Earlier this week, Ars got an e-mail from a reader named Rob Plant. “I think most right-thinking people have been dismayed by the tactics of charging for picture take downs—what is worrying to me is that these practices now seem to have been taken up by more legitimate websites.”
Ars has long covered the scourge of “revenge porn,” in which seedy websites post revealing photos of unwilling people and then charge those victims a fee to take the photos down. But Plant was writing about a site called Ashley Madison, which markets itself as a dating website for married people to find accomplices in extra-marital affairs. (Its slogan is blunt: “Life is short. Have an affair.”) The website has been around since 2001, and although it's taken some guff for allegations that it populates its network with fake profiles of women, it still boasts 29 million users worldwide, most of whom are presumably not fake.
The way it works is this: Ashley Madison allows people to sign up for free with "Guest" accounts, which permit users to send and receive photos and “winks.” Guest accounts can also reply to messages sent by a member. To become a "Full Member," one must buy credits, as opposed to, say, paying a monthly subscription. Full Members can initiate messages and chats with their credits, and women can send messages “collect." After first contact (and guidelines of the Prime Directive permitting) messages between the two users are free.