FTC shuts down “revenge porn” operation, but imposes no fine

In one of the most despicable scams on the internet, Colorado resident Craig Brittain ran a website that posted nude photographs of hundreds of women alongside their Facebook profiles and other personal information, then blackmailed the victims to pay bogus lawyer sites, controlled by Brittain, in the hope of expunging the photos.

On Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it has shut down Brittain’s operation, including the nude photo site Isanybodydown.com, and ordered him to destroy the photos. And while Brittain is banned from running a so-called “revenge porn” site in the future, he will not face any penalty unless he disobeys the order.

According to the FTC, Brittain obtained the photographs in various ways, including posing as a woman on Craigslist where he persuaded other women to trade photos. He also encouraged people to submit photos anonymously to his website, and offered “bounties” of $100 to those who could provide additional photos and other information, such as the women’s home town, that attested to their identities — increasing the changes his desperate victims would pay to get the photos removed.

The payment part of the scam, which amounted to blackmail, involved websites run by Brittian with names like “Takedown Hammer” and “Takedown Lawyer” that purported to help the victims. This arrangement resembles the “mug shot” operations, exposed by the New York Times, in which sleazy websites that embarrass people with mug shots work hand-in-glove with other sites that claim to restore reputations.

Brittain is hardly the first to be targeted by authorities for running a revenge porn operation. In late 2013, San Diego police arrested a man who ran a similar scam through a website called Ugotposted, and charged him with extortion.

Brittain does not face a similar fate as the San Diego man since, for now, the FTC lacks criminal powers or the ability to fine first-time offenders. (This might change under a new White House bill to give the agency more teeth — a topic we will be discussing with FTC Commissioner Julie Brill this March in New York at Gigaom’s Structure Data event).

Meanwhile, the debate over how to address revenge porn continues. The U.K. has passed a law to outlaw it, and activists like Charlotte Laws have called for such measures in the United States, though some worry about the implications for free speech.