Real Future

At home with a revenge porn mogul

Scott Breitenstein has been called an “internet terrorist,” “the worst man on the internet,” and worse. His work has left behind an Everest-size pile of broken relationships, destroyed reputations, and ruined lives. He’s been targeted by lawsuits, court orders, vigilante hacker groups, and the Department of Homeland Security, all for his role in one of the internet’s darkest trades: hosting “revenge porn,” nude photos and videos posted online non-consensually, often by disgruntled exes.

Breitenstein, 45, is the owner of ComplaintsBureau.com, a site that hosts user-submitted grievances of all types. He first encountered the site in 2005, after getting ripped off while trying to buy a flat-screen TV from an e-commerce site. Searching for other people who had been scammed by the same site, he found ComplaintsBureau, where he posted a negative review of the business. A week later, under mysterious circumstances, the TV seller’s site went offline.

“I thought that was cool,” Breitenstein told me, while driving me around his Dayton, Ohio neighborhood several months ago.

Breitenstein never got his money back, but he did acquire a taste for digital vengeance. He emailed the owner of ComplaintsBureau and asked if he’d be willing to sell the site. The owner agreed, and soon, Breitenstein, a plumber and electrician who had dabbled in web design and computer repair, taught himself HTML and PHP and set about redesigning and expanding ComplaintsBureau. His vision was to build a kind of anonymous Better Business Bureau, where customers who had been scammed or ripped off could blow the whistle on predatory businesses.

Breitenstein’s ComplaintsBureau was a bare-bones site, but it had something the Better Business Bureau didn’t have: excellent search engine optimization, which often placed ComplaintsBureau’s posts on the first page of Google results for a given business. Customers searching for that business’s website would find a ComplaintsBureau post instead, and would often be scared off before their first purchase.

“I liked it because it could put the bad guy out of business,” Breitenstein said. “Everybody saw how powerful it was.”

Breitenstein sittingTrevor Worley

Scott Breitenstein in his backyard

In the first years of its existence, ComplaintsBureau’s users inveighed against large corporations like Best Buy, Samsung, and United Airlines, along with local businesses like car dealerships (“sold me a piece of junk!” reads one complaint) and hospitals (“I was treated like dirt at the Emergency room”). Their complaints were largely unverifiable, frequently profane and often personal, singling out individual employees by name. Unlike sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, Breitenstein didn’t allow business owners to respond to the complaints made against them, even if they were false or defamatory.

“Everybody saw how powerful it was.”

These complaints carried real weight, thanks to Breitenstein’s SEO work. “One illegitimate complaint ruined a whole quarter,” Susan DiMezza, a Pennsylvania fashion boutique owner, told CBS News in 2011, whose sales dropped by 75% after a disgruntled tenant in a real estate dispute posted a negative review of her business on Scamfound.com, another Breitenstein-owned website.

Predictably, businesses hated ComplaintsBureau, and Breitenstein was soon deluged with takedown requests. He ignored them all. In his mind, bowing to pressure from businesses would create an unfair playing field, and throw all of the site’s complaints into question. To avoid these headaches, he created a firm no-takedown policy. Once a complaint had been posted, he vowed it would stay.

“If we put on there that we’ll take things down, then everybody will start saying, ‘That ain’t true, that ain’t true,‘” he said. “And then why have a complaints site?”

***

Several years ago, ComplaintsBureau received a more lurid kind of complaint: a user posted nude photos to the site, of someone the user said was his cheating ex-girlfriend.

Breitenstein, who operated a small fleet of scummy websites in addition to ComplaintsBureau, was no stranger to cheating allegations. Among his sites were ReportMyEx.com and CheatersRUs.com—both sites where jilted lovers could go to name and shame their exes.

But those sites allowed only text complaints. Photos were a different thing altogether. And days after the revenge porn post went up on ComplaintsBureau, he noticed that the traffic to the post was dwarfing everything else on the site. The size of his monthly payments from Google AdSense, a program that allows site owners to place pay-per-click advertising modules on their site, ballooned from $200 a month to more than $1,200.

“When I started seeing the money come in, I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t even have to work anymore,’” Breitenstein said.

Unbeknownst to him, Breitenstein had lucked into a booming business. The prevalence of nude photos, especially among younger people (44% of teens have sent or received a sexually explicit text, according to the Pew Research Center) and the rise of amateur porn sites has created a robust market for stolen nudes. One notorious revenge porn site, IsAnyoneUp.com, reportedly racked up 30 million views a month at its peak.

In the past several years, dozens of states have passed laws making it illegal to post revenge porn. But hosting a revenge porn website is still technically legal, thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which shields websites from liability for content published by their users. (It’s the same law that protects Facebook from being sued when one of its users posts something obscene or copyrighted.)

Still, the revenge porn business has gotten harder in recent years, thanks to the work of advocacy groups and the support of large tech companies. Over the last year, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and other social networks have expressly prohibited revenge porn, and Google and other search engines have instituted removal policies that allow victims to get their non-consensual nudes de-listed. Most of the big revenge porn sites have been shut down, either by hosting providers or due to an operator’s legal troubles. (Hunter Moore, the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, was recently sentenced to 2.5 years in federal prison on hacking conspiracy charges related to the site.)

ComplaintsBureau.com homepage

ComplaintsBureau.com homepage, on an average day

For Breitenstein, the potential reward of distributing revenge porn was worth the risks. So he created a new section of the site to house these posts, called “Revenge Lovers.” And he watched the clicks roll in.

Breitenstein also devised a dastardly strategy to extract more money from revenge porn victims. Often, victims who appeared on the site would file copyright claims for their nude photos under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, hoping to get them taken down. Breitenstein told these victims that if these DMCA takedown notices weren’t followed by the rest of the DMCA complaint process—a lengthy endeavor that can involve registering a work with the U.S. Copyright Office and providing voluminous information about the photos being claimed—he would sue them for $10,900 in “defamation” costs.

On his site, Breitenstein made this threat explicit:

Peridocally, we recieve thousands of DMCA takedown requests. Because of people not liking what they read on the site, they attempt less-than-effective ways of trying to get them removed…If you file a DMCA request, you must follow through completely to the very end of the process, otherwise, complaints bureau will file a counter notice to all major search engines and hosts, to have it restored. We will then bill you for $10,900.00.

As brazen as the practice of penalizing revenge porn victims for defaming him was, it worked; Breitenstein collected tens of thousands of dollars in settlements from terrified women, who were scared that he would report them to a collection agency if they failed to pay.

With this revenue model in place, Breitenstein was no longer just a crank with a complaints site. From his home in Dayton, he had become a revenge porn mogul—a successful bottom-feeder in the digital economy.

***

I first spoke to Breitenstein last year, after hearing about ComplaintsBureau and emailing him at an address listed on the site. He’d never given an interview before, and he was initially hesitant. But we spoke again and again over a period of several weeks, each time tiptoeing further into the details of his work, and eventually he began to open up. He had a craggy baritone voice that sounded like a sentient pack of Marlboros, and he spoke of his work as if he had nothing to hide.

Despite the opprobrium he’d faced, Breitenstein was proud of his work with ComplaintsBureau. He even characterized the revenge porn as an ethical form of watchdogging. If a woman had posed nude for a man in the past, he reasoned, it was a red flag that a future partner deserved to know about. In his mind, it was all protecting good people from bad people—just as it had been in the beginning, with the TV.

“I’m a consumer advocate,” he told me. “We’re helping a lot of people.”

Eventually, I asked Breitenstein if I could visit him and his family. To my surprise, he said yes. I arrived in Dayton with a camera crew a month or so later, and spent two days talking and filming with him, his family, and Preston Lawson, a moderator for his site. (You can see the video at the top of this page — it’s from the first episode of our new TV series, Real Future, and it’s a doozy.)

“I’m a consumer advocate. We’re helping a lot of people.”

Breitenstein lives and works at his home in East Dayton, a rough neighborhood in a city that never really recovered from the industrial collapse of the 1970s. It’s not an inviting house, not least because of the PRIVATE PROPERTY and BEWARE OF DOG signs out front, and the half-dozen security cameras installed by the front door. (Scott, who claims to have been shot at once by an angry ComplaintsBureau victim, is understandably a bit paranoid.)

Despite his revenge porn earnings, Breitenstein lives in the manner of someone who is barely scraping by. His house is full of garbage and dilapidated furniture, and his office, a room off his porch, is a mildewed space with tangles of miscellaneous cords and plastic bags full of empty cigarette boxes.

Later, when I showed photographs of Breitenstein to some friends, they remarked that he looked “exactly like you’d expect.” And it’s true that Breitenstein’s graying mullet and death metal t-shirts give him the appearance of a sketchy character. But over the course of our visit, I came to understand something about Breitenstein’s psyche, and the moral framework he’d used to construct his revenge porn enterprise.

And I was as surprised as anyone when he decided to shut it all down.

***

Breitenstein house exteriorTrevor Worley

Breitenstein's home, and ComplaintsBureau's headquarters. His son, Scott Jr., sits on the front steps.

Revenge porn, as a standalone internet business, dates to about 2008, when porn sites began receiving complaints of videos that had been posted without the participant’s permission. The provenance of these stolen videos only made them more appealing to viewers, and soon, sites like RealExGirlfriend.com and IKnowThatGirl.com were popping up to host stolen caches of revenge porn. (The URLs of these early sites weren’t an oversight—according to estimates by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, more than 90% of revenge porn victims are women.)

It’s not easy to keep a revenge porn site online. Despite the legal protections of Section 230, most web hosting providers want nothing to do with stolen nudes; ComplaintsBureau was dropped by a number of American providers before Breitenstein moved the site to a French hosting company last year. The site is also a constant target of vigilante hacking groups, and Breitenstein claims he was attacked by Anonymous, and shut down by the Department of Homeland Security last year, after an ISIS execution video was posted on the site.

“We were ordered to take [the ISIS video] down,” he said. “But we never do.”

The government isn’t the only entity taking aim at Breitenstein. Adam Steinbaugh, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who specializes in revenge porn cases, believes that Breitenstein is obscuring the source of some of the site’s content, some of which he claims was copied and pasted from other revenge sites, and some of which he believes Breitenstein and his friends have written pseudonymously. His hunch that Breitenstein is not, in fact, simply hosting revenge porn and other types of damaging content, but is actively creating it—which, if true, could fall outside the legal protections of Section 230.

“If he’s just making it up, then he’s absolutely liable for what he does, and Section 230 will not apply,” Steinbaugh said.

According to Steinbaugh, shortly after he threatened to write about Breitenstein’s revenge porn business on Twitter, a false complaint about him appeared on ComplaintsBureau. The complaint, which has since been deleted, purported to be from Steinbaugh’s ex-landlord and called him a “deadbeat tenant” with a litany of prior convictions. (Breitenstein denies ghost-writing any posts.)

Breitenstein moderates ComplaintsBureau himself, along with his friend Preston Lawson. Together, they spend their days sifting through requests from users asking to have posts taken down. And when Lawson and I sat down on Breitenstein’s front stoop to talk, he appears slightly conflicted about his work with the site. He said that he often receives e-mails from women who claim that they were underage when their nude photos were taken. These photos, he said, he immediately removes from the site, despite the no-removal policy.

“I don’t tolerate it,” Lawson told me about the prospect of hosting child pornography. “Me being a Christian anyway, that’s not right.”

Breitenstein siteTrevor Worley

Breitenstein in his Dayton, Ohio office

Breitenstein takes a tougher line. When he gets a removal request from someone claiming to be underage, he requires them to send him concrete proof of their age before he’ll consider removing a post.

For Breitenstein, maintaining a hard rule on removals is part of a years-long mission to expose cheaters and scammers. This quest, though, has real, grave consequences for people—consequences I’m not entirely sure Breitenstein fully understands. While talking in his office, he told me about a young woman whose nude photos were leaked to ComplaintsBureau by her ex-boyfriend. The woman, Breitenstein said, had attempted to get the post taken down. But ComplaintsBureau’s contact form was broken, and he never received the messages. The embarrassment over her revenge porn caused the woman to spiral into a depression, and she ultimately committed suicide.

I asked Breitenstein if he regretted letting that woman’s nude photos stay on ComplaintsBureau. He said that he might have taken them down, if he had known the woman was going to harm herself. But he maintained that he wasn’t at fault.

“We never received an email until it was too late,” he said.

***

On the last day I spent with Breitenstein, I gave him a surprise.

Days before our interview, I’d asked Annmarie Chiarini, a victims services director with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (and a victim of revenge porn herself), to record a short video addressed directly to Breitenstein. I’d hoped that Chiarini would convey to Breitenstein exactly what made his work so harmful to the people who ended up exposed on his site. I cued up the video, passed him my MacBook, and pressed play.

“The cost you’re afflicting on society goes well beyond victims,” Chiarini told Breitenstein. “What you’re doing may or may not be illegal, but ethically it is corrupt. Anybody who provides a home for people to become the sexual entertainment of others is a dangerous sexual predator.”

She went on, outlining the legal actions that had been taken against revenge porn distributors. I watched Breitenstein’s face intently as he viewed the video; and to my surprise, he didn’t look angry or defensive. He sat quietly as the video ended, staring off into the distance. And then, after a minute or so of silence, he said something I hadn’t expected to hear.

“You know, she might be right.”

Breitenstein is not a stupid man. But his understanding of revenge porn’s social fallout was puzzlingly simplistic. In all the hours we’d talked, he never expressed sympathy for women who had their nude photos posted to his site, but he also didn’t express malice or ill will toward them. He just sounded like he hadn’t really thought about it. To him, the revenge porn victims who filled his inbox with takedown requests just seemed like an administrative headache to be dealt with, not a series of people feeling real pain as a result of a crime having been committed against them. He’d never actually been face-to-face with a victim of revenge porn before.

But Chiarini’s video seemed to affect him. For the rest of our time together, he had a glassy, distracted look on his face, and he kept wondering aloud if he should stop hosting revenge porn, or change his removal policy somehow to make it easier for victims to get their photos taken down.

“A lot of people’s on the site that doesn’t necessarily need to be on there,” he said.

As I headed home that day, I felt pretty cynical about Breitenstein’s supposed enlightenment. Maybe he’d just been performing for the cameras. Maybe nothing about his site would change, and his consideration of his victims’ feelings would be fleeting.

But two weeks after I returned home from Dayton, I saw that a new message had been posted to the top of the ComplaintsBureau’s terms and conditions page. It read:

To all patrons and individuals, familiar with Complaints Bureau.com. The website was recently the subject of a documentary film which will air on the Fusion Network with host Kevin Roose, in a few months. We, as site operators, now fully understand the damage and negativity that “Revenge Porn” can cause. We are now removing All/Any/Every “Revenge Porn” and/or sexually related material, from the website. We are also banning it to ever be allowed, at any time, in the future. If you are caught trying to post this type of material, you will be banned immediately and permantly [sic], without notice. We are removing this material currently. It takes a considerable amount of time and effort, to remove all of it. Please, be patient with us, as there is a large amount of this type of material present on the site, currently. Slowly, but surely, though, it will all be gone.

Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, the entire “Revenge Lovers” section of ComplaintsBureau had been deleted, and its contents, which Breitenstein had spent so much time carefully optimizing, were gone. Hundreds of people who had been featured on the site had gotten their search results cleansed at last. Of course, it’s too late to restore these victims’ lives to normalcy, or heal the wounds caused by the crimes against them, but at least the evidence trail would be scrubbed.

Make no mistake: Breitenstein’s reformation has only been partial. ComplaintsBureau is still online, and he still makes money from ReportMyEx, STDRegistry, and other sites that traffic in unsubstantiated and defamatory complaints. But his decision to remove revenge porn from ComplaintsBureau did have real, meaningful consequences. Breitenstein told me that his monthly ad revenue fell from $1,200 to less than $200 as a result of pulling down his revenge porn.

“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s a heck of a loss.”

“If ComplaintsBureau doesn’t pick up, we’re going to have no choice but to close it,” he told me. Removing revenge porn, he said, had been “the right thing to do, but it’s a heck of a loss.”

He said that his decision to remove revenge porn from the site had been a direct result of Chiarini’s video, which caused him to think about revenge porn from the perspective of the people who were featured in it against their will.

“I was looking at that laptop, and [Chiarini] was asking certain questions,” he told me later. “People hadn’t really asked those types of questions before. And there was some stuff she said that got in my head.”

Breitenstein’s about-face on revenge porn isn’t nearly enough to redeem his overall enterprise, or comfort his victims. But it’s an unexpected result of a story that began as an attempt to interview someone I thought would be incapable of empathy. And it’s enough to make even a cynic believe that change might be possible, even for the internet’s worst villains.

 


This story was adapted from Episode 1 of Real Future, Fusion’s new 16-part documentary series about technology and society. To be notified about new episodes, subscribe to the Real Future newsletter below.