Former revenge porn website operator Kevin Bollaert, previously found guilty of 21 counts of identity theft and six counts of extortion, was sentenced to 18 years in jail on Friday.
As stated in our February post, California passed an “anti-revenge porn” law in Oct. 2013, which penalizes revenge porn offenders up to six months behind bars. However, Bollaert’s actions warranted greater punishment, according to Judge Gill.
Bollaert previously ran the website UGotPosted.com, which featured thousands of private photographs, many of which were accompanied by personally identifying information. He also ran ChangeMyReputation.com, through which the subjects of these racy photos could pay up to $350 to have them removed – though it was unbeknownst to them that each website was operated by the same person.
According to the U-T article, Bollaert told investigators he made about $900 each month from advertising, while – according to PayPal records obtained – he received an aggregate of $30,000 in payments from ChangeMyReputation.com.
Seven of the victims who testified at trial were present Friday and made statements to San Diego County judge David Gill, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune (U-T). Among those quoted in the U-T’s story was a woman who said she was kicked out of her home when her parents learned of her photos that had been published online, while another said her “mental state is completely broken.”
“Sitting behind a computer, committing what is essentially a cowardly and criminal act will not shield predators from the law or jail,” Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a news release. “We will continue to be vigilant and investigate and prosecute those who commit these deplorable acts.”
A Closer Look at Extortion
There is no denying the significance of the damage done to the victims featured in the reported 10,170 photos that ran on Bollaert’s website (mostly women), including those whose photos included identifying information such as names, locations and social media profiles. In fact, the crackdown on revenge porn has been rather widespread in recent months.
Beyond this, what is worth noting is the court’s prior finding that Bollaert’s charging of victims for photo removal amounted to extortion.
It is not uncommon for certain websites hosting harmful content to be willing to remove content only in exchange for a (potentially large) payment. This, of course, is due to the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which grants “interactive” websites immunity for statements posted on the websites by third party users.
This can be distinguished from the case of a California revenge porn case, wherein someone such as Bollaert has already violated a California law by operating a revenge porn website the first place.
Thus, for the time being, there has been no other precedent set in terms of holding a website that requires a payment to remove harmful content responsible for extortion (although many have tried alleging extortion against Yelp). Thus, those such Ripoff Report – which offer various remedial services in exchange for fees, despite knowing the large number of false reviews that are published on their websites – are presently in the clear from any extortion charges.
Under the present construction of the CDA, such websites will continue to avoid suffering consequences of extortion. Nevertheless, given the six counts of extortion Bollaert was found guilty of in this case, there are arguments to be made going forward – at least in California cases – that charging for removing other online content could give rise to findings of extortion.