Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an up and coming singer and actor. Your debut album was well-received by critics and fans alike, and you’ve just been cast in an indie movie that could see you break Hollywood.
But then you get a text message from a friend: A naked photo you took of yourself years ago has been posted on an online forum. It’s circulating around message boards, but it doesn’t look like the entertainment press has picked it up yet.
What do you do? Pretend it never happened? Try to get the photo taken down? Take the websites to court?
It’s a similar problem to one faced at the moment by actress Emma Watson. A series of private photographs of Watson were posted online earlier this month, and she has hired lawyers to get them removed. But how did she do it?
We interviewed Bryan Sullivan, a Los Angeles-based lawyer at the firm Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae LLP, who works with celebrity clients and high net worth individuals on cases surrounding privacy issues and copyright problems. Here’s what he said about the complicated world of getting your photos removed from the internet.
Identify where the photos have been posted online
Before you do anything, keep track of exactly where your photos have been posted online. Chances are they may not just be on one website or forum, but on a range of sites.
The first step, Sullivan said, is to “identify the link,s where they are, and get the registrant of the domain that it appears on.”
You’ll want two things: The link to the site where your photo appears, and the domain registrant.
You can usually find the domain registrant by doing something called a WHOIS lookup. Here’s the WHOIS result for Reddit (which hosted links to leaked photos that came from the 2014 iCloud leak) using DomainTools’ search:
But you can’t always find the webmaster’s email from a WHOIS lookup. Here’s the result for Anon-IB, the forum that was the place where many of the leaked celebrity photos in 2014 were first published:
Send out copyright notices
The initial step is sending out copyright takedown notices for your photo. If you took the photo, then it’s your property, so a leaked image being published online is a breach of your copyright, as well as your privacy.
Sullivan said: “If it’s a blog-type thing and it was posted by someone else making a comment, you immediately send a cease and desist letter or what’s called in the United States a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice.”
“You send that to not the hosting company, but the actual website and their webmaster, and then you also try to identify who posted it if it’s on a blog … You try to identify that person. You basically send it to everybody that you can.”
Sullivan likened the process to playing whack-a-mole: “You’ve just got to keep pounding on it as soon as it pops its head up. You just keep pounding away at it. Eventually, the moles stay down.”
You may end up going to the hosting company
If your takedown notices don’t get a response, or you couldn’t find the webmaster’s contact information, you’re going to have to go up a level and get in touch with the hosting company that keeps the website online.
Hosting companies deal with takedown requests on a regular basis, so they’re more likely to work with you than a blogger who hasn’t checked their email address in six years.
“I’m dealing with an issue where photos came up from blogs and were posted on various things by people and the websites are no longer managed,” Sullivan said. “They’re essentially defunct but they’re still there.”
That’s the kind of situation where you’d go to a hosting company, he said.
Don’t forget to check social media
You’ve found contact information for the websites and forums where your photo has been posted, but have you checked social media? That’s an important place to look as well, and Sullivan said they’re usually pretty easy to work with.
“A lot of times it’s easy if it’s a copyright issue. They have a whole network for it.”
But don’t just go straight to the top
Don’t assume you have to email the most senior representative you can find.
Sullivan said: “If you do send a letter about this to the general counsel of the company, it just gets knocked down to the department that you have to deal with in the first place.”
It can end up in a lawsuit
You’ve sent out your copyright notices and emailed everyone at the hosting company, but still no luck. Now it’s time to get serious and consider a lawsuit.
“You name the websites and a bunch of what are called doe defendants because then you have subpoena powers when you file a lawsuit,” Sullivan said. “Then what you do is you go to the internet service provider with a subpoena and demand that they tell you who operates this website then you can track down the information.”
Lawsuits, however, don’t come cheap.
“Whether you go that route … depends on how important it is to you to spend the money on this,” Sullivan said.
Sometimes it’s better to do nothing
Trying to get a photo removed from the internet can result in more publicity, and the problem gets worse.
There’s even a name for this problem: The Streisand effect. It comes from the time Barbra Streisand sued a photographer who took an aerial photo of some cliffs, which included the rear side of her mansion. The lawsuit caused the photographer’s image to spread across the internet.
Sullivan said: “Let’s say someone’s already dealing with a scandal, this would just generate more news about it if there hasn’t been a lot of news — why start sending letters and stirring that pot up?”
“I always disclose to people when they come to me that when I send this letter, there’s a chance that this is going to get public,” Sullivan added.
The Streisand effect doesn’t just apply to Barbra Streisand. There have been recent examples of it too. In 2013, Beyoncé’s publicist attempted to remove seven unflattering photos of her client from the internet. That resulted in a firestorm of publicity that meant even more people saw the images.
And in 2016 Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose attempted to remove a photo of himself (that has since been dubbed “fat Axl Rose”) from the internet. He sent out DMCA takedown requests, but the requests were made public, resulting in even more publicity.
Use lawyers on the ground if it’s hosted in a foreign country
You’ve found which websites your photo is on, but do you know which country those websites are in? If it’s in the US, then you can send a DMCA takedown notice, or a copyright notice in the UK. But what about if a site is hosted somewhere else? Sullivan suggests that you use lawyers in the country the website is hosted in.
“I’m dealing with something in Australia now,” Sullivan said. “But it’s been pretty seamless with them as well. I usually call someone in that jurisdiction and retain them to do it.”
Try flooding the internet with other content
Sometimes the best way to deal with a leaked photo is not to delete it, but instead to push it down search results.
“Another situation that I just recently had is that the websites and web domains were from seven or eight years ago and they just discovered that it was online,” Sullivan said. “If you look at the domains, they’re so old that you could easily hire a company to just put some new material out there and knock that down to, like, Google page 10 on searches.”
So go out and do some interviews. Get your name out there and push those old websites way down Google.
This method doesn’t work as well for non-famous people, though. You probably won’t have as many results on Google about you specifically, and you’re less able to easily generate new search results.
Check whether you can simply buy the rights to a photo
Red carpet photos and photoshoots likely all come from commercial photographers who let people either license their images, or buy the right to use them. Of course, if you buy the right to use a photo, you also stop other people from using it.
“I’ve done that in situations where some people have, let’s say, 15 years ago they did a certain photo spread and now their life has changed and they don’t really want to do that,” Sullivan said. “They don’t want those photos out anymore. So we go back and we can get the rights to the photos so that the person actually controls them.”
Learn how to protect yourself in the future
All of this is just about mopping up the damage. How do you stop your photos leaking in the first place?
One thing you can do is guard your phone number closely. If you’re famous, you obviously don’t want it being made public. So you need to ensure that your phone number isn’t handed out to every business contact you meet.
Many celebrities use burner phones with numbers that are regularly changed.
Sullivan said: “All the calls go through an assistant,” Sullivan said. “You call this person and then that person will transfer to the new burner phone.”
Beyond keeping your phone number private, you may also need to rethink the way you store your content. The 2014 iCloud leak happened because celebrities didn’t realise their private photos were stored on their iCloud accounts, for example.
“I know some celebrities that don’t put any of that stuff up online,” Sullivan said. “They don’t keep it on their phones … They really keep their private stuff off the grid on their own computers, not part of a network … They’re not using the cloud for their personal stuff.”
And finally, there’s the nuclear option: Hiring a cybersecurity team to keep you safe from hackers.
“I have seen high net worth people, who are senior executives in hedge funds, that have gone the route of a massive cybersecurity team for even their personal stuff,” Sullivan said.