When Celebrities Sue: Google Threatened to be Liable for $100 Million

October 4, 2014

This Wednesday Google received a scathing demand letter accusing it of failing to remove private photos taken from celebrities’ hacked iCloud accounts. Martin D. Singer, representing over a dozen celebrities who were victims of these hackers, threatens Google with a $100 million lawsuit for its failure to remove the photos as required under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
Singer’s letter claims that since the hacked photos were first posted over Labor Day weekend, his firm has been sending removal notices to various website operators and host providers demanding the images be removed in accordance with the DMCA, which requires Internet service providers (ISPs) and/or hosts to act “expeditiously” in removing unlawfully obtained or copyrighted images. The letter continues that the vast majority of those ISPs/hosts, such as Twitter, removed the photos within an hour or two of receiving the DMCA notice. In contrast, many of the stolen photographs are still available on Google-owned sites, such as BlogSpot and YouTube; despite the dozens of demand letters Singer’s firm claims to have sent Google over the past four weeks.

 The letter claims, “Google knows that the Images are hacked stolen property, private and confidential photos and videos unlawfully obtained and posted by pervert predators who are violating the victims’ privacy rights and basic human decency…Yet Google has taken little or no action to stop these outrageous violations, or to limit the Images from appearing in Google search results.”

The letter places three specific demands on Google: (1) the photographs be removed from all Google-hosted sites; (2) the user accounts for violators to be suspended or terminated; and (3) the images be removed from Google search results.
Although no individuals are specifically named in the letter, celebrities whose photos were stolen include Kate Upton, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rihanna. The initial hacking occurred by means of a brute force attack on Apple’s iCloud, in which the hacker took advantage of a security flaw between Apple’s “Find My iPhone” app and the iCloud. Neither program had a limit on the number of password attempts to log in, so the hackers were able to generate and test millions of passwords until the accounts were accessed.
Shortly after these stolen images were initially published, Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, who has dated Upton, sent Google a legal takedown notice identifying 461 photographs of him and Upton. One week after his request, 49 percent of the identified images were still available on Google’s search engine. These remained because they had inoperative URLs, featured the couple clothed, or brought up copyright questions regarding “selfie” ownership. The Hollywood Esquire report on Verlander’s request indicated that Google only removed half of the images based on insufficient proof of copyright ownership. All of Google’s received takedown notices are available at ChillingEffects.org, so Verlander’s demand is public.
In response, Google is disputing these accusations. A Google spokesperson told CNN, “We’ve removed tens of thousands of pictures – within hours of the requests being made – and we have closed hundreds of accounts. The Internet is used for many good things. Stealing people’s private photos is not one of them.”
Clearly Singer doesn’t think Google’s current efforts are enough. In his letter, he equates Google to the NFL stating, “Like the NFL, which turned a blind eye while its players assaulted and victimized women and children, Google has turned a blind eye while its sites repeatedly exploit and victimize these women.” He also accuses Google of “exhibit[ing] the lowest standards of ethical business conduct, and has acted dishonorably by allowing and perpetuating unlawful activity that exemplifies an utter lack of respect for women and privacy. Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ motto is a sham.”
Based on Singer’s emotionally charged letter and Google’s adamant denial of these allegations, chance of a quiet settlement between the parties seems unlikely. So for now, we are just left with questions of whether Google will move more quickly and remove all the photos to avoid suit, or if Singer does bring suit how successful it will be. Considering the FBI is allegedly involved in the initial hacking investigation, this will be an interesting suit to follow at the very least.