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Dutch Startup Leakserv Takes Aim At Revenge Porn

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Dutch startup Leakserv is playing in the online identity management space, with a special focus on helping victims of revenge porn who want specific content taken offline.

The issue of revenge porn has gathered more attention in recent years, with major search engines and tech platforms taking a firmer stance on this particular form of online harassment. Last summer, for instance, Google and Microsoft created formal processes for victims wanting to request the removal from search results of intimate content leaked online without their permission.

Content platform companies including RedditMedium, Twitter and Facebook also tackled the issue last year, taking a firmer stance against revenge porn dissemination, specifically, or against harassment on their platforms in general. Only this month Twitter, for instance, announced it was forming a trust and safety council comprised of external organizations from various advocacy groups to try to ensure ‘safer speech’ on its platform.

But the Internet remains a much wider web than a few walled garden platforms. So while it may be harder for revenge porn to be disseminated on mainstream content outlets than in years past, there’s no shortage of alternative sites willing to host this stuff. And that’s where Leakserv comes in — offering a service to victims to track down offending content and issue takedown requests on their behalf to get it removed (generally within 24 to 48 hours, is the claim).

Co-founder Bart van Leeuwen says the service can be tasked with finding images, videos and keywords/personal information (such as home address for victims of doxxing), using a proprietary “self-learning” algorithm. It also makes use of Google’s reverse image search, as well as using its own search technology.

Human agents at Leakserv do manually check its search results before any takedown requests are issued so it’s not a fully automated service. Future plans are to implement facial recognition to further improve its search powers, he adds.

“Once a victim of revenge porn signs up for our service we will first index all leaked content and add this to our search engines… Once [the host of the revenge porn has been] identified, we will serve a take-down notice, forcing the uploader or distributor to remove the content,” says van Leeuwen, explaining how it works.

“We will also make sure that the content is blocked from search engines and that access to it is completely denied. By doing so, the further distribution of the content is stopped and contained.”

While locating offending content is one problem that algorithms can clearly help with, the other issue here can be a legal one — i.e. host servers of revenge porn might be located in another country with a different legal regime. So how does Leakserv help with the legal complexities of getting specific content removed online?

“Almost every website and their hosting companies have an abuse policy, next to the ones that will act upon a DMCA takedown notice. Also more and more countries are creating revenge porn laws. The last resource we have is our in house lawyer,” says van Leeuwen in answer to this.

The service, which launched late last year, includes continual algorithmic monitoring, so victims don’t have to spend time themselves checking to see whether the leaked content has resurfaced again. And while anyone who has been a victim of revenge porn can freely request that Google, for example, blocks specific content themselves, it’s a laborious process — with the company’s removal form asking a lot of questions and requiring requesters specify all the individual URLs of the content they want removed, along with supplying screenshots to aid identification. So any service offering to do this continually on someone else’s behalf should be a time-saver.

Leakserv grew out of existing anti-piracy/brand protection b2b service Onsist, which issues DMCA takedowns on behalf of brands and where van Leeuwen is also CEO. But he notes it was only the idea for Leakserv that came from Onsist, after the latter saw an increase in applications from victims of revenge porn.

“The technology that was created for Leakserv has been built from scratch and focusses solely on revenge porn content, where the solutions that were built for Onsist are more build to find any kind of pirated content and fake goods in general,” he tells TechCrunch.

“Getting to know these victims and to learn the problems they have because of revenge porn was enough to decide to startup a business that would provide the services to help them.”

Leakserv currently has around 150 active customers for its service, according to van Leeuwen, with more than 200 customers in total since its inception. He and his co-founder have funded Leakserv themselves so there’s no external investors at this point.

As well as revenge porn, Leakserv more broadly addresses the removal of any content people might wish to take offline and where they own the copyright to the material — of which, if we’re talking embarrassing photos, there is surely no shortage in this photo-fueled social media age.

However van Leeuwen says the vast majority of its business to date has been focused on revenge porn removal. “The requests for revenge porn removal are around 95% and 5% for general reputation management. From the beginning we’ve put the focus on our revenge porn removal service and this is where we also advertise for,” he says.

Pricing for the Leakserv service starts at $69.

Personal content removal has been a hot topic in Europe in recent years, after a 2014 European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision ruled that search engines are data controllers and must therefore process individual requests to remove outdated or irrelevant content from search results.

The so-called European right to be forgotten has seen Google remove more than 580,000 links from search results since May 2014, the vast majority of which are from private individuals wanting outdated or irrelevant personal data taken offline.

While Google has lobbied fiercely against the ECJ ruling, and taken steps to limit how it complies with the law, Europe’s updated General Data Protection Directive, which is updating very long-in-the-tooth data protection laws and is due to come into force in 2018, enshrines the right to be forgotten in the general regional regulation. So Google really is swimming against the tide here. Meanwhile European startups like Leakserv, which offer to help preserve people’s privacy, are getting some uplift.

Featured Image: Jason Trbovich/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE