PORTLAND, Maine — When Alexis Wright was sentenced five months ago for her role in a high-profile prostitution case in Kennebunk, her attorney said her next challenge would be to track down all the websites illegally profiting from explicit images of Wright.
Now, with Wright less than a month from being released early from jail, defense attorney Sarah Churchill said she’s had success convincing several websites to remove images or video of her client.
But a cybersecurity expert at the University of Southern Maine said Friday truly scrubbing the Internet of explicit images of Wright is a task complicated by international legal ambiguities and the Web’s hard-to-search “dark side.”
“It’s all but impossible,” said Ed Sihler, associate director of the Maine Cybersecurity Cluster at USM.
Due in part to good behavior, Wright will be released from the York County Jail on Nov. 23, not quite six months into a 10-month sentence handed down on May 31, Churchill said Friday.
In a case that attracted media attention from all over the world, Wright helped run a prostitution operation out of her Kennebunk Zumba studio, where she secretly captured encounters with clients on video so that Thomaston-based business partner Mark Strong could watch remotely.
At her sentencing, Wright said she was vulnerable to manipulation by Strong, an insurance broker and part-time private investigator, because she had been abused by her father growing up. Churchill told the court she would seek to find and take down the multitude of provocative images of Wright circulating on the Internet in part as a result of her client’s instant fame.
Police investigators said they found pornographic images and videos Wright herself allegedly posted online while following up on tips about the prostitution business. Churchill said her work finding out who else had illegally copied, distributed and made money off those images and videos without Wright’s permission has been a challenge.
“It’s a slow process. It’s tough,” she said. “One, you’ve got to find the content itself on the Internet, and then you’ve got to find where it’s coming from.”
Churchill said she has received tips about where some of the images have been reposted and has sent letters to several website operators ordering the removal of the material. The attorney said that in cases where she has been able to pinpoint a source, the letters have been successful.
“At one point I got an anonymous email giving me some links to some of the material — under the heading of ‘Just so you know, this stuff is out there, if you want to do something about it,’” Churchill said Friday. “People have pretty much been compliant when we’ve said, ‘Hey you don’t have permission to use her likeness, please take it down.’ And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re interested in.”
Sihler said he’s not surprised by the agreeable response from X-rated websites caught in the act of profiting from Wright’s videos. But he said it will be a tall order to truly wipe the explicit material off the Internet.
“It’s pretty clear that Alexis owns the rights to this stuff,” he said. “People who are going to respond quickly are probably running pornography websites and are making money off of it. If they’re in the U.S. anyway. If they’re in Russia, they could tell her to go jump in a lake.”
Sihler said in addition to the difficulty asserting intellectual property rights beyond U.S. borders, he would expect Wright to have trouble cleaning up parts of the Internet that largely exist beyond the reach of everyday Web surfers.
“There’s a whole dark side of the Internet that is really atrocious,” he said. “You can remove them from the [search engine] indexes and they’re still out there on the Internet if you know where to look for them. Then you have to consider searching for Alexis spelled with a ‘1’ instead of an ‘i’ and that sort of thing.”
Sihler said archived or cached websites featuring the images could present additional challenges, as could website managers claiming fair use of the material either because they’re feigning some sort of protected political commentary with it or because they acquired it through another publicly accessible source, such as the court system.
Wright pleaded guilty to 14 counts of engaging in prostitution, one count of promotion of prostitution, one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution and two counts each of theft by deception and state income tax evasion.
Among the charges dropped by prosecutors from the York County district attorney’s office and the state attorney general’s office as part of a plea deal were dozens of counts of invasion of privacy and welfare fraud.
Strong was sentenced to 20 days in jail in late March after being convicted of 12 counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of conspiracy to promote prostitution by a jury. He was released after 15 days because of good behavior.
Police claimed that Wright kept a detailed client ledger with as many as 150 names on it, stoking widespread public speculation about whether any prominent local individuals would be revealed as johns.
Ultimately, 68 people were charged with engaging in prostitution, and despite police comments in the spring that as many as 40 more could be added to that list, a judge’s decision that Wright effectively could not be forced to testify against the alleged clients prevented additional summonses.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the charged Portland Planning Board Chairman as Joseph Gray. It is Joseph Lewis.