Perez Hilton has made a career of posting anything and everything about celebrities and their lives. On Tuesday, he thought better of it.
Hilton helped a trove of nude celebrity photos spread like wildfire across the Internet over Labor Day weekend. The photos, which included images of actress Jennifer Lawrence and model Kate Upton, became available after someone — and who did it is unknown — posted the pictures to 4chan and Reddit, two hugely popular anonymous online message boards. There they quickly became trading fodder among the sites’ regulars.
On Sunday, after the photos were posted to these message boards, Google searches for the term “Jennifer Lawrence” skyrocketed, according to data from Google Trends.
The images are hardly the first nude celebrity pictures to make their way online. But their publication has touched off a larger discussion on the state of privacy and civil liberties on the Internet. Some privacy advocates are focusing on the role that big tech companies play in policing — or not policing — users who repeatedly push the boundaries of taste, or those who post controversial content like the videos of the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Hilton and others are even soul-searching about viewing and posting questionable content.
Hilton published a video on YouTube, in which he expressed remorse that he had publicized the photos. “I view this as a good opportunity to learn from and grow from, and to make some changes going forward,” he said.
His regrets were echoed across Twitter, where actors like Seth Rogen and Lena Dunham urged others not to share or view the images out of respect for the celebrities’ privacy. On Reddit, moderators of the forums featuring the images questioned whether they should take down the pictures. (They are still up.)
For privacy advocates, though, the responsibility lies with the big tech companies that host this kind of content.
The episode “should be treated like a sex crime, a privacy invasion taken to an extreme,” said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington. “Sites allowing the sharing of these pictures can and should be taking proactive action to remove these pictures.”
Recently, Twitter came under fire for its loose stance on what is permissible on its network of 271 million monthly users when Robin Williams’ daughter quit the service after being attacked via Twitter messages about her father’s death.
And after the terrorist group the Islamic State posted to YouTube videos of the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American journalists, some called for more stringent guidelines on the services. Many users urged people to take matters into their own hands, advocating not viewing the video.
“We respect Steven Sotloff and won’t air images of his death, or him in a jumpsuit,” Al-Jazeera, the media network based in Doha, Qatar, said in a statement posted to its public relations Twitter account on Tuesday, using the hashtag “#ISISmediaBlackout.” “We suggest all media do the same.”
(The New York Times chose to run the photograph because it felt it was an important image that told the story, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, said.)
Twitter, YouTube and Reddit take a decidedly hands-off approach to suppressing content that appears on their networks, relying instead on users to flag objectionable material that may or may not end up being taken down. “YouTube has clear policies that outline what content is acceptable to post on YouTube, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement.
On Reddit, the photos were quickly embraced. At least one forum was dedicated to discussing and trading them.
Reddit did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, the site’s policy has been to allow its users to police themselves, letting self-appointed community moderators decide what is appropriate to appear on the site.
The FBI acknowledged what it called the “unlawful release” of the pictures, but would not comment further.
When the photos began to surface on the Web, some news reports suggested that Apple’s online storage service, iCloud, had been breached.
But Apple firmly denied this speculation, saying Tuesday that while at least some celebrity accounts were individually attacked, the episode was not the result of any widespread attack on Apple’s software products.
“None of the cases we have investigated has resulted from any breach in any of Apple’s systems,” Nat Kerris, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We are continuing to work with law enforcement to help identify the criminals involved.”
A spokeswoman for Lawrence, who verified that the photos of her client were real, said she was in touch with law enforcement authorities and would prosecute those who posted the stolen pictures.
Twitter, YouTube and others may ultimately decide to take a more active approach to policing user-generated content. Twitter has already shown some signs of change. But this is a fine line to tread, as these companies have long trumpeted their democratic approach to unfettered online speech.
If these services were altered significantly, civil liberties advocates fear it could inhibit how people are able to express themselves online.
“While a rule against hate speech might prevent rape threats, it could also stifle political speech,” said Jillian C. York, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties organization. “Companies have demonstrated that they can’t be trusted as arbiters of speech.”
Instead, York said, Internet users themselves should be able to do a better job of self-policing. “We should encourage companies like Twitter and Facebook to put tools in place that allow users to more easily filter out content and block abusive individuals,” she said.
For some, though, the damage has already been done.
“To those of you looking at photos I took with my husband years ago in the privacy of our home, hope you feel great about yourselves,” actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose nude pictures were leaked on 4chan and Reddit, said in a series of Twitter posts on Sunday.
Winstead said she was abandoning the Internet for the time being, because of a barrage of personal attacks on Twitter after the photos surfaced online.
“I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this,” she said.