Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sued for trolling?

Two Yale law students, fed up with threats and lies being printed alongside their full names at the law school admission forum, AutoAdmit.com, filed a lawsuit against multiple anonymous trolls. Thus far, three of these trolls have been identified, and will likely have their names published in court proceedings. Efforts are underway to identify the remaining trolls, who, amongst other slurs, threatened sexual assault and made claim that the women had sexually transmitted diseases. The complainants claimed that the number of posts led to these slurs being the first item listed with their names on major search engines, and that multiple complaints to the site administrator led did not lead to a removal of these posts or banning of the trolls. 


Although the suit has yet to be resolved, and the article suggests that it is questionable it will even make it to trial, it has opened up the proverbial can of worms regarding anonymity over the internet and free speech. Up until this point, lawsuits against trolls had been thrown out, under the cover of freedom of speech and rights to private expression. 

In my eyes, these individuals clearly crossed the line-- uttering threats should never be lumped as freedom of speech, which originally had far nobler intentions regarding political freedoms, rather than giving random people full right to slander individuals or groups for shits and giggles. I also think it serves as a good reminder that the internet is not supposed to be the lawless Wild West. Simply because you can hide behind a screen and say things you wouldn't want attached to your real name doesn't mean you have free rein to be malicious. It also serves as a reminder that none of us are nearly as anonymous as we would like to believe, screen names, phony back stories and avatars aside.

As the internet worms its way into our day-to-day lives to a greater extent that anyone would have predicted, we are witnessing issues that have not had to be considered before coming to the front stage. The access this medium provides to different populations and subcultures has had tremendous benefits-- a billion examples come to mind, like the teenager in a small Southern town, struggling with his sexual identity, who is able to find some solace through these wireless yet concrete connections, and who is able to be open about his identity, if only behind a screen name at first. Yet, as with anything this innovative, there is always the potential for abuse. I am appalled at some of the hatred I have seen spewed out on various forums, all behind the veil of anonymity. I sometimes wish I had remained a little more sheltered, so as not to know that all it took was a screen blocking their faces to reveal the hatred, misogyny and racism simmering within some people.

This case brings up many interesting questions. Should trolls and others who engage in online harassment, which may or may not cross into the realm of that described in this lawsuit, be subject to identification? Should people have a right to anonymity online? If so, where does the line between stating one's opinion and trolling lie, and how can we identify it? Does the identification of people by their IP address set a dangerous precedent for tracking people for a variety of reasons? 

What do you think?

27 comments:

Katelin said...

i think that if someone is willing to makes threats against someone, they shouldn't be able to hide behind anonymity.

lspoon said...

I just don't understand why people do that kind of stuff to begin with.

Jenn said...

I think if someone is willing to threaten someone else they better be willing to deal with the consequences that come along with it. If they're saying someone's face looks stupid it's one thing, but if they're threatening sexual assault...that's entirely different. The severity of the comments is important.


I suppose I could argue the other side of this as well, but for now I'll stick with just one.

Psychgrad said...

I think someone's anonymity should be respected as long as they do not infringe on other people's right. Harassement certainly crosses the line.

But, it certainly opens a can of worms in terms of dealing with the issue.

pelf said...

I guess that's why "freedom of speech" isn't all that free. And it's one of those things that does not have a clear boundary, so it's really useless thinking where to draw the line.

Yoda said...

Where to draw the line b/w speech and threats lies with the judge -- as it always has.

Also, this case is similar to a hypothetical one in which a truant goes around town with a can of paint writing "Paris Hilton is a whore!". If Paris wanted, she could file a case against the person and the police would eventually identify the miscreant. The fact that its an online forum is a mere distraction in the legal point of view of the case, or so I (who has no law degree whatsoever) think!

NamesAreHardToPick said...

I'm going to take the highly unpopular side and state that I support a person's right to "troll." I do not agree with society that hate speech should not be tolerated in general as it could come down to who is calling what "hate speech." In terms of threats so far as I know there needs to be a legitimate source of concern and even then, we must question whether such should be allowed or not.

It is a hot topic, but as someone who's had threats and insults thrown at his face, I can say that it is a part of life and we do have to learn to deal with it. When people are threatened in real life with violence there is a level of that which can be dismissed, I do - in some ways - find it hard to believe that an anonymous person can make a threat that has legitimate backing to it. If people are truly angry enough at someone, more often than not they will take out their anger in their own way. If we don't allow threats to take place at all, for as far as we know that could cause more violence.

I could really argue that threats allow people to let go of some rage that will cause them to be less likely to take action, whereas preventing threats might cause more problems than it solves. There will always be some who threaten and take action, but for every bomb threat we've had at where I work and how many bombs have gone off ... well, I'd say most threats are vain in the first place.

Somewhat impertinent, but it will be interesting to see where the ACLU stands on this if they get involved.

Bayjb said...

If you threaten someone like that, you can't just hide behind an anonymous title. That's so cowardly.

ToughGirl101 said...

There's being annoying, then there's slander and libel. Being annoying is someone's right, but slander and libel is NO ONE'S Right.

Dexter Colt said...

I don't think we're ready for anti-trolling laws. Aren't the courts overwhelmed enough?

And, using an ip address to identify someone is no guarantee you're identifying the troll. A smart troll could simply spoof his/her ip address.

Caz said...

Maybe in the past you could get away with hiding behind a computer screen, but in these days when SO much of life, business, and even love is conducted over the internet, you can't. I think you need to be able to stand up and take responsibility for the words you say and the actions you take in every day life, and that includes online. If you wouldn't say it to someone's face, why would you say it anonymously online?
With the freedom we have online, we need to act responsibily and respect the rights that other online users have.

Crashdummie said...

Internet is still a blurry forum when it cimes to laws, but you would think common sense would be enough.

Doenst matter if your behind a screen or not, you should take responsibility for your actions. Harassement is harrassment, no matter in what form and there are consequences.

Salt City Mistress said...

It's a very worthy discussionl, unfortunately it will never be solved without legal involvement and enforcement of said legal involvement. The anonymity of the internet allows the worst parts of our behavior to materialize and bully others. Numerous cases have bounded onto the scene lately such as the suicide of the young girl over a "relationship" on MySpace. Where do we go? Good question. I choose not to be anonymous, but that's my decision. If that decision were already decided for me I might think differently.

Nilsa S. said...

I stand strong behind a person's right to remain anonymous SO LONG AS they are not a threat to other individuals or the greater good of the community. To me, it's very black and white. Those threatening harm to others deserve to be outed and appropriately punished. Period. Because ANONYMOUS does not give one a hall pass to do things they wouldn't normally do if their identity were known.

Miriam D said...

You know, I read an article about trolling that mentions this and interviews other trolls in the NYtimes. I think it's coming out in the sunday magazine. You should read it.... it's fascinating. Also, a little disturbing, in how easy it is to get someone's entire identifying information off the internet. Scary. The shroud of anonymity no longer seems safe.

Daisy said...

I ran across your blog and enjoyed it! I love this topic and have often wondered about it myself. Libel, slander, and verbal assault are all against the law. Period. Full Stop. (or whatever - they're the same to me.) Anyway - I don't believe the Internet should be an avenue to break the law in secret and if someone breaks the law they should lose their right to anonymity. Committing murder anonymously doesn't make it ok. Stealing anonymously doesn't make it ok. Libel, slander, threats or verbal assault anonymously is not ok.

NamesAreHardToPick said...

As much as I hate to say, many of you are quoting the law in the States or in a few other countries, but the internet is a worldwide phenomenon. To say that everyone must obey these rules that are ours is rather asinine. These other countries may not have these same rules thus slander, threats or libel to them is not wrong.

Crushed said...

Well, as you probably know I did kind of have problems of this nature.
They're over now, but they certainly have caused me to set in place procedures.

I have actually threatened writs twice- in one case I tracked down the firm someone worked for and e-mailed their boss informing them not only would I issue a writ, I'd do it publically.

In fact part of the reason was threat to my own anonymity.

Long term, I actually think we do need some kind of voluntary blogging orgainistion- along the lines of a trade union, part of the reason behind would be to tackle issues such as this.

di.di said...

"Didn't their mom teach them to keep their mouth shut if they have nothing nice to say"... smart advice that keep you out of trouble...

nicoleantoinette said...

I definitely think that once it's threatening, it crosses the line and is punishable. Interesting debate though.

pies said...

Threats: yes, legal action should be pursued.

Slander: are anonymous internet posters really that credible?

pies said...

namesarehardtopick makes a good point. But I think an effort should be made to discover the identity of the threatener... and an effort should be made to pursue legal action if he/she is within the appropiate legal jurisdiction.

Of course, it also depends on the credibility of the threat and other things.

But, in general, threats should be taken seriously.

Z said...

This is such a tough issue, and honestly, my own thoughts aren't well formulated enough to verbalize... But it is definitely something we should all think about!

Brett said...

In six months the only bad comments on my blog have been left anonymously , i feel that if you cannot put your name to what you say, it detracts the value of it. Those comments on my blog carry less meaning with me because of that.

captain corky said...

I just worry about the possibility of Internet witch hunts.

Matt said...

I agree- they crossed the line...freedom of speech wasn't brought forth so that people could threaten other people.

eric1313 said...

Yeah, threats, libel and slander are not free speech, actually they are quite illegal to varying degrees. Courts need to pull their craniums out of the posteriors on this one.

The only thing I fear is when the man finally cracks down on all copy written materials, as I have a fondness for typing one of the lines in my poems into google and doing an image search for anything that might possibly fit.

My astronomy pics are free domain, however. I doubt I have anything to worry about, but then again, so did a lot of youtube aficionados.