For this installment of our Reflections series, I had the opportunity to interview groundbreaking victims’ rights attorney, Carrie Goldberg. Carrie works to make online spaces safer by holding abusers – and social networks – to account. She takes trolls to court, ‘sues the hell out of tech’ and confronts police departments that ignore internet crimes. Her firm has obtained major settlements for child sexual abuse victims from the New York City Department for Education, and she currently represents two victims of film producer Harvey Weinstein. Goldberg is the author of Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Assholes, Pervs and Trolls, a must-read book for survivors of intimate privacy violations and anyone who wants to do better online.
Sophie Maddocks, PhD Student and Research Fellow, Center for Media at Risk
When we last spoke three years ago you had moved to your new office in Downtown Brooklyn and your firm was expanding fast. You were suing Grindr, campaigning for a federal digital privacy law, your book was still a germinating idea and we discussed the immense joy you find in helping victims fight back against their abusers. What’s changed for C.A. Goldberg, and what’s remained constant over the last three years?
Three years is a long time. We’ve grown. We now have twelve people and we moved offices again within the building to a bigger space. Now that we’re at six attorneys, we can help more people, we have more cases that we can take and more smart minds that are working on any single problem. So that’s changed. And the Grindr suit, that loss, that fight against Section 230, appealing it and appealing it and petitioning to the Supreme Court of the United States was a real game-changing experience for me. It was just an emotional journey, and it broke my heart a little bit.
You were telling me when we last spoke about your approach to the Grindr lawsuit focusing on its App being a defective product. Does it feel like a partial vindication now to see big giants like Amazon being held liable for defective products on their platform?
I love that Amazon is being held liable for the products they sell. I think that that’s really important. I still feel strongly that these platforms are not actually services, but they are products themselves. It’s a little different because the Amazon case is about literal objects so it’s a more standard product liability approach. But I think any time there’s a new pathway to hold companies responsible for harms it’s a good thing.
You recently launched the coalition #victimsagainstsection230. Could you speak on your motivation for launching the coalition, its goals and how people can get involved?
They can get involved just by emailing us or going to our website and filling out a form there. I get asked a lot by people how they can help, or they find out about Section 230, and they’re like, ‘what? These billion and trillion-dollar companies have no liability for the harms that happen on their platforms? What can I do? How can I help?’ And so it’s the beginning stages of collecting people who are of the same mindset. Because when it comes to tech, they have tons of lobbyists and they have tons of power. But we need an army also. The thing about victims is that we don’t have a financially powerful force, but the one thing we have that the companies don’t have is stories, heartbreaking stories. And those are really persuasive.
How does a company such as Google facilitate intimate partner violence? What do you see as the responsibilities of such companies?
With Google, it’s not like there’s a natural right for our search engine results to be organized in any specific way. So, if you have a partner who is putting up revenge porn online and linking it to your name, or you have somebody retaliating against you by creating a website airing your secrets, or screenshots from intimate text conversations where you are talking trash about your boss or something, that’s what shows up when you google your name. That’s not just a harm that the abuser is doing. That is a harm that Google is propagating. It’s a conspiracy. I don’t give a fuck that they’re using algorithms and there’s not somebody that’s sitting at a computer and saying, ‘okay, we want Sophie Maddocks’s name to have these results.’ It doesn’t matter, humans create algorithms. I just have a real problem with how much control Google has when it comes to our reputations.
I recently worked with a group of young people who were shocked that Google search results weren’t simply based on the majority of users’ prior searches. When I introduced ideas around the fact that many Google search results take users back to Google-sponsored links or the fact that algorithms are shaped by individual software engineers, they were very surprised.
It’s interesting. The trust people have in these companies is so interesting to me, and probably to you too. There’s such a lack of criticism and there’s so much trust. Google search is not being constantly recognized as a racist, sexist tool.
Are there any tech companies whose efforts you endorse?
Endorse? No. Let me put it this way: More and more tech companies have policies about removing revenge porn and stuff like that. So that’s good. But tech companies’ policies are bullshit, because there’s no consequence for them for violating their own policies. So I see their policies as illusory to begin with. But one thing has changed: I’ve been hired twice in the past year by start-ups who want to know how their products could be abused. That is good. Both people had read my book and thought, ‘Oh shit, I hadn’t thought of that.’ It’s great to have that extra level of diligence at the start-up phase. But one founder told me that a lot of founders with a social component to their platforms see it as a luxury to get to the point where their product is so used that it’s sometimes abused. It’s like, if that day comes, things are going great.
In legal, policy and tech spaces, how have attitudes towards your work changed over the years? Are big data barons, free speech lobbyists and lawmakers becoming more or less hostile to your advocacy? How do you account for this change?
No, I don’t think things have changed. More people know what terms like ‘revenge porn’ mean. There has been tech backlash lately, and suddenly everyone wants to have a panel about Section 230. More people can speak intelligently about it. But this past year we’ve never been as targeted by trolls as we have been. It’s definitely been the scariest year we’ve had in terms of addresses being put on message boards or the walking path you take from home to work being put on a message board. People are saying that they’re planning a cyber jihad of our office, and I’ve had to have armed guards here. It’s been out of control.
Your chapter ‘Girls Lives Matter’ describes how gender, race and poverty shape online harassment. At a moment when racial justice protests are taking place around the U.S., how are intimate privacy violations racialized, as, for example, in your lawsuit against New York City Public Schools?
That’s a wonderful question. I think that the most obvious racial issue relates to kids being targeted with child sexual exploitation material. That is a race and a class issue because the most vulnerable kids spend the most time online and look to the internet for salvation and connections. Especially if they’re in abusive homes, they seek connection from alternative places like the internet. They’re much more vulnerable targets to a predator who can impersonate someone their own age and solicit naked pictures and blackmail them with them. Almost all of those cases are kids of color. And in terms of how we navigate it at the firm, those cases we take pro bono or contingency. The other thing that they face is that they’re not believed if they go to the cops. Our Black girls are never believed. My 11-year-old client who was forced to create naked pictures and masturbation videos went to the police with her mom, and they told her no crime had been committed, which is the lie of the century. That’s a big issue. Those are the most important cases. The ones we never turn down. We just find money. I have some cases where I’ve got wealthy clients who subsidize these cases anonymously so that we can afford to do them.
And that builds on this idea of a victims’ army?
Yes, and being able to help somebody who’s at the beginning of repairing their crisis when you’re at the end is really healing. Many of my staff members have been victims and helping is the next stage of the healing process. We also help to connect our clients, whether it’s anonymous or whether they’re being a benefactor, or in some cases, we’ve introduced clients to each other to create a support network. Because being a victim is so isolating. Having a lawyer, having a court case, in some cases having media attention, those are all things that make the victim even more different from the other people in their lives.
Nobody’s Victim helped me to understand how somebody who has been silenced online regains their voice —or, as you say, how victims become warriors. In your experience, what can we as colleagues, friends and family do to support survivors of online abuse in reasserting themselves on and offline?
Just be a good listener and be supportive. The best thing for parents to do is let their kid know that no matter what happens, if they’re ever abused online or offline, the parent won’t be mad. Shame is what stops kids from telling their parents, sextortion continues and continues and continues because the shame builds with more illicit materials created and given to the predator So it’s like opposite grooming – grooming your kids to know that you will help them unconditionally is important. That goes for friends also. And I think just not taking over. There are some cases where there’s been a sexual assault at college and suddenly all the friends want to report it, insist the person go get a rape kit or take action. But it’s really important for the victim to be driving, to know all their options, but to also to be the decision maker.
While they saw online abuse as an inescapable part of life online, the young people I worked with this summer were extremely motivated by the idea of helping other people and becoming active bystanders.
Exactly, when I talk about lawsuits with kids they are never interested in them. The idea of suing for money is the least interesting thing in the world to them. But when it’s framed, as ‘we’re going to sue this company and we’re going to make sure it never happens to anybody else’ they get excited about that. It’s exactly what you said about protecting other people.
How is the present Covid-19 health crisis affecting your work?
The biggest change I’ve seen is that there are way more cases of men being sexually blackmailed. People are bored and horny. That’s happening a lot. For me personally, it’s been amazing to transform into an online law firm and to see my staff adjust so beautifully. In some ways we’re more bonded. Even though they’re over Zoom, we have more face-to-face conversations than we ever had before.
Carrie Goldberg is a victims’ rights attorney who has built a team that provides cutting edge legal help for clients under attack. She is the author of ‘Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls.’ Follow her on Twitter @cagoldberglaw
Sophie Maddocks is a steering committee member of the Center and doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. Her current research explores individual, organizational and legislative responses to online gender-based violence. Follow her on Twitter @Sophie_J_J