Blogger Perez Hilton has made a career of posting anything and everything about celebrities and their lives. On Tuesday, he thought better of it.
Hilton helped a trove of nude celebrity photos spread like wildfire across the Internet over Labor Day weekend. The photos, which included images of actor Jennifer Lawrence and model Kate Upton, became available after someone — and who did it is unknown — posted the pictures to 4chan and Reddit, two hugely popular anonymous online message boards. There they quickly became trading fodder among the sites' regulars.
On Sunday, after the photos were posted to these message boards, Google searches for the term "Jennifer Lawrence" skyrocketed, according to data from Google Trends.
The images are hardly the first nude celebrity pictures to make their way online. But their publication has touched off a larger discussion on the state of privacy and civil liberties on the Internet. Some privacy advocates are focusing on the role that big tech companies play in policing — or not policing — users who repeatedly push the boundaries of taste, or those who post controversial content like the videos of the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Hilton and others are even soul-searching about viewing and posting questionable content.
Hilton published a video on YouTube, in which he expressed remorse that he had publicized the photos. "I view this as a good opportunity to learn from and grow from, and to make some changes going forward," he said.
His regrets were echoed across Twitter, where actors like Seth Rogen and Lena Dunham urged others not to share or view the images out of respect for the celebrities' privacy. On Reddit, moderators of the forums featuring the images questioned whether they should take down the pictures. (They are still up.)
For privacy advocates, though, the responsibility lies with the big tech companies that host this kind of content.
The episode "should be treated like a sex crime, a privacy invasion taken to an extreme," said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington. "Sites allowing the sharing of these pictures can and should be taking proactive action to remove these pictures."
Recently, Twitter came under fire for its loose stance on what is permissible on its network of 271 million monthly users when Robin Williams' daughter quit the service after being attacked via Twitter messages about her father's death.
On Reddit, the photos were quickly embraced. At least one forum was dedicated to discussing and trading them.
Reddit did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, the site's policy has been to allow its users to police themselves, letting self-appointed community moderators decide what is appropriate to appear on the site.
The FBI acknowledged what it called the "unlawful release" of the pictures, but would not comment further.
When the photos began to surface on the Web, some news reports suggested that Apple's online storage service, iCloud, had been breached.
But Apple firmly denied this speculation, saying Tuesday that while at least some celebrity accounts were individually attacked, the episode was not the result of any widespread attack on Apple's software products.
"None of the cases we have investigated has resulted from any breach in any of Apple's systems," Nat Kerris, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement. "We are continuing to work with law enforcement to help identify the criminals involved."
Twitter, YouTube and others may ultimately decide to take a more active approach to policing user-generated content. If these services were altered significantly, civil liberties advocates fear it could inhibit how people are able to express themselves online.
"While a rule against hate speech might prevent rape threats, it could also stifle political speech," said Jillian C. York, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties organization. "Companies have demonstrated that they can't be trusted as arbiters of speech."