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.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
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?