In Carrie Goldberg’s career as a victims’ rights lawyer, she goes after four different kinds of offenders: “A******s, psychos, pervs and trolls.” An accomplished attorney who has most recently won a $950,000 sexual assault case involving a teen girl in Brooklyn and is currently representing one of the plaintiffs in the Harvey Weinstein case, Goldberg and her firm specialize in sexual assault and sexual privacy violations, including revenge porn, sextortion and other forms of online abuse.
Defined as the distribution of sexually explicit images of a person without that person’s consent, revenge porn is a form of abuse that affects approximately 1 in 8 adults — most of them women. Sextortion takes it one step further: “[It’s] when somebody is being blackmailed, and usually their intimate images or videos are used as leverage to get somebody to do more things,” said Goldberg. But five years ago, when Goldberg herself most needed a lawyer in this area of expertise, she had no one to turn to. In 2013, a man with whom she had ended a short-term relationship began a vicious campaign of harassment, initially by sending Goldberg hundreds of text messages and e-mails, and later attempting to break into her apartment. It escalated further when he hacked into her work computer, e-mailing to her colleagues her naked pictures and videos. “He said that he was going spend the rest of his life destroying mine, and that there was no hole deep enough that I could climb into,” Goldberg said. Terrified, Goldberg went to the police — but after four legal proceedings, she realized she was getting nowhere. “When I was going through my traumatic experience, I couldn’t find somebody who both knew domestic violence and knew the criminal law, and knew about the copyright laws about naked pictures and understood the internet and social media.”
Eventually, Goldberg resigned from her job. She started her own firm the following day. “The plan was to become the lawyer that I’d needed and to be that lawyer for other people.” On her website, in big capital letters, are the words, “Our clients are not fragile like a flower. They’re fragile like a bomb.” Goldberg insists her defendants are not victims, but warriors. “It’s a f***ing fight to go after your offender, to demand that police prosecute a case, to sue. I mean, these are long-term battles, and you have to be ready for battle.” To date, Goldberg’s law firm has removed approximately 18,600 revenge-porn videos and pictures from the internet and revealed the identities of 164 anonymous harassing e-mail and social media profiles.
When a victim decides to press charges, that victim will more than likely face an uphill battle with law enforcement. In Goldberg’s experience, officials are ignorant about the internet, knowing little to nothing of the social media landscape and disregarding its potentially harmful consequences. “They’re like, ‘Close your computer screen and go outside and live life.’ They don’t understand that criminal things can happen through a computer and that there really is no line of demarcation between real life and internet life. If someone’s sending you dozens of harassing text messages threatening to kill you, just because it’s delivered through a text instead of, I don’t know, a letter with ransom, cut-out paper, it’s somehow less legitimate.” Educating police, judges and other lawyers on online about sexual harassment and the role of social media is something Goldberg believes should be a top priority. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 2 out of every 3 sexual assault cases are not reported to the police — and more than half of the perpetrators in the reported cases don’t go to jail. “If you can sue McDonald’s for a burn or sue the city for a trip-and-fall, you sure as f*** can sue your rapist,” Goldberg said.
With the birth of the #MeToo movement and the subsequent shifting of blame from victim to offender, Goldberg recognizes the conversation about sexual harassment and assault has improved over the last year. The progress, however, isn’t enough: “With any sexualized crime, we need to educate our lawmakers, the people who enforce it, the people who prosecute it, and we need more laws. There’s still 10 states that don’t have revenge-porn laws.” One of those states is New York: The most recent bill that would have criminalized the nonconsensual distribution of intimate photos failed to pass in June after Google and other social media lobbyists torpedoed the legislation. “I think if there’s a villain in all of this, it’s our social media companies and our search engines who are protected from liability,” said Goldberg. Because of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, it is almost impossible to sue an online publisher for content its users post. “It was really for defamation,” Goldberg said. “The lawmakers were like, ‘You know, it’s really going to impact discourse on this cute thing called the internet if everybody who’s innovating and taking the risk of developing websites is going to get sued all the time.’” Currently, even if there is clear evidence that an individual’s intimate images have been stolen and posted online, Google and other websites are not obligated to remove them.
For now, Goldberg’s firm isn’t letting up on the fight against revenge porn and sextortion — and she has a message for those who may be considering committing either one: “If you’re … somebody who maybe has just been dumped and you have all this material from your ex, all of her secrets that she texted you, and naked pictures of her, and you’re thinking about how you can use this against her … don’t. Just don’t.”
“I mean, we’re going to get you.”
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