaked out, there is some good news. Thankfully, the amount of exposure a standard person might face is small, when compared to the stars. Millions of people might want to see Lawrence nude, but they might not want to see me. The audience for my body is just smaller. That means we often can help people who are dealing with small-scale privacy violations online. We find the images and remove them.
But, as this case makes clear, it's not work we can do just once and then forget about. Photos like this can appear and reappear and reappear again. Once online, they never really go away for good.
If you have been a victim of a photo breach, please reach out to us. We want to help. But if you haven't ever taken a nude photo in your life, don't start now, okay? It's not safe.
Protect your reputation online.