Lawyer Carrie Goldberg is coming for the psychos, stalkers, pervs and trolls who lurk online. She talks to Joanna Mathers
"I challenge Mark Zuckerberg, right here, to come into my office and meet some of my clients."
Carrie Goldberg, kickass victims' rights lawyer and author of new book Nobody's Victim, mounts her challenge over the phone from her law firm's HQ in Brooklyn. It's early evening in the sweltering city, but there'll be no cocktails in hipster bars tonight. It's gonna be a late one.
Goldberg, with her signature oversize black-rimmed glasses and killer heels, heads a firm that has grown in both size and reputation since its inception in 2014. Specialising in sexual abuse cases, online harassment, blackmail, revenge porn and other vileness, C.A. Goldberg makes victors of victims.
The firm represents some high-profile clients who have suffered at the hands of high-profile men. Actors Paz de la Huerta and Lucia Evans, two of the multiplicity of women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual offending, both use her firm.
But much of her company's time is taken up with the prosecution of lesser-known but just-as-nasty predators – "assholes", "pervs", "stalkers" and "trolls" whose sick behaviour they fight like Furies.
Goldberg is kickass but she's also quirky and cool. In her book, she admits to an early love of Kurt Cobain with whom she shares a birthplace, Aberdeen, Washington. On the phone, she's polite and personable; it's almost like chatting with an old friend. She apologises for a brief delay due to the unexpected arrival of family members from out of town; talks about a new love of yachting.
But you can sense a steely resolve and grit. Her language is strewn with legal minutiae, her understanding of the law used to extract justice from "assholes" (a word she uses freely). A lot of the abuse Goldberg's company handles occurs online. And it is tech CEOs, like Facebook's Zuckerberg - and the antiquated laws that protect them - that keep her awake at night.
"I haven't met any of the heads of the tech companies but I'd love to," she says. "If they met the people I work with they'd see what damage [their inaction] can do."
Online platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, Grindr and Tinder are ground zero for much abuse; we experienced it ourselves when evil visited Christchurch and was live-streamed on Facebook. But while perpetrators post and distribute their vileness, and the targets of their abuse have their dignity dragged through the mud, Zuckerberg et al sit on their hands.
They don't have to worry; they aren't held responsible for anything that appears on their platforms or apps. In this online environment, hate groups can thrive and naked photos of young girls can be shared with impunity.
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This is due to a troublesome section of an outdated law in the United States, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under this law, providers of online platforms (such as Facebook) are protected from liability for anything that appears on their sites. This essentially creates an online Wild West where trolls and pervs can frolic. It's a huge hole and one which creeps can crawl through.
Goldberg's book is littered with horrifying tales of how this legal loophole has effectively destroyed the lives of her clients. Take Matthew Herrick. Herrick's "psycho ex" used Grindr to create a fake account under his name. The fake Grindr Herrick offered everything from crystal meth to orgies; IRL [in real life] Herrick was hounded day and night by horny dudes hunting out the guy who would do anything. His address was online for all to see; guys would wait outside for him, try to push into his house.
He asked Grindr, repeatedly, to remove the fake account. It didn't. It was protected by section 230 and didn't, legally, have to do a thing. When he turned up at Goldberg's office, Herrick was "exhausted to the point of defeat". And though the perpetrator was eventually found guilty of felony charges, Grindr got away scot-free.
Together, Herrick and Goldberg have continued to wage war against Grindr in an attempt to extract some justice. So far, zero results. After their most recent legal attempt was —yet again — frustrated, Goldberg issued a statement to Yahoo: "I'm on a f***ing crusade against Section 230".
There is a lot of rhetoric around Section 230 and it's important in a country where freedom of speech in enshrined but the harm it allows can no longer be tolerated.
"People are worried that if the tech companies are able to be sued for what is on their platforms, they will start to police the content too stringently and this will lead to a crackdown on freedom of speech," says Goldberg. "But I can see no sign that this would be the case."
Her good fight against abusers has its genesis in her own experience of abuse. In 2013, recently divorced and living in New York, she was feeling ready to start dating again. She joined online dating site Ok Cupid looking for love. What she found was the exact opposite.
On the surface he was brainy, affluent and generous; purchasing jewellery and commissioning artworks for her. But his dark side didn't remain in the shadows for long. After a few weeks of dating he became jealous, possessive. He'd obsessively text-stalk Goldberg if she was working late.
One night, when she was attending a play put on by a friend, his obsession turned very nasty.
"The event was held in the basement of a community theatre [that had] no cell reception. Walking out I checked my phone and saw more than two dozen missed calls from my [now] ex . . . He called me a bitch, accused me of cheating on him. He wrote 'think you can betray me like this? I will f*&king END you'."
Goldberg was terrified but it still took a few more months for her to leave the relationship. His response was terrifying. The "psycho ex" filed false police reports claiming she'd assaulted him; spread lies on Facebook about her having STDs and addictions. He claimed that he'd hired HIV positive men to rape her. He posted naked pictures and videos of her online. It was a year of sheer and unrelenting hell.
It took $30,000 in legal fees and a year of battling before she found relief from his onslaught. But it also provided her with the impetus to start her own firm, representing people who, like her, had experienced abuse. It's now been five years since she started her firm (and shaken off the psycho ex). Her company's growth has been exponential -(she was announced as the fastest-growing law firm in the United States in 2018 - and there have been incredible victories along the way.
When we chat, she announces that she has finally extracted justice for a girl whose horrifying abuse was documented in Nobody's Victim. Vanessa, then 13, was brutally sodomised by a classmate while she was waiting for a bus after school. He filmed the attack and shared the video. Vanessa, already traumatised, was the subject of ridicule and disgust. The boy thought it was a joke.
The video was eventually seen by the school principal, who called Vanessa to his office. His response? "Why didn't you fight him?" The police became involved; more inaction, more humiliation. They told Vanessa that the boy's parents might press charges against her for underage sex.
Goldberg was her last attempt at justice. She says Vanessa looked like a zombie when she first entered her office. Four years on, justice is served. "Vanessa came into sign the legal papers this week," says Goldberg. "She has a resolution."
Goldberg's firm, though born under the Obama administration, has for nearly three years existed under the shadow of Trump. It's been a dark time in the United States for women, people of colour and anyone who doesn't fit his male-centric, white paradigm.
On the night of the United States election in November 2016, Goldberg was in the mood to celebrate; Hilary Clinton looked to be a shoo-in. "We had the champagne and we were ready to have a great night. But we ended up in tears, comforting each other. In fact, my now-fiance and I bonded with each other as we commiserated that night."
The Trump administration, according to Goldberg, has given assholes licence to be even bigger assholes. White supremacists and misogynists have a role model on the biggest seat of power in the Western World and the decisions he's made have taken the country back decades when it comes to gender issues.
We discuss the weirdness of having such a vociferous "pussy grabber" supported so wholeheartedly by the religious right. "A lot of his supporters who are religious as are hoping that Roe vs Wade will be overturned," she explains. [This was 1973 court case that enshrined a woman's right to decide for herself whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy].
"As President, he can appoint people into positions of power that have the right to overturn [such laws]. This is part of the reason why the religious right like him."
One of Trump's appointments has made it harder for those subject to abuse in schools, as Vanessa was, to utilise existing laws set up to protect them. In the US, Title IX of Education Amendments (1972) states that when a student reports sexual violence to a school administrator, the school is required to thoroughly and impartially investigate this, while protecting the victim.
Title IX was prioritised under the Obama administration but decimated under Trump. When he appointed Betsy DeVos (Republican financial supporter extraordinaire) as secretary of education, she immediately overturned all the good work done under Obama. In fact, she asked men's rights activists to ask for advice on how to investigate sexual assault in schools.
Turbulent times indeed. But change is in the air. #Metoo has given abuse victims a voice. The huge growth in clients seeking Goldberg's services indicates women and men who have been subject to such abuse are emboldened to speak up, no longer relegated to a shadow world of suffering.
Given the amount of technology-fuelled horror that Goldberg is privy to, I ask if she has reservations about it.
"I have a complicated relationship with technology," she admits. "My mum has ALS [motor neurone disease] and she can't talk but technology has given her a means by which to communicate with me. Technology has revolutionised all of our lives but the laws haven't kept up with it. And these laws have enabled it to become what it is."
Until the law catches up with the technology, Goldberg believes education around consent and online literacy, and the development of empathy, are key to addressing the issues her firm faces daily.
"We should be teaching empathy from an early age," she says. "It doesn't need to be at school; even talking at home about how your actions affect other people, asking how your kids would feel if that happened to them, would help."
In the meantime, Goldberg and her colleagues will be at the coal face, fighting abuse at every level. There's no backing down, her team are warriors and will take no prisoners. In the conclusion of her book she writes: "We may have been victimised once but we're not victims. We are an army of warriors and we won't back down."
Psychos, stalkers, pervs and trolls, you are on notice. You have been warned.
• Carrie Goldberg, Nobody's Victim – Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs and Trolls (Little, Brown Book Group, $38) is out now.