The phrase "Stai faciendo il video? Bravo" appears on a gravestone and is erased.
Courtesy of Maria Teresa Giglio / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

A Mother Wants the Internet to Forget Italy's Most Viral Sex Tape

Two years after her daughter’s suicide, a woman is fighting to limit how far a meme can go.

Maria Teresa Giglio has a daily routine of hunting down men who are trying to watch her daughter’s sex tape. She starts by searching the internet for her daughter’s name: Tiziana Cantone. Then she scours websites for photos of Tiziana, and tries to track down back channels or personal pages that still host her videos.

One comment she found recently was posted under an article about Tiziana on Facebook: “Where can I get a link to the video??” Maria took three screenshots: one of the comment, one of the commenter—a chirpy-looking young man, judging by his profile picture—and one of a photo of the young man with a woman who Maria assumed was his girlfriend. Maria shared the screenshots on her own account as evidence that people are still talking about Tiziana. “He’s just like the other usual ‘good’ boys I come across on Facebook,” she says. “The ones who have pictures posing and smiling with their other half, but the next minute they’re wanting to watching her video.”

Three years ago, Tiziana, an energetic young Italian woman who managed the staff at her family’s business in Naples, sent several explicit videos to five people on WhatsApp. The recordings show her having sex with several men; her face is visible, but the men are mostly unidentifiable. Her ex-boyfriend Sergio Di Palo was one of the recipients of the videos, though it’s unclear if he’s featured in them.

Within weeks, the footage was shared across WhatsApp and all over adult websites. Rumors swirled around who posted the videos online: Had Tiziana sent them to Di Palo out of spite? Had Di Palo or someone else uploaded them after the couple broke up? Was Tiziana in fact a wannabe porn star? The exact circumstances were never made clear—but that didn’t stop the videos from continuing to spread to Facebook and Instagram. Soon, Tiziana was a bona fide internet phenomenon.

During one of her videos, Tiziana smiles at the camera and says, “Stai facendo il video? Bravo!” (“You’re filming? Bravo!”) The phrase prompted a national debate in Italy about how sexually liberated women are treated. It also became a meme, parodied on YouTube and printed on T-shirts and phone cases sold on eBay. Two Italian footballers created their own mock version of the video in a supermarket mimicking the quote. National-radio hosts made a jingle of the phrase.

After a year, Tiziana was still being hounded. She quit her job, went into hiding in Tuscany, and began the process of changing her name. She routinely reported social-media postings, but by herself, it was impossible to stop the videos from spreading. Eventually, she decided to take legal action, waging battles in court against her ex-boyfriend, tech companies, and the local authorities for their role in allowing the the videos to be shared. The strategy worked: On September 5, 2016, Tiziana won the “right to be forgotten,” an often-contested ruling widely used in the European Union that allows people to request the deletion of links from search engines and sites. A court ordered that the videos be removed from Google searches and Facebook, among other websites.

The family’s celebration was short-lived, however. The court also ordered that Tiziana pay €20,000 in legal costs. A week later, she killed herself.

In the year and a half since, Tiziana’s fame, like all viral phenomena, has finally begun to fade. But for Maria, her daughter’s death was only the beginning. She has decided to pursue a new legal route: to hold tech companies accountable for failing to remove her daughter’s videos quickly enough. While sites like Google and Facebook were able to remove some search results and copies, Maria contends that it’s also their responsibility, as part of the right to be forgotten, to scrub out the memes, parody videos, and other scattered digital remnants that identify Tiziana.

Maria’s continued battle brings Tiziana’s case into the grayest and most challenging forefront of the ongoing discussion about the right to be forgotten. Is it possible to demand that something’s erased from the internet when it has been reimagined, remixed, and flipped into memes across thousands of web pages? What’s the right course of action when the source of a family’s trauma becomes part of culture itself?

When Tiziana’s videos first surfaced online, she fled home to Maria. Her email address wasn’t posted anywhere public, but people still found it and sent her death threats. She turned off her phone when her Instagram and Facebook notifications were flooded with abuse from strangers. In shopping centers, people stopped to glare at her, and took their phones out to photograph the woman they’d seen online. The local church became the only place she could go without being approached.

Maria, now 58 years old, lives in a villa she shares with her sister and 91-year-old mother in the province of Mugnano di Napoli, a remote town on the outksirts of Naples decorated with painted murals and cobbled streets. Maria raised Tiziana, her only child, on her own, and Tiziana returned to live at home for periods over her adult years. She and Maria would go on holidays together and speak on the phone daily, “like sisters,” Maria says. “When she came home she shared my bed with me, and we’d stay up and talk about life.”

Maria describes Tiziana as a sunny and active child, but says that her daughter fell into darker times as she reached her teenage years. After studying classical dance, gymnastics, and piano, Tiziana enrolled at Federico II University in Naples. She completed half a law degree, but stopped her studies after she began to suffer from depression. The death of Tiziana’s grandfather—her “father figure”—left her heartbroken, Maria says. Tiziana also suffered from anxiety and an eating disorder. She had attempted suicide at least two times before her death, according to Maria.

Tiziana’s relationship with her mother changed when she met Sergio Di Palo, whom Maria says she began dating in 2014. Maria describes the couple’s relationship as “volatile,” and says that Tiziana admitted she was nervous around him. In August 2014, Tiziana declined to go on vacation with their family to Capri, a decision that Maria believes came as a result of what she considers to be Di Palo’s controlling nature. “My daughter was afraid of him,” Maria says. (Di Palo and his lawyer, Bruno Larosa, both declined to comment on allegations against Di Palo in this story.)

When Tiziana’s videos went viral, Italian media outlets reported that she had willingly sent them out to Di Palo and four others on WhatsApp, but that they were made public on the internet without her consent. Maria believes that her daughter was under the influence of drugs when they were recorded. She has watched the videos herself—to “understand”—and took a sedative in preparation. “I was upset to see her like that, to know she was being taken advantage of,” Maria says.

Maria noticed worrying signs as soon as Tiziana arrived back home. “It was the first time in my life I’ve seen my daughter in that state,” she says. “She was pale and covered in bruises, and I wanted to bring her to the hospital. She didn’t want to, she just said to me: ‘Mom please, take me home, I want my house and you. Take me away from here.’”

On the afternoon of September 13, 2016, Maria’s sister went to Tiziana’s room and found her dead. Tiziana’s funeral was televised, and during the procession, Maria appeared to be so overcome with grief that she had to be physically carried into the church.

The suicide of a young woman bullied for her sex tape hit headlines around the world. Often referring to Tiziana simply as an “Italian woman,” international news reports pulled selfies from her Facebook page and pieced together her ordeal. In Italy, the attention surrounding Tiziana led reporters to hastily write up any information they could find on her, whether it was true or not.

By that point, Maria had long been obsessively documenting the media coverage of her daughter’s ordeal. She believed reporters were smearing her daughter’s name, and wanted to hold every one accountable. One person she closely watched was Elisa D’Ospina, a journalist who was one of the first people with a large following to reveal Tiziana’s full identity. D’Ospina stood out to Maria because her influence on social media helped false information about Tiziana spread. (D’Ospina says that she herself was harassed after revealing Tiziana’s personal details, but wouldn’t comment further on the decision.)

The day after Tizana’s death, an editor at the newspaper that published D’Ospina’s exposé, Il Fatto Quotidiano, became one of only a few people to claim any culpability for the suicide. In a public apology, the editor, Peter Gomez, acknowledged that D’Ospina’s post contained many factual errors, such as the claim that Tizana’s videos were part of a marketing ploy for her to become a porn star. “It is correct and painful to say … that we too played a part, albeit a small one, in this crime done by the web,” he wrote.

As the harrassment mounted, Maria and Tiziana had pursued the “right to be forgotten” to give Tiziana a legal backing to move on with her life. The right is based on the idea that a person’s privacy should not be jeopardized by irrelevant or harmful content every time somebody searches their name on the internet. It can be used for victims of crimes like revenge porn, when a victim’s private content may be discoverable by simply searching their name. Though discussed as a concept in courts as early as 2006, the ruling was only solidified by the European Court of Justice in 2014 after a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, asked Google to remove information about his financial history. Since then, Google says that they have received more than 655,000 requests. That includes almost 34,000 requests for delistings by politicians and government officials over the past two years. According to Google, social-media sites, directories, news articles, and government pages make up most of the links that people want removed.

These requests have been controversial, because the right to be forgotten raises questions about who should be able to determine what is irrelevant or harmful, and who should be granted that right. Opponents argue that the removal of such content can be regarded as censorship, and limits the public’s access to free information.

After Tiziana’s death, prosecutors in Naples opened an investigation into “incitement to suicide,” a criminal charge that is often used in cases of euthanasia, but that also can be used in cases of extreme bullying like with Tiziana. Four men were questioned, including her ex-boyfriend, Di Palo. At one point, Maria’s prosecutor attempted to force Apple to grant him access to Tiziana’s locked iPhone, in the hope of identifying who was the first to share the videos. It didn’t work—but the moment did mark the start of Maria’s battle against major tech companies.

Google, Facebook, and other sites are obligated to remove content if it violates their platform’s rules, or if they’re told to do so under law. In Tiziana’s case, Google says they responded quickly to the court’s decision to grant her the right to be forgotten, and removed a number of links in a matter of hours. They also say that while the memes, parodies, and other mock representations of Tiziana that extended beyond the private videos themselves are the type of content they would typically remove under the right-to-be-forgotten ruling, they require links to the problematic material to be flagged by users before they’re taken down. Facebook, for their part, says it takes a zero-tolerance approach to the kind of material that was shared of Tiziana, but would not comment further on specifics.

On May 25, the right to be forgotten will be upgraded when the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation, a sweeping privacy law that restricts how companies use and collect Europeans’ data, goes into effect. Companies will need to be specific and transparent with their users on how they plan to use their personal information, and to disclose what data is stored on them. The law also gives users the right to have their data deleted, including any information related to a person that can be used to identify them, like their name, photo, and posts on social-networking sites—precisely what Tiziana had fought for.

When such a request is approved, any company or entity that holds or processes data in Europe (whether that company is based in the EU or not) will be required under EU law to remove any identifiable personal information—e.g. news stories, and even images of a face—related to the request without “undue delay.” (The duration of “undue delay” has yet to be clarified.) If a company fails to act quickly, it will face fines of up to 20 million euros, or 4 percent of global annual revenue, depending on how much they fail to comply. For Google and Facebook, that could potentially reach billions.

Before the revised data-protection law was announced, Facebook said it believed the right to be forgotten was “wrong” as a legal model. But in April, after weeks of intense scrutiny over Facebook’s data controversy, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company would apply the EU’s data-privacy standards worldwide, asking users to review information on areas such as whether they want to continue sharing certain profile information and whether they want to use facial-recognition technology.

No one can say whether these new, stringent guidelines could have helped save Tiziana’s life. Maria blames the speed of the videos’ spread, and the slowness of their removal, for her daughter’s death. She argues that some requests for the right to be forgotten need to be addressed by tech companies at a faster rate than others, such as if the individual’s life is at risk, citing her daughter’s history of suicide attempts and depression. The hope is also that the new, revised guidelines will prevent cases like Tiziana’s from being dragged out in long, expensive court cases for months or years at a time.

Neither Facebook nor Google provides exact figures on how many people monitor flagged content and right-to-be-forgotten requests, and at what speed they reply. They also don’t specify what a person can do if the request to remove content is of as significant a scale as Tiziana’s case. Google says it has dozens of people in the EU who process right-to-be-forgotten requests, but the company receives thousands of requests a day. There is no flag option in its request form to alert them of a request’s scope or time-sensitivity.

Last December, a court ruled that no one had been found guilty of incitement to suicide for Tiziana’s death. Still, Maria is working with a law firm and Cristian Nardi, a local online-security expert who offered to help the family, in pursuing legal action against Facebook Italy through an investigation with the city’s public-prosecution office. They are arguing that the company helped enable the spread of the videos. “Unlike other countries, like the United Kingdom or the United States, there’s no law here in Italy for revenge porn,” Nardi says. “Tech companies here are then not expected, or fail, to remove content quickly to protect victims’ privacy or defamation. The current appeal processes are simply too slow, and if they’re not changed, what happened to Tiziana will happen again.”

Maria continues to scour the internet for her daughter’s name. The screenshots she shared on Facebook of the young man looking for her daughter’s videos reminded her of the near impossible task she faces. The videos still exists on some adult websites, where “blow job” is tagged alongside “suicide.” Tiziana’s death became an entry on Know Your Meme, and “You’re filming? Bravo!” has its own page on Urban Dictionary. Maria says that lingering digital remnants like these keep her from remembering her daughter as she wants to: “beautiful and smiling.”

“I died that day, too,” she says of Tiziana’s suicide. “But if I am alive now, it's because it must have some meaning, I’m convinced.”

Since Tiziana’s case, other women have gone viral in a similar manner in Italy. There was an office worker who recorded a song-and-dance jingle about her workplace, which viewers described as “cringeworthy.” Another woman, a mother of two, said she became suicidal after an explicit video of her leaked online. Both were mocked in memes and harassed on social media. Some dubbed the public shaming the Tiziana Cantone effect.