This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When hackers grabbed naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and other celebrities this summer, Apple faced harsh criticism for allowing its iCloud security protocol to be breached. Thus far, Google has escaped the microscope. But now Google — no stranger to privacy issues — could face equally tough questions.
Just days after the stolen images were published, attorneys for Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander — who has dated Upton — delivered a legal takedown notice to Google that identified 461 URLs that were hosting racy pictures of the couple. A week later, Google had removed 51 percent of them from its search engine, according to its own records.
The 49 percent that remain online might reveal something about Google's policies toward flagged copyrighted content. Many of the URLs were inoperative, probably indicative of the success of Verlander's lawyers at the Baker & Hostetler firm in going after the website hosts themselves. The other URLs either featured images of Verlander, 31, or Upton, 22, wearing clothes or showed a risque picture of Upton in a mirror.
Google won't publicly comment on why it is distinguishing between nude and clothed photographs or whether it is adhering to a popular but untested legal theory that the person who holds a camera owns rights to a "selfie." But the prospect of insufficient proof of copyright (or fair use) is likely leading Google to give Verlander only half of what he has demanded. From a review of Verlander's takedown request, a significant amount of all the hacked celebrity nudes remain online, even if Google has scrubbed many from its index and most mainstream sites refuse to link to them.
Moreover, Google lodges takedown notices it receives at ChillingEffects.org, so Verlander's demand now is public. That creates another issue because Google has in effect provided a road map for any voyeur looking for sites that refuse to remove stolen photos. Google has contributed to ChillingEffects.org for the sake of "transparency" — a funny word in the context of a now infamous privacy breach — but IP attorney Jon Steinsapir says Google "could use some discretion here for good manners and good taste."