Texas attorney Jason L. Van Dyke recently filed a lawsuit against nude-photo-sharing site Pink Meth and included the Tor Project among its defendants.
Pink Meth is an “involuntary pornography” site, the suit charges, enabling users to post nude photos for the purposes of getting revenge on those pictured. It’s accessible only to users who have downloaded Tor’s anonymity-minded software.
The plaintiff named in the case is University of North Texas student Shelby Conklin, allegedly a victim of Pink Meth’s service who was caused mental anguish and loss of earning capacity as a result. The suit seeks damages of “at least” US$1 million.
Though the suit was filed in mid-June, it didn’t draw public attention until Van Dyke alluded to it on Twitter this week. The attorney — who bills himself as “quite possibly the meanest and most right-wing lawyer in Texas” — then published a press release on the topic on Wednesday.
‘I Don’t Think Tor Should Be Legal’
It’s the inclusion of Tor, however, that has generated the bulk of the controversy in this case.
“Just wondering if you’re aware that suing @torproject is like suing an automaker because their car was used in a bank robbery” is one comment that appeared Tuesday on Twitter, for example.
“I’m a lawyer — I have no idea how Tor works,” Van Dyke told LinuxInsider. “The reason they were included is that, based on what we saw on the Pink Meth site and the Tor site, it appeared they were a hosting service.”
Pink Meth’s home page bills the site as “a Tor Hidden Service that allows you to post anyone’s nudes and info, anonymously (thanks to Tor), and without the fear of being hit with a phony lawsuit, or any legal repercussions for that matter.”
Van Dyke has since spoken with Tor’s attorney, however, and now concedes the service may not be liable after all.
“It appears they don’t actually maintain any servers, don’t actually host any content, or provide any services to anybody,” Van Dyke said. “What they may do is distribute open source software that allows someone to access something” without having any control over the material being accessed.
“Once we verify that they’re not helping Pink Meth, we will dismiss them,” Van Dyke said. “I personally don’t think Tor should be legal, but the court is not the place to decide that.”
‘They’re Merely Acting as a Conduit’
Pink Meth had a different take.
“There’s not much to say — the whole lawsuit is ridiculous,” said an anonymous respondent to a query LinuxInsider sent to the email address given on the Pink Meth site.
Van Dyke “has stated that: a) we’ve hired Tor to help us with the publication of Pink Meth; b) the Tor Project endorses Pink Meth; and c) we’re hosting child pornography,” the respondent added, calling all three claims “completely unfounded.”
Late last month, the operator of a Tor server was given a three-month suspended prison sentence by an Austrian court for abetting access to pornographic images of minors.
“To top it all off, he hasn’t even taken the time to read the Tor manual and try to understand how Tor and its hidden services work,” the Pink Meth respondent noted. “He’s asking Tor to stop supplying us any and all Internet-related services, which they’re not. They’re merely acting as a conduit — nothing more, nothing less.”
Van Dyke also is asking ICANN to ban “all domains with the ‘pinkmeth’ keyword, even though most have been taken by cybersquatters and have no relation to us,” the respondent added. “That’s probably the strangest request directed at ICANN ever.”
Bottom line: “He had no legitimate reason to include the Tor project in the lawsuit,” the respondent said.
The Tor Project declined to comment for this story.
‘A Valuable Anonymity Tool’
The Tor Project is not liable for the acts of its users, Kurt Opsahl, deputy general counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told LinuxInsider.
“It is a software product that provides a valuable anonymity tool for online communications, and should be no more liable than any number of tools, from Web servers to email clients, that may be used or misused by third parties,” he added. “Alleging a conspiracy is not sufficient to create liability where there is none.”
Indeed, “it is definitely a novel approach to add a conspiracy theory linking to an organization that simply provides tools that have many perfectly legal uses,” said Clay Calvert, a professor and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida. “Without anything more to go on than the fact that the Pink Meth site specifically touts Tor as protecting it, it’s really a stretch.”
Most likely, Van Dyke’s real goal was simply to conduct discovery and learn more about Tor, Calvert told LinuxInsider.
“Sometimes,” he added, “it’s referred to as a fishing expedition.”