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Friday, November 23, 2012

Is Anybody Down? and Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Buckle in folks. You are about to get a lot of bang for your buck with this post. A true crime story, an armchair psychoanalysis of a sociopath, a free SEO lesson, and an action item list for how you can help stop web extortion.

Four posts in one. Hold on to your butts.

Part I: Is Anybody Committing Extortion & Wire Fraud?

Once upon a time, there was a revenge porn site called Is Anyone Up?  The business model was simple enough. Allow users to submit nude pictures of any person with or without his or her consent as long as he or she was above the legal age, post it next to his or her Facebook or Twitter pic, and place a humiliating animated gif or meme underneath it, making this site a favorite haunt of bitter ex-boyfriends and otherwise revenge hungry perverts.  For added fun, the site contained a section posting the angry reactions of people desperate to have their photos taken down.

How could someone be so cruel as to host this site?

$10,000 - $13,000/month in advertising revenue.

Once the site garnered a lot of negative attention and subsequent legal heat, the owner shut it down. He was apparently burnt out trying to keep it going amidst the onslaught of Internet rage. He wasn't happy about it.

Alas, this cautionary tale was not enough to dissuade other amoral opportunists. Enter Chance Trahan and Craig Brittain with a new site revolutionarily named site called Is Anybody Down?  The site operates under the same "business model" as its predecessor: taking submissions of nude photos and posting them alongside the person's name, hometown, and contact information. For added cruelty, the site encourages commenters to mock, ridicule, humiliate, and, worst of all, contact the people featured.

There is a link on the site that reads "Get me off this site!" that takes you to a page explaining that if you want your picture and contact information removed you should contact the "Takedown Hammer" with a link to his site. Well...it says "Takedown Hammer" now.  It did say, "The Takedown Lawyer" a.k.a. David Blade, who boasted 100% success rate with getting pictures taken down from Is Anybody Down?  For a nominal flat fee of $250, David Blade Esquire would get your pictures taken down, your contact information erased, and put all this nasty business behind you.  So why did he go from being the "Takedown Lawyer" to the "Takedown Hammer"?

Because it turns out David Blade is not actually a lawyer.

In fact, David Blade doesn't seem to exist.

Who own's the Takedown Hammer's website then? Who has theoretically been collecting these $250 fees from terrified and harassed victims?

It would seem takedownlawyer.com is registered to none other than Craig Brittain.

So if Craig and Chance are posting embarrassing pictures of people, then taking their money under a fake attorneys name in exchange for remove the offending content, that, friends, is what we call extortion and wire fraud. According to the latest federal (yes, it is a federal offense) sentencing guidelines, wire fraud alone can land you up to 20 years in prison, fines of $250,000 for an individual, $500,000 for an organization, an order to pay the victim's restitution, and confiscation of any property received from the offense.

So it's frowned on.

Of course, Craig (the more vocal of the two) is doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on maintaining they are doing nothing wrong, that they are not the Takedown Hammer, and that they are not the bad guys here.  Nay, they're actually champions of first amendment rights, but better still they are making these women safer:

Craig Brittain's comments on the On The Media interview page.
"Thus, the very machine that you think is exploiting them is actually protecting them."
I now have the worst case of Godwin blue balls EVER.
They did look up from digging down long enough to notice the faces of actual legal hammers (sledges even) Marc Randazza and Kenneth White staring down the vacuous chasm at them. And boy are Craig and Chance pissed about it, which I'm sure is actually a product of being terrified.

They should be.

The whole sordid series of lies, intrigue, and impending legal decimation would take several blog posts to cover in and of themselves. So read the posts of those who are actually qualified to discuss the legal matters at play here:
Kenneth White's Popehat coverage of the Is Anybody Down? saga
Adam Steinbaugh's synopsis of Is Anybody Down? and some great investigative work
Marc Randazza's Initial Post on Is Anybody Down? and his offer to help victims
On the Media's interview with Craig Brittain and Marc Randazza
Part II: The Anatomy of a Sociopath

We toss around the word sociopath and, to a lesser extent, the word psychopath anytime someone does something particularly heinous and doesn't seem to perceive why what they're doing is wrong. Both terms essentially refer to Antisocial Personality Disorder, the difference being that psychologists like referring to psychopathy and sociologists like referring to sociopathy for obvious reasons.

The majority of society can agree that even extortion and fraud aside, what the owners of Is Anybody Down? are doing in putting these women (and men) at risk of being harassed, stalked, and potentially assaulted or worse is abhorrent.

We, as a society, are pretty good at sorting out what's what.

But is Craig Brittain an actual "sociopath"? I'm not a psychologist and am only going by the evidence of Craig's behavior online, but let's take a look at the revised criteria for antisocial personality disorder proposed for the DSM-V by the American Psychiatric Association:


A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):

a. Identity: Ego-centrism; self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure.
I think we can safely say that Craig Brittain is out for himself to the gross exclusion of all other human beings on earth. In response to a commenter on On the Media's interview Craig had this to say: "My business as it stands, content and all, with the exposure it gets - is worth upwards of $300,000 now. We are in the top 20,000 websites in the world this week, top 40,000 this month, top 80,000 on a three month scale, according to alexa. http://alexa.com/siteinfo/isanybodydown.com We're rubbing shoulders with IBM and NASA. Your opinion pales in the face of REAL facts." I think that about sums up his motivation for hosting this site.  Of course his motivation is a bunch of delusional crap, but he believes it and that is all that matters.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting based on personal gratification; absence of prosocial internal standards associated with failure to conform to lawful or culturally normative ethical behavior.
This is the hallmark of antisocial personality disorder. A total lack of observance of cultural ethics and respect for the law. Not only is Craig thumbing his nose at the most basic ethic of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but Craig Brittain's felony record would suggest that if he is indeed participating in an extortion/wire fraud scheme it will just be the latest installment in a pattern of illegal activity.
AND

2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

a. Empathy: Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another.
Obviously it takes an almost absurd lack of empathy to have a woman contact you to let you know that, because of your actions, her life has been threatened and her privacy invaded, pleading with you to please respect her privacy and take down her image and contact information, and then send her a snide e-mail detailing why you will not oblige.  But Craig took things a step further. Until recently, his site posted these pleadings, mocking these women for begging to have their pictures taken down. He has since removed those postings. Apparently, self preservation trumps enjoyment derived from hurting strangers. I'm sure he misses accusing women of lying about being gang raped, though.
b. Intimacy: Incapacity for mutually intimate relationships, as exploitation is a primary means of relating to others, including by deceit and coercion; use of dominance or intimidation to control others.
This we obviously can't know, because none of us know very much about Craig's personal life. It's worth noting that anyone who does have some level of intimacy with Craig probably has some serious pathology of their own for enabling and condoning his behavior.
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domains:

1. Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Manipulativeness: Frequent use of subterfuge to influence or control others; use of seduction, charm, glibness, or ingratiation to achieve one‘s ends.
Probably the most clear example of this is the revelation that Craig's assertion that all photos are submitted by site visitors and not through coercion appears to be categorically false. Apparently, resourceful little Craigy was going on Craigslist personal section and manipulating users by pretending to be interested in a hookup. Hat tip to Adam Steinbaugh for putting this research together.
b. Deceitfulness: Dishonesty and fraudulence; misrepresentation of self; embellishment or fabrication when relating events.
I mean, do I even need to address this? No. So I shan't. Oh, ok, just a little bit on the embellishment stuff. The dishonesty and fraudulence speaks for itself.
On the Media Interview Comments Section
 
c. Callousness: Lack of concern for feelings or problems of others; lack of guilt or remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one‘s actions on others; aggression; sadism.
Again, I think this is most evident in his direct interactions with the women that are pictured on the website. It is callous to not care about the danger they are in. It is a sadistic to then publicly mock them for it.
d. Hostility: Persistent or frequent angry feelings; anger or irritability in response to minor slights and insults; mean, nasty, or vengeful behavior.
Craig's ire toward Kenneth White and Marc Randazza is pretty intense, especially for a person who maintains he has done nothing wrong and claims that there is no way Ken and Marc can pursue legal action against him. But even in his interactions with other commenters, Craig will wax and wane between superiority-laden philosophical diatribes and name-calling temper tantrums. He wants so bad, as "a right-leaning libertarian" to pretend he is approaching all this as a professional business owner and unemotional observer, but he can never quite tamp down the angry little boy who wants to get back at all those stupid women and people who want to tell him what to do. Also, *vengeful behavior* is the reason that site exists at all.
2. Disinhibition, characterized by:

a. Irresponsibility: Disregard for – and failure to honor – financial and other obligations or commitments; lack of respect for – and lack of follow through on – agreements and promises.
We have no way of knowing this without knowing Craig personally.  I have no idea whether the guy can keep a dentist appointment or if he manages to pay his bills on time.
b. Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing and following plans.
This is another "gotta know the guy". Aside from a lot of sloppy cover up work that was clearly done without thinking through the outcome, you'd really have to know him to say whether or not he is truly impulsive.
c. Risk taking: Engagement in dangerous, risky, and potentially self-damaging activities, unnecessarily and without regard for consequences; boredom proneness and thoughtless initiation of activities to counter boredom; lack of concern for one‘s limitations and denial of the reality of personal danger.
The verbiage of this is slightly different from the DSM-IV, which included not only the denial of *personal* danger, but also included risk taking behavior that could be damaging to other people. I think under the old diagnostic criteria this is spot on. With this criteria the waters get a little murkier.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
Hard to know whether Craig has been this way his entire life or not, but a felony record sure seems to indicate a consistent lack of respect for the law.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
Basically, is this just part of Craig growing up? At the age of 28, I'd say not.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
And there's the rub. Maybe Craig just took a roundhouse to the face as a kid or has a severe meth problem. In either case, um, poor guy?
Again, I AM NOT A PSYCHOLOGIST, but it would seem that at a minimum Craig Brittain has a lot of antisocial traits if not the full blown disorder. Furthermore, one of the more obnoxious things about Craig is that he has managed to develop a construct in which he HAS to run this site, because "thanks to Obama" there are no other jobs. In his mind, he literally can't eat if he doesn't continue to admin Is Anybody Down? and to suggest he try to seek employment elsewhere is to sentence him to death by starvation.

There is a more specific antisocial personality disorder sub-type called Covetous Antisocial. This is a person who believes that life has dealt him a shitty hand. He is driven by entitlement and bitterness over what he perceives life has denied him.  He can justify any action by the belief that he can behave however he wants, because life hasn't been fair to him. Why should it be to anyone else? Why should it be to those women?

So how do you deal with someone with this disorder?

You don't. You avoid them like the herp.

Craig Brittain doesn't just not believe what he is doing is wrong. He CAN'T believe what he is doing is wrong.  The synaptic firings that would have to take place in order for Craig to stop exploiting people for personal gain or have remorse for endangering the lives of men and women on his site simply can't occur in his brain. So while it's tempting, hell...gratifying, to engage him and poke him with a stick, at best you are going to end up in a frustrating back and forth and at worst end up in his revenge-seeking crosshairs.

For the record: I hope Craig Brittain ends up proving me wrong in this armchair diagnosis and takes the site down and apologizes.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Part III: Search Engine Optimization for Everyone

I sometimes assume that everyone understands how Google "works" and that the rules are the same for individuals as they are for businesses and bloggers. But it occurs to me that many of these victims may wonder how people have even found their picture on this site, and more importantly what they can do about it. So here is SEO in a nutshell:

1. Google is not a person

Google is an algorithm. a ridiculously complex math problem that is being continually tweaked by the developers at Google with one end game in mind: serve the most relevant content for whatever keyword phrase is typed in that little box. So when a nude picture you texted to an ex-boyfriend in college with your work phone number listed underneath it suddenly appears in the first page of search results when someone googles your name and hometown, you can't call Google and make them take it out of the search results.

2. Domain names are not reserved

In the long list of extortionists on the Internet, domain squatters rank up there with the most annoying. Basically what they do is buy up domain names of business names or individuals' names, then contact the business or individual and try to sell them that domain name for a large sum of money. Worse, there are people who will even go so far as to publish disgusting or offensive content on said domain names, making it even more compelling to pay them so you can get rid of it.

Businesses at least have some copyright protection with which to sue, but individuals are often out of luck. If there is any content on your domain name that relates to you (like a nude photo with your name, hometown, and links to your social media accounts), there is a very good probability it will end up in the first page of results.

3. Google Hearts Experts

Everyone wants to know the secret to increasing their search engine ranking.The most simplistic answer is - become an expert on what you're trying to rank for. For businesses this means hosting a website that is not just easy to navigate and free from spammy keywords and junk text, but also contains lots of good, relevant, shareable content. This could be in the form of blogs, well written product descriptions, white papers, or infographics. For an individual this means maintaining an updated Linked-in profile, participating in forums about things that interest you, maybe starting a blog about something you care about, and making sure that you manage any social media accounts in your name.

4. Google Hearts Links...but not just any links

It's not enough to just say you're an expert and produce content that shows how you're an expert. Other people have to vouch for your expertise. Let's say your business sells widgets and you blog about widgets, have slideshares about widgets, and have several YouTube videos about widgets.  Google says, "Hmmmm...you seem to know a lot about widgets. But you also have four competitors who also know a lot about widgets. I'll stick you at 5." But then a widget collector writes a blog about widgets and includes a link to one of your slideshares on your site. Then Google says, "Oh! Well if THEY say you know a lot about widgets, then let's bump you up to 4."

To a lesser extent, it works the other way too. If a piece of crap link mill links to your site, Google gets all, "Gross. You're friends with him? Back to number 5 you go." So if you can't move up, you have to push others back down. You have to be continually putting out remarkable content that others want to share and link to, so the crappy links don't count as much. This is true for individuals, as well.

5. Laugh at any SEO professional who uses the word "Hat" to describe themselves

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there were "Black Hat" SEO guys (the Storm Troopers) and "White Hat" SEO guys (the Jedi). This was when Google was all about things like META tags and number of keywords on your site. "Black Hat" guys would do things like create dummy websites with a million links to  your website or listing all the keywords you wanted to rank for on your site 92 times at the bottom the same color as your background so no one could see them. "White Hat" guys would clean up your site navigation, help you work keyword phrases into your site, and write Google delicious META tags.

Those days are over.

The day of no-bullshit content creation has dawned. Anyone with a hat is probably either woefully out of touch with their profession or just a complete charlatan.

6. Your Google results are different from mine

Google doesn't just want to serve up relevant content. They want to serve up YOUR relevant content. Using your browsing history, location, and past search patterns, Google tries to give you what is most valuable to you personally. So, for example, if I google "orgasmic garlic cheese grits", Google is going to give me a map to Billy's BBQ in Chevy Chase.  If YOU google "orgasmic garlic cheese grits", you might get inferior grits somewhere else. For that I'm sorry. (But not really, because I want all the grits.) So don't take for granted that just because Craig Brittain's website doesn't come up in YOUR search results, doesn't mean that it won't for someone else who frequents sites of that nature.

Part IV: Be an Internet Hero

I share my industry "secrets" for a reason: we all have a responsibility to clean up the web litter and make Google results safe and meaningful. We all have a responsibility to stomp sites like Is Anybody Down? into the pages of results no one is ever going to bother looking at. We need to work toward putting all of these web extortionists out of business, be they domain name squatters, "Reputation Managers", revenge site proprietors, and any other opportunistic trolls and bottom dwellers. So here is your homework:

1. STOP POSTING AND TEXTING NAKED PICTURES OF YOURSELF

I say this with absolutely no judgment. When I was 16, before the days of MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter, I was screwing around taking pictures with friends and flashed the camera. A few years ago someone posted it on Facebook and tagged me in it. They weren't doing so maliciously; it was in the spirit of "Hey, look how stupid we were!" It wasn't even that embarrassing, and really all you could see is my stomach. Still.

There goes my bid for Presidency.

The point is no matter how sure you are that the person you're sending that picture to is trustworthy or how sure you are that your privacy settings are locked down, once something goes online, it is there forever.  Don't give Craig Brittain fodder for his revenge mill. And, parents. Talk to your kids about the dangers of sexting. 20% of ALL teenagers are sharing nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. 22% of all teenage girls. So if your daughter has four other friends, statistically one of them has sent or posted a sexual picture.

It's chilling.

And for those of you who have never taken an inappropriate picture in your life, remember, before you stand in judgement of these girls who have shared these nude photos of themselves, there is a little thing called Photoshop. Anyone runs the risk of being victimized by people like Craig Brittain.

2. Keep calm...Clean up your own mess

Being victimized the way Craig Brittain has victimized these women is beyond unfair. It is criminal. Even if you are feeling guilty about sharing your picture in the first place, having your life endangered is a disproportionate consequence. But as eager as you are to get your picture and contact information taken down, it's important not to panic and get taken in by some con artist promising to get your picture down in exchange for money.

You don't need a reputation manager when you have yourself.

Firstly, contact the authorities immediately if anyone offers to take down your picture in exchange for money. Then contact an attorney. Many attorneys will work pro bono to help people being sexually exploited on the web. Then move on to step 3.

3. Build your web wealth

Craig Brittain doesn't get to show up in your search results. His site doesn't demonstrate expertise on who you are as a person. So start pushing his piece of shit site down in your results by creating content about yourself. Clean up old social media accounts (hello, MySpace). Start a blog on a topic you care about. Squat on your own stuff. Just because you don't use Linked-in or Facebook or Twitter doesn't mean you can't secure accounts in your own name so nobody else can. Buy domain names of your full name and any close misspellings. Parents, buy your kids full names so they don't get exploited either.  If something pops up in your search engine results you don't like, ask nicely that whomever runs the site take it down. Not all site owners are Craig Brittain. Go after those top 10 spots.

4. Help keep results fair for others

We all need to start leaving more feedback for businesses and each other, both the good and the bad. Sometimes we have a tendency to only review a business or write a blog or post about an individual when we're pissed off. But be fair. Everyone makes mistakes and has bad days. If your favorite local bookstore gets a nasty Google review, because a cashier was having a bad day, then write a positive review about a good experience you had. Likewise, if a friend ends up on a Craig Brittain site, you can help by sharing YOUR expertise on your friend. Write a blog post about an awesome camping trip you had or how she finished her first 5k or what an awesome mother she is. Don't lie or be misleading, but help people and businesses be fairly represented online.

When stuff sucks, say so respectfully.

When stuff rocks, share it!

5. Poop before you post

If you absolutely must seek revenge on someone, might I suggest you send them some poop? Not your own poop. That's taking it too far. But perhaps, some nice elephant dung. That's plenty. You'll feel better, they'll throw the poop away, and life will go back to normal. Posting a nude photo or other embarrassing information, because some girl dumped you is not a proportionate response. It might make you feel vindicated in the short run, but sooner or later a day is going to come where it is going to be very hard to live with. It will ruin her life, and even if you delete it, it will always be archived on the Internet. Furthermore, how would you feel if some creep showed up to her house and raped her? Would you be able to live with yourself?  Do you really want to be like Craig Brittain?

This Is Anybody Down? saga brings up a lot of interesting questions and important discussions about the limits of first amendment protections, laws regarding sexual exploitation on the Internet, and the responsibility we all have for our conduct on the web. Even though Craig and others like him fancy themselves freedom of speech pioneers and babble on about a "totally free Internet" what they are actually doing with their completely indefensible websites is increasing the likelihood of a government crackdown on web content and polluting Google real estate with their smut. Sites like these are why we can't have nice things. Bottom line: be part of the solution.

Not part of the problem.