Recently, a blogger named Simon Owens ran a social experiment on Craigslist. He wandered into the “Casual Encounters” section of the personal ads where countless men and women were soliticing for no-strings-attached sex and wondered, Is it really that easy? As a test, he composed several ads with different permutations of assumed identity and sexual orientation: straight/bi men/women looking for the opposite/same sex. He then posted it to New York, Chicago, and Houston, and tallied the results.
Overwhelmingly and instantly, the ads from the fake women looking for male partners were inundated with responses, sometimes several per minute. All the other ads received lukewarm responses, at best. These results weren’t surprising, but some of the observations were… Many of these men used their real names and included personally identifiable information, including work email addresses and home phone numbers. Several admitted they were married and cheating on their spouses. Many included photos, often nude.
His first conclusion was very reasonable: “If a really malicious person wanted to get on craigslist and ruin a lot of people’s lives, he easily could.”
Jason Fortuny’s Craigslist Experiment
On Monday, a Seattle web developer named Jason Fortuny started his own Craigslist experiment. The goal: “Posing as a submissive woman looking for an aggressive dom, how many responses can we get in 24 hours?”
He took the text and photo from a sexually explicit ad (warning: not safe for work) in another area, reposted it to Craigslist Seattle, and waited for the responses to roll in. Like Simon’s experiment, the response was immediate. He wrote, “178 responses, with 145 photos of men in various states of undress. Responses include full e-mail addresses (both personal and business addresses), names, and in some cases IM screen names and telephone numbers.”
In a staggering move, he then published every single response, unedited and uncensored, with all photos and personal information to Encyclopedia Dramatica (kinda like Wikipedia for web fads and Internet drama). Read the responses (warning: sexually explicit material).
Instantly, commenters on the LiveJournal thread started identifying the men. Dissenters emailed the guys to let them know they were scammed. Several of them were married, which has led to what will likely be the first of many separations. One couple in an open marriage begged that their information be removed, as their religious family and friends weren’t aware of their lifestyle. Another spotted a fellow Microsoft employee, based on their e-mail address. And it’s really just the beginning, since the major search engines haven’t indexed these pages yet. After that, who knows? Divorces, firings, lawsuits, and the assorted hell that come from having your personal sex life listed as the first search result for your name.
Possibly the strangest thing about this sex baiting prank is that the man behind it is unabashedly open about his own identity. A graphic artist in Kirkland, Washington, Jason has repeatedly posted his contact information, including home phone, address, and photos. He’s already received one threat of physical violence. Is he oblivious to the danger, or does he just not care? Since his stated interest is “pushing people’s buttons,” I’m guessing the latter. (See update: Jason’s been removing contact information from his sites, so some of these links are now broken.)
Legality and Privacy
But was any law actually broken? Fortuny obviously misrepresented himself under false pretenses, which is itself possibly actionable, but the privacy implications beyond that are very interesting. Does emailing someone your personal information act as an implicit waiver of your right to privacy? I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell, no.
If taken to court, he’s at risk of two primary civil claims. “Intentional infliction of emotional distress,” while notoriously hard to prove in court, is certainly easier here based on his own writings. The second, more relevant claim, is “public disclosure of private facts.” This Findlaw article on the Washingtonienne scandal sums it up nicely:
The disclosure must be public. The facts must be private. The plaintiff must be identified. The publication must be “highly offensive.” And there must be an “absence of legitimate concern to the public” with respect to the publication.
It certainly seems like this clearly fits the criteria for a tort claim, but I’d love to hear some legal interpretation from the law bloggers out there. Does volunteering your information in a private context somehow invalidate your privacy rights? I don’t think so. (For more information, see the EFF’s Bloggers’ FAQ on Privacy.)
I contacted Anil Dash, VP of LiveJournal’s parent company Six Apart, to see how he felt about the breaking drama. He was clearly disturbed by it, but after contacting LJ’s support staff, realized there wasn’t much they could do. If they find abusive information, they act quickly to remove it, but in this case, all the identifiable information is on a third-party site. “There are always people who aren’t going to be productive members of a community. We try to be consistent in honoring requests if an individual’s personal info is being posted without their permission,” said Anil. “The hard part, of course, is that nobody can control every site on the web, so there’s always somewhere else for a person to go if they really want to be malicious or destructive..”
I haven’t contacted Craigslist, but it’s clear that as this story develops, it will inevitably have a profound impact on the community. A friend put it simply: “Adults are stupid on the Internet.” More likely, their expectations of privacy just haven’t been fundamentally challenged yet. They send naked photos of themselves to strangers because it helps get them noticed by the women they’re emailing, and it’s never backfired on them.
On a final note, this is just getting started. Sex baiting is so simple and so effective, I thought immediately that others would be inspired to do the same thing. And yesterday morning, a commenter confirmed that the first copycat prank is already complete in Craigslist Portland. 94 replies so far, with 60 photos. It won’t be the last.
September 10: Jason Fortuny modified his homepage to remove all references to his professional life: portfolio, resume, and references to past clients are all gone. (Compare to the older versions on the Internet Archive.) It also looks like he’s been scrubbing his personal contact information from his Livejournal comments and homepage. For example, this link from my post originally went to a comment with his contact information, but it’s been removed entirely. (Strangely, he didn’t remove his home address and phone number from this entry.) Also, Encyclopedia Dramatica has been down intermittently all day, presumably because of the traffic.
September 11: Jason Fortuny’s web server is now down entirely, possibly because of today’s Slashdot coverage. (One commenter claims to live in the same apartment building as Fortuny.) Other recent notable media mentions: BBC News, and Wired’s Ryan Singel has coverage and a response to commenters. The New York Times article
is slated for tomorrow was written, but ultimately rejected for publication.
Update, Part 2: Jason Fortuny sent an email to Tucker Max for advice (himself Internet-famous for posting his sexual exploits online). In the email, Jason notes that he’s been flooded with thousands of phone calls and has since changed his phone number. In a followup post to that message board, he states clearly he wants to capitalize on the controversy: “Let’s milk this. All the way… There must be a way to combine this. Into money. Money is important. Money is good.” He’s planning on setting up a dedicated website for his exploits, either on his Rfjason.com site or on the Craigslistsexbaits.com domain registered by Tucker Max.
He also distances himself from Encyclopedia Dramatica, claiming that they scraped his Livejournal and that he has little control over the site, but is “working to get the personally identifiably information redacted.” (This doesn’t make sense, since he claims to have editing rights on the protected page.) For more information, read the complete set of his posts and his friend Wendy Miller.
Update 3: My site’s been down for the last hour, but it was completely unrelated to this entry or the recent Slashdotting. EV1 Servers, my usually reliable web host, had an hour of downtime affecting hundreds of thousands of websites.
Update 4: The Associated Press just published an article, which will be syndicated in newspapers everywhere tomorrow. Some good quotes from Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, Kurt Opsahl from the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and the ubiquitous Jonathan Zittrain.
Also, a couple more interesting comments from the Slashdot thread from people who claim to know Fortuny in real life. The first from someone who went to high school with him, and the second from an anonymous former friend.
September 12: For unknown reasons, the entire thread from the Tucker Max message board was removed along with Jason Fortuny’s username. Fortunately, Yahoo cached the thread. Fortuny’s most interest post is quoted below, in case the cache disappears. Fortuny writes:
This is some next level shit. I keep hearing Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” lyrics in my head over and over.
1. Let’s milk this. All the way. When I’m in my element, there’s no limit to the shit I can stir up, so there’s more material to be had. I like entertaining. I like good attention. I’ve always wanted to have a late night talk show. Letterman is my fucking hero. Stupid people drive me insane and make me very animated. There must be a way to combine this. Into money. Money is important. Money is good.
2. I removed the posts from my website, rfjason.com, after the 1st day because I couldn’t handle the traffic. The good people at Encyclopedia Dramatica (friends of mine) scraped the content, and turned it into a formal wiki. While I have editing rights, I am not a staff member of, nor do I have any control over ED. They are a very separate entity. I am working to get the personally identifiably information redacted. Hopefully they’ll be nice, but I suspect I’ll have to buy some pixel ads or some such shit.
3. Let’s go for craigslistsexbait.com. I’m not sure how this functions compared to rfjason.com, my regular site that everyone is linking to. (Note: rfjason.com is also my business site that had a non-professional personal.rfjason.com tacked on. I have since pulled the business element and put my shitty ass non-professional stuff front & center, because I detest the idea of admitting internet defeat with a blank site.)
4. I have no head for business in this arena. Sure, I can tell you all about the best ways to handle eCommerce and customer service standards, how to build a solid web server, and (LOL) privacy, but the notoriety business is new. I require the help of Rudius Media. Let’s get that rolling.
5. The lawsuits may or may not happen. I have e-lawyers arguing all over the place both sides of the issue. CL’s tos clause 3. CONTENT could be interpreted that there’s no expectation of privacy, depending on how intelligently you argue the case. Since I’m apparently a sociopath, I could argue this pretty well. But I’m not a lawyer. Is there any lawyer in Washington who wouldn’t laugh this out of his court?
6. Now that I’m going to be a big star, here’s a naked picture of me with solar flares coming out of my ass (nsfwahd): http://rfjason.com/temp/solarass.jpg
Have I missed anything?
It’s also worth noting that Fortuny has been noticeably quiet over the past couple days. He’s posted a couple Livejournal comments, but no new entries since Sunday afternoon. Also, MSNBC covered this on air today (here’s the video).
September 13: My good friend Lou posted an exhaustive and very personal profile of Fortuny based on his online writings. Highly recommended reading, and gives quite a bit of insight into his possible motivations.
September 14: Jason’s been laying low for days. A llocal news station actually interviewed one of the guys, whose embarrassment seems to be trumped by two minutes of on-air fame. Unless there’s a lawsuit or a lynching, I think I’m pretty much done with this story.
September 18: Lou Cabron breaks the story of a copycat scammer named Michael Crook, who has posted multiple ads to various Craigslist cities. Unlike Fortuny’s ad, this one was pretty mild, without graphic photos or a fetish angle. Michael is now posting the responses to a new site called Craigslist-Perverts.org, often researching the identities of each respondent.
September 24: Jason Fortuny responds in an informal 29-minute video interview. Lou Cabron from 10 Zen Monkeys wrote up an excellent summary of the interesting parts to save you the trouble of watching it. Despite all the threats, according to Fortuny, he hasn’t received a lawsuit, or even a cease-and-desist letter.
April 18, 2009: Jason Fortuny lost his court case and was ordered to pay $74k to the anonymous plaintiff.