In the summer of 2016, a flood of abuse allegations came out against celebrity Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum, a shocking blow to one of the cryptography world’s most outspoken figures. In a string of testimonials, accusers shared allegations ranging from professional aggression to outright sexual assault. Within days, Appelbaum left the Tor Project. Appelbaum maintained his innocence and was never charged with a crime, but he became persona non grata in most of the industry — a powerful early example of the growing movement to banish sexual harassment and assault from the workplace.
Now, three years later, Appelbaum has resurfaced, as one of his accusers fends off defamation claims. His reappearance fits into a troubling backlash to the anti-harassment movement, as accusers step forward to share their stories and end up fending off lawsuits from their alleged assailants.
Emily Martin, who administers the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund at the National Women’s Law Center, says the fund has seen an increase in defamation suits against women coming forward in recent months. “Frankly, it’s just one example of a broader pattern of trying to claim victim status by harassers,” Martin says. “This is one way to say, the real problem here is what happens to me.”
“It’s hard to see the broader trend as anything but a way to punish individuals for speaking out,” she continued.
The case Appelbaum became involved with centers on Peter Todd, a former Bitcoin Core developer who remains influential in the cryptocurrency field. Todd is suing a security researcher named Isis Lovecruft for defamation after Lovecruft publicly accused Todd of rape and harassment in a series of tweets. Lovecruft was also pivotal in the claims against Appelbaum. As Todd pushes to question her credibility, Appelbaum has become a source for testimony in the case.
In a deposition, a 24-year-old student going by “Jane Doe” says Todd sexually assaulted her in 2017 in the aftermath of a sleep paralysis attack, pulling her onto his lap and refusing to let her leave his hotel room until they had sex. In a separate deposition, Lovecruft details meeting Todd to discuss a computer security question, only to be subjected to repeated graphic sexual advances. According to the deposition, Todd followed Lovecruft out of the cafe where they met and only stopped following them when they physically shoved him away. (Lovecruft did not respond to requests for comment.)
“I personally have a story about Peter Todd,” Lovecruft wrote on Twitter in February, “and I’ve personally spoken with survivors with absolutely awful and horrifying reports who are terrified of him and of coming forward (rightly so). I however am not afraid and shitty dudes are going down.” In a separate tweet, they referred to Todd as a rapist, a claim he cites as defamatory in his complaint.
Todd disputes the allegations from both the student and Lovecruft, and, like Appelbaum, no charges have been filed in connection with the alleged incidents. However, Todd claims in a filing that he “lost professional opportunities, including conference speakerships, because of Defendant’s statements.” In response, Todd has asked the court to order Lovecruft to delete the tweets as well as pay damages and legal costs. The case has now been proceeding for months, while a motion is still pending to dismiss it under a California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) provision, which is designed to limit frivolous defamation suits.
Reached for comment by The Verge, Todd insisted he filed the suit in order to clear his name. “The court system exists to provide an avenue for relief precisely for situations like this one,” Todd said. “In this lawsuit, an impartial judge or jury, not affected by an Internet mob and one-sided online fundraising projects, can look at the evidence and determine whether Isis Lovecruft has defamed me.”
In a surprising move, Todd chose to call on Jake Appelbaum as a character witness. In a deposition, Appelbaum argues that Lovecruft’s accusation against him was similarly damaging. “Lovecruft’s statements accusing me of rape and sexual assault are absolutely false,” Appelbaum writes. “I could not live with myself if I had remained silent while Plaintiff was seriously harmed by the same malicious behavior that I have experienced and continue to experience.”
Cryptocat developer Nadim Kobeissi also provided a deposition in support of Todd, saying Lovecruft’s accusations of sexual misconduct have “caused me significant harm in both my personal and professional life.” The deposition alleges an incident in which Kobeissi kissed Lovecruft on the cheek while visiting a nude beach, although the significance of the incident is unclear.
Reached for comment, Kobeissi stressed the importance of due process. “In my sworn statement, I presented what I believe to be the truth of this case as it relates to me,” Kobeissi told The Verge. “I believe that the court of law, not Twitter, is the best way to handle these matters.”
The case has emerged alongside several other defamation suits in which men accused of harassment or abuse have gone to court to silence their accusers. The creator of the Shitty Media Men list was sued in 2018 and faced up to $1.5 million in damages until the case was dismissed. More recently, the voice actor Vic Mignogna filed suit against two women who had accused him of assault, although that case was also dismissed.
Some of those attempts have been disastrous for accusers. Last week, a French court ordered journalist Sarah Muller to pay 20,000 euros to a television executive who she claimed had harassed her at work.
Todd has denied that his suit was an attempt to punish valid claims. “My lawsuit isn’t about silencing victims because Lovecruft isn’t a victim in this case,” he told The Verge. “Rather, my lawsuit seeks redress for the harm caused the false and vicious lies that Isis Lovecruft has published about me on the Internet.”
Still, some see Appelbaum’s reappearance as one more example of accused harassers getting off easy while their victims are forced out of jobs and entire industries. Karen Reilly, a former developer advocate at the Tor Project who left after blowing the whistle on Appelbaum’s alleged conduct, said she believes men accused of abuse are still finding more support than their accusers. “Everybody talks about the men being ruined, but they’re not ruined,” says Reilly. “When the victims are driven out, nobody with the power to support them gives a damn where they go.”