Craigslist “prank” gone too far; legal tsunami to ensue.

On the Internet, everybody knows you are male…
… or how a picture of naked female bits makes men do dumb things.


(There is a bit of debate going on in the comments. If anything, this event will go down as one of the most widely argued events in the history of the tubes.)

Update: BoingBoing has picked up on this story with excerpts from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Violet Blue. Violet Blue has posted an excellent article on the subject (NSFW as it contains the photo of the naughty bits used to lure the respondents into temporary stupidity). Violet Blue, as always, provokes thought:

But isn’t what Jason did essentially the same as what the cops do? (Except the result is arrest, not just being outed.) How, exactly, is what Jason did any different than the duplicitous fake-ad and chatroom impersonation tactics police and government use to bust people for porn, sex work and online sexual solicitation? Or even something as benign as selling sex toys online?

Its a fuzzy, fuzzy world… everyone sees black & white, but everyone’s contrast/brightness are different.


So, some dude recently posted a fake w4m (woman looking for a man or men) ad on craigslist.org. No big deal. Happens all the time. Hell, my World of Warcraft mule was a mostly naked female orc. It was hilarious — I received all kinds of free stuff from other players trying to chat with me.

I would have posted some statistics (I believe either CNet or Wired has an article), but my obvious Google search left me fully expected a call from the Feds. Without safe search, that is one damned disturbing set of search results.

With safe search on, that same search reveals about a bazillion articles or mentions of men posing as women for fun and profit.

So why bother mentioning this?

Because some dude posted the w4m ad and then posted all of the responses, including with often nekkid multimedia content, to his LiveJournal account. The LiveJournal community then went on to do their very best to identify the unwitting participants.

Ugly.

I mean, responding to some random ad with photos of your face and nekkid crotch is just plain stupid. But what “rfjason” has done is going to turn out to be one of those legal precedent setting events.

There is already discussion of creating legislation to regulate sites like MySpace. This will certainly add fuel to that fire.

On the useless side, it may spawn conversations of regulating sites like CraigsList.org. Certainly, there are any number of large businesses — the entire newspaper industry, for example — that would love to damage CL’s world.

But this really doesn’t have anything to do with CL. What “rfjason” published were the private email responses to the original public post.

While there are privacy laws and regulations focusing on corporate communications, I don’t believe there are laws focusing on private email communications between individuals? I honestly don’t know. Anyone have more information??

And that will likely be his downfall. While there may be a small number of the respondents that are openly promiscuous (for the record: I have no problem with that even if it ain’t the life for me), the larger number had the expectation that their private email response would remain private.

In particular, I fully expect that “rfjason” is going to find himself under a mountain of lawsuits. Regardless of whether or not he loses a single lawsuit, he is going to be spending a lot of time generating billable hours for his lawyer. If there isn’t a precedent set, he will likely find himself in a spiraling set of appeals.

If he doesn’t end up dead.

I would imagine that publicly destroying a person’s marriage, career and other parts of their social life might just push one of the wronged right over the edge.

The responses have been divisive. A large number of folks fall into the “it is just a prank, whatever” camp while a seemingly larger number grok that this “prank” has caused very real damage to those “prank’d”.

What it really boils down to is a question of privacy. The individuals responding to the ad — gullible though they were — had a completely misguided reasonable expectation of a private conversation leading to a possible booty call. While they were being dumbasses to have said expectation, being “outed” certainly seems like an unnecessarily nasty way to teach ’em a lesson. So nasty, in fact, that it could — likely will — lead to law suits.

It is now starting to hit the news wires. This is either going to be very interesting or it’ll completely fizzle out if the set of respondents don’t choose to follow up.



27 Responses to “Craigslist “prank” gone too far; legal tsunami to ensue.”

  1. Macca says:

    Just curious, if you send me a letter (snail mail) and I publish the contents, is that illegal? If you tell me a “secret” and I write a book about it, is that illegal?

    If either of those things is illegal, the dude probably broke the law. If they are illegal, seemingly he’s okay.

    Thoughts?

  2. Macca says:

    err, should read “If they are LEGAL, seemingly he’s okay”.

    Sorry 🙂

  3. bbum says:

    Honestly, I’m not sure.   I’m also not sure how it would differ if said letter detailed the weather vs. containing a bush of damaging informaiton.   I.e. what recourse do those “pranked” have because the publishing of the information is highly damaging to their lives?

  4. Heather B says:

    I don’t think what he did was illegal.

    I do think it was very, very stupid and extremely mean. Not to mention, completely unfunny.

    There are a lot of hot-headed, red-blooded American males who can and will physically assault and/or kill someone who does something to publically embarrass them (remember that guy who killed his friend for admitting on the Jenny Jones show he had a gay crush on him?).

    Even if this guy wins every lawsuit brought against him, he’s probably going to have to spend the next several years looking over his shoulder, because payback is a bitch.

  5. Maxim Gorky says:

    “Anyone have more information??”

    The 140+ men owned the copyrights on all of their words and pictures, and said prankster did not have permission to distribute or publish. A class action on those grounds alone could cost him many thousands of dollars. Or, it will cost his executor anyway.

  6. Adam Vandenberg says:

    I would expect this to generate civil suits, not criminal ones.

  7. John C. Randolph says:

    Well, whether or not there’s any criminal liability here, the guy’s certainly committed many, many instances of actionable civil torts.  Like Bill said, somebody might even decide to forego litigation and just beat the crap out of him.  Besides being evil, what he did was really stupid.

    -jcr

  8. Erik J. Barzeski says:

    I was always under the impression that an email, once sent, became the property of the recipient. Which only makes the water muddy if, for example, the email contains a photo copyrighted to the sender, intellectual property that belongs to the sender, etc. So muddy the water is that I tend to believe I’m wrong about whose “property” email is, but I’ve never seen something saying it’s wrong (nor have I ever spent much time looking).

  9. Maxim Gorky says:

    Copyright belongs to the producer. You “own” many compact discs, no doubt. You still can’t publish them.

  10. TC says:

    The guy who did that is a psychopath in my opinion.

  11. Gomez says:

    You trivialize the sides on this debate.

    The responses have been divisive. A large number of folks fall into the “it is just a prank, whatever” camp while a seemingly larger number grok that this “prank” has caused very real damage to those “prank’d”.

    What he did really blew a lot of things up. HOWEVER, what gets completely glossed over as everybody rushes to condemn him… is the kind of response this fake ad got, the types of people he got a response from. If anything, it’s indicative of the type of perverted crap that women have to deal with when they post personals. Plain guys by the dozen sending dirty e-mails and cock pics. For women, this is the online dating pool. Some of these guys shouldn’t even BE in the dating pool: several openly admitted to being married and/or in relationships.

    Funny how this gets completely ignored or glossed over in this debate, while every blog that has covered it has focused solely on crucifying Jason Fortuny. From the tone, you’d swear that everyone thinks of these single minded perverts, who WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY sent their personal info and pics to a TOTAL STRANGER, as purely innocent victims.

  12. Gomez says:

    Also, IIRC, craigslist terms of service plainly states that you send information to another party AT YOUR OWN RISK. And precedent, legal and otherwise, probably backs that up. I’m sure lawyers will gladly accept fees from the “victims” to take Fortuny to court, but if you read the fine print anywhere you look, there really isn’t a case. These are private parties and no money was exchanged. No one held a gun to these 170 guys’ heads and made them send dirty e-mails with cock pics to a total stranger.

    3. CONTENT
    You understand that craigslist does not control, and is not responsible for Content made available through the Service, and that by using the Service, you may be exposed to Content that is offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable … You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of any Content, that you may not rely on said Content and that under no circumstances will craigslist be liable in any way for any Content or for any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of any Content posted, emailed or otherwise made available via the Service.

  13. bbum says:

    That whole line of thought — passing judgement upon the respondees — is completely irrelevant.  There are a lot of nasty people in the world.  So?  The original post specifically sought pervs and it caught pervs.   Even a straight laced post has pervy responses.   It sucks, but that is the way it is.  Hell, there are pervy people that lead their pervy lives in complete opneness.  So what?

    I guess Gomez leads such a perfect, sin-free by all possible interpretations, life that he/she has the ability to cast judgement on others?  I saw the responses, too.  Sad, pathetic, stupid, etc.. all crossed my mind, but never once did I think that there being outed in this fashion was right.   I certainly don’t claim to be so flawless that I could pass judgement on those involved.

    Speaking of irrelevant, citing the CL terms is completely irrelevant, too.  Once the conversation moves to private email, the CL terms no longer apply.   And that is exactly what happened.  If any of those “outed” have the balls to take this to court, there quite likely is enough in the way of provable damages that certain laws — the recent Washington state law comes to mind — will kick in at least to the point of warranting a protracted legal battle.

  14. Gomez says:

    Wow, musta hit a nerve, because you went right to the personal snark after only one paragraph.

    It’s very, VERY relevant, and makes all the more interesting the continued defense of their actions, and their being labeled as “victims”.

    Again, these people sent sensitive, private information to a complete stranger at their own risk. You cannot treat them in a vacuum as if they are completely defenseless, blindsided victims. They helped enable this.

    Had Jason received 5, 10 replies, as most ads do, one would guess there’s no real cause for him to do this. The fact that he received not only 150-170 replies in a matter of a couple days, but replies with graphic language and photos, along with damning personal contact information, from people who didn’t even know who they were sending said items to, just because they thought the person in question was a hot, kinky chick, was what made this item such an uncanny event worthy, in his twisted mind, of posting about. It was the outrageous response he got that led to this.

    How is that irrelevant?

  15. bbum says:

    Snark?  Yeah — snarky it was — but I still fail to see how any of us can pass judgement on the respondees. 

    Nor do I, personally, think that anyone deserves to have their personal lives “outed” in such a fashion, regardless of how screwed up their personal lives are.   Why does a cheating, lying, bastard of a husband deserve to have his life torn apart — professionally and personally — in this fashion?

    The people that responded were clearly stupid.   Amazingly dumb.   Naked naughty bits obviously short circuited their rational thought centers.

    As per the # of replies or content, none of that seems out of line with CL.  Violet Blue mentions that she has done research by faking posts and pretty much always receives a bunch of similar content.  A quick google search reveals that quite a lot of posts– ones that are comparatively tame– produce a flurry of similar responses.

    I fail to see how that is relevant.   Jason took a bunch of people’s private emails that were obtained through misrepresentation and published them.  Therein lies the issue.   If I were to post a fake ad for “Depressed girl looking for depressed guy on meds that likes to $#@!@#!@$ and @#$!$@#” and then were to turn around publish the private communications of the respondees, would that also be A-OK?

  16. Chris Hanson says:

    Gomez, he specifically solicited those kinds of responses. He didn’t post a clean “Hi, I’d like to meet someone to maybe go out with!” ad to a singles group. He posted an “I want to get kinky, please show me how kinky you are” ad to a casual-encounters group. Is it any surprise he got kinky responses?

    I’ll certainly grant that women who post clean ads to singles groups probably also get a lot of kinky, pervy, gross, stupid responses. That wouldn’t surprise me at all either. But it would say a lot more about the men men involved than I think this incident does.

    Whatever their preferences – and in this case, the victims certainly were encouraged to believe they were responding to someone who shared them and was happy to interact in that fashion – their personally-identifying information should not have been exposed in this fashion. And they also should have done what they could to avoid being victims by not including it in the first place.

  17. Raven Sati says:

    Wow ! this seems to be the place for people with no sense of humor – if someone sticks their dick out in public and someone takes a picture, it’s news. Y’all got ta wake up ! The net is not some private playhouse, even if you want it despeately to be, ar even if your homies have told you that it is. Nobody’s “personal life” was “outed”. What is really personal nobody knows about because thay don’t go around posting it to the net with pictures.

    and Mr Bush and Co probably have it all on file anyway.

  18. Dan Grassi says:

    The point here that I get is a wake-up call that emailing potentially embarrassing personal information to an unknown party is not smart and may have unexpected ramifications.

  19. peterb says:

    Correspondence between two parties is not secret unless there is some contractual obligation to keep it secret. One is no more obligated to keep things sent in “private” email private than one is to not repeat something you overheard in the mall. There is no legal ambiguity about this. If you tell me something of your own volition, and we have no prior contractual arrangement, I can do whatever I want with the information. Anyone who tries to sue this person on that basis will find themselves laughed out of court before the ink dries on the lawsuit.

    That’s all separate from the question of whether what the guy did was moral or ethical, of course, but I see this “Oh! But don’t I have a RIGHT OF PRIVACY in information I hand out freely to strangers?” argument all the time. The answer is an unambiguous, perfectly clear, not at all questionable “No.”

  20. bbum says:

    Aha!  A useful response.  Thanks, PeterB.

    Now — does anyone have a citation to the relevant law(s) that govern this?  In particular, how does the recent Washington State legislation impact the status of “right to privacy” on personal communications?

  21. Matthew Brown says:

    peterb: the factual content of the correspondence is not secret, but the actual words and pictures and/or video are copyrighted. There is, I believe, legal precedent that sending a letter or email to someone does not give that person the right to republish it.

    In other words, publishing the personal info might not be illegal. It probably is copyright infringement, however, to publish the photos or videos. How serious that infringement is and how much in the way of damages could be reasonably won might be a different question, of course.

  22. peterb says:

    I’ll gladly stipulate that if any of the respondents were porn stars who derived income from their photos, they might be able to prove economic damages. But that’s not really a strong argument, I’d say. Plus, from a purely practical standpont, it will not be a pleasant experience for any of these men to go to court in front of their friends, families, and co-workers to say “Your Honor, the defendent infringed my copyright by republishing this photo of my erect penis, which I submit as Exhibit A.”

    Yes, the guy who published these emails and photos was an asshole. Some subset of the people sending him solicitations and photos (namely: the married ones) are assholes too. The others were just gullible, which is no crime. But this should reinforce for everyone that the best way to maintain privacy in any given type of information is, first and foremost, to not tell anyone about it.

  23. Gomez says:

    Chris, if someone on the internet asks you to send them something kinky, do you just up and e-mail them whatever they want, with a phone number, or from a work e-mail?

    One thing I need to make clear… I do not support what Jason did, and really, legally, whatever the precedent or the law says, he’s on his own.

    That said, I stand by my assertion that there are two issues here, the line-crossing act in question… and the stupidity committed en masse of sending such sensitive information to a random party over the internet as an act of blind trust.

    Also… countless websites and blogs post e-mails submitted personally to them, without consent. maddox.xmission.com is the quickest example that comes to mind. Does that make what Jason did right? Absolutely not… but the legal precedent doesn’t indicate a ruling body can throw the book at him for doing so.

    Also, re: a lawsuit… whoever decides to sue him is going to have to embarrass himself in court, by going into explicit detail on the e-mails they VOLUNTARILY submitted, and the language and photographs therein, plsu the intentions of sending said e-mail. Even if it ruins a guy’s marriage, you think the married guy’s gonna go into court and further embarrass himself in a public forum, going into blow by blow details of what he sent and what he was thinking? Even sans the married guy, you think the other regular guys want to blow big money on a lawyer to humiliate themselves tenfold from what they’ve already experienced, and show a courtroom and a judge exactly how stupid they are?

  24. LKM says:

    But isn’t what Jason did essentially the same as what the cops do?

    Uhm… no? How about “No, not at all”? First of all, a vigilante is never the same as an actual cop, no matter what he does. One of the has special rights given to him by the state. The other doesn’t. Second, what laws did these people break that cops would have gone after?

  25. peterb says:

    LKM is right that a private individual is not the same as a police officer, for purposes of things like entrapment, but is getting the rights and obligations backwards. Generally, the police have more restrictions placed on them, not less. Generally speaking many of the fourth amendment restrictions on admissibility of evidence that apply to information gathered by the police don’t apply when the same evidence is provided by a private citizen.

    I think this is all pretty tangential to the topic at hand, but I couldn’t resist.

  26. mydogskip says:

    Well first, this was not just a dating site on Craigs List, it was one of the known sexual groups for men and women. The men didn’t send pics due to a general dating ad, they sent pics to a ‘female’ implying she wanted to have sex with men and posted pictures that were obviously not him. He misrepresented himself and knew with premeditation what he was doing and going to do with the responses. What he did WAS wrong, but the courts will have to decide if it was illegal. I agree this will likely end up in civil court and he will have to pay for a lawyer. A quick look at his blog shows him as someone who likes to incite others for fun.

    Some of the comments speak of police entrapment but this is not a pedophile case, it is supposedly two consenting adults looking for the same thing, nothing illegal in that.

    What ever the legal outcome, this guy was morally wrong in what he did. He intentionally misrepresented himself with the intention of causing great embarrassment and hurt to others. He deserves to pay for this in some way.

  27. L. says:

    I love necro (I really do) .

    just wanted to drop by for a quick few words :

    ” You in the carebear costume, get the f*ck out ! ”

    Seriously, have you people lived so many years of blissful ignorance and peace or something ???

    That guy was sort of “ebil” but gee this is standard issue amongst human beings.

    Although it has to be quite embarassing to see your cock on the web, if you hand a stick to someone you do have to expect to be beaten with it.

    If anyone still feels this is unusual or abnormal, I suggest some eye surgery or a good cure of EvE Online (yes, the only mmorpg where people are just as selfish and evil as in reality, with less chocolate topping).

    And then a free point to go against general opinion (a sport I do enjoy) : What is your point of view on the educational value of this event ?

    How many of the people potentially put at risk by this got away with it and won’t take the risk anymore ?

    How many of all the people who like to show their wang and stuff realized this actually had implications ?

    In my humble opinion, this was a vicious move, it definitely hurt some people, and as often suffering taught some wisdom (and here to many more people than the hurt ones).

    I don’t believe anyone should judge the blogger who did that either as he might also be himself unaware of the real consequencies of his little laugh – and all the same surprised by his results and thus publishing them (either way it’s a weird hobby).

    Devil’s advocate signing off.

    PS: I never posted pics of my own bazooka and I never will, therefore I declare myself able to consider those who do as ‘somewhat different’ (yes I did judge them, evil me)

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