Celebs threaten to sue Google on photo hacks
If you can't go after the hackers who torment you (yet), go after Google.
That seems to be the new legal strategy of a group of women celebrities victimized by hackers who have stolen their nude photos and leaked them online over the past few weeks.
The FBI is investigating but meanwhile, a prominent California lawyer who has represented celebs in past privacy scuffles, has sent Google a letter on behalf of a dozen actresses, models and athletes, slamming Google's "despicable, reprehensible" failure to remove the stolen photos quickly, and threatening a $100 million lawsuit.
Google protested in a statement that it has removed tens of thousands of photos, usually within hours, adding that stealing private photos is not a good thing.
But is this a good legal strategy for celebrity victims? Policing for this sort of content is complicated technically, expensive and time-consuming, and in the end it can be an exercise in whack-a-mole.
Nonsense, says Blair Berk, a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles who has represented celebs in the past.
"It's largely a red herring," she says. "There are ways to obstruct the whack-a-mole situation — they know it, we know it, it's not expensive or time-consuming. We're way past that."
Even if it's a futile strategy, the victimized celebs understandably feel frustrated at what has happened, says reputation manager Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com.
"Anything they can do to get to a better result in respect to privacy online is important but celebrities have to understand that they are the first line of defense against sort of thing," he says.
The celebs' letter was first reported by the The Hollywood Reporter. Anything but a dry legal document, it is remarkable for its passion.
"Google is making millions and profiting from the victimization of women," accused the letter from lawyer Martin Singer. "Google's 'Don't be evil' motto is a sham."
Google not only failed to remove the images quickly when asked, it also "knowingly" accommodated, facilitated and perpetuated the unlawful conduct by hackers, Singer wrote. "As a result of your blatantly unethical behavior, Google is exposed to significant liability and both compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $100 million."
Singer says posting the stolen photos, of celebs such as Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Jenny McCarthy, Rihanna, Kirsten Dunst and Kim Kardashian, is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
While other websites and ISPs, such as Twitter, quickly took down the stolen photos when asked, some are still available on some Google sites, such as Blog Spot and YouTube, and Google continues to allow multiple sites and blogs to post the photos on its channels, Singer asserts.
"This is unconscionable," he says, especially for a company like Google that boasts its conduct meets highest ethical business standards. "The seriousness of this matter cannot be overstated."
Singer, never known as a legal wallflower, waxes equal parts eloquent and outraged in the four-page letter.
"If your wives, daughters or relatives were the victims of such blatant violations of basic human rights, surely you would take appropriate action," he says in the letter. "But because 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.
"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."
Google, which rarely responds with alacrity to criticism, issued a statement to USA TODAY through a spokesman:
"We've removed tens of thousands of pictures — within hours of the requests being made — and we have closed hundreds of accounts. The Internet is used for many good things. Stealing people's private photos is not one of them."
The Internet giant insisted that, since people continue to post stolen images, it relies on other people alerting Google to help take them down, either by flagging content or filing copyright infringement requests.
But Berk says there's one reason why Google and other Internet sites might drag their feet in taking down stolen images quickly: They make big bucks from them.
"They get enormous traffic, hundreds of thousands of hits and millions of dollars in profit and for every hour of delay (in taking them down), there's that much more profit," she said. "It's about the profits."
Contributing: Jessica Guynn