There seems to be something of a trend happening lately. Actually, it more like a well-known phenomenon online has finally spilled into the public spotlight when the story about death threats against blogger Kathy Sierra broke into the news. Another web kerfluffle became news when the Washington Post reported that anonymous postings in an online forum had cost some law students job opportunities. That same forum later exacted the same price of one of its founders.
In the wake of Kathy Sierra’s story, move women spoke up about similar experiences; stalking and threats of violence from anonymous commenters on their own and other blogs. Now a famous female author is making claims of not-so-anonymous cyber-stalking.
There’s no mystery about it. Patricia Cornwell knows whodunit, and she wants him to stop.
The best-selling crime author has filed a federal lawsuit against a lesser-known Virginia author, asking the court to force him to stop writing “defamatory and contemptuous” material about her on the Internet, including calling her racist and claiming she stole part of his novel.
An injunction was issued against author Leslie R. Sachs in 2000, after he began writing on his Web site that a Cornwell novel, “The Last Precinct,” had a plot much like the one in his “The Virginia Ghost Murders,” and affixed stickers to his book that read: “The book that famous PATRICIA CORNWELL threatened to destroy.”
After the injunction was issued, Sachs was legally bound to stop his behavior toward her. But he didn’t, and instead his blogs grew to include new libelous claims against her, hurting her reputation and causing her emotional distress, according to the most recent suit filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond on April 23.
Cornwell and her lawyers have the advantage of knowing her cyber-stalker’s identity — a lesser known writer, Leslie Sachs, who has also accused Cornwall of plagiarizing one of his novels. That’s something most people who deal with cyber-stalking don’t have, because of maintaining anonymity online, as a recent CNN article on Sierra’s story points out.
The beauty of — and the challenge for — the Internet is that anyone can publish. Kids can instant message each other while doing their homework; enthusiasts create plethoras of fansites and forums; people with niche interests build communities online and connect on a global level.
The results can be chaotic. As the Internet spans traditional societal and geographical boundaries, the vast majority of people will connect in a civil manner (albeit with some heated debate.) But, as with any large gathering of people, groups with conflicting ideas can clash, while those with more sociopathic tendencies may start out with a trouble-making agenda.
It’s also easy to provide an alias online, and with a little skill, Internet users can mask their identities further and target their victims from behind a veil of secrecy. This can give people the sense that they are separated from their words – as computer publishing supremo Tim O’Reilly says in his blog, “When people are anonymous, they will often let themselves say or do things that they would never do when they are identified.”
And even if the issue isn’t cyberstalking of a particular individual, anonymous agitators can turn the positive experience of an online community into an unpleasant one, as Cory Doctorow describes in his column, which offers suggestions for “preventing jerks from taking over the internet.”
It can be distressing. If you’re part of a nice little community of hamster-fanciers, Trekkers, or Volkswagen enthusiasts, it’s easy to slip into a kind of camaraderie, a social setting in which everyone talks about life, aspirations, family problems, personal triumphs. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what brought you together — the fact that you’re together is what matters.
Then, almost without warning, your community goes toxic. Someone in your group undergoes a radical personality shift and begins picking fights, or someone new comes to the party with an agenda. Or, worst of all: Your little clubhouse achieves some small measure of fame and is overrun by newcomers who don’t know that Liza is a little bit touchy on the subject of hamster balls, or that old Fred gets into a froth anytime someone asks about retrofitting a bud vase into a vintage Beetle, or that everyone here actually kind of knows Wil Wheaton from reading his blog and he’s a total mensch, so jokes about shoving Wesley out the airlock are frowned upon.
Sometimes, you rebound. More often, you tumble. Things get worse. The crowds get bigger, the fights get hotter. Pathologically angry (but often funny) people show up and challenge each other to new levels of vitriol.
Hands up everyone who’s been there. That’s what I thought. Doctorow’s column is full of tips and advice (Mary Brandel has a few good ones too), but he stops short of one bit of advice that I’ve given to others and practiced myself: don’t allow anonymous comments. That can mean anything from requiring registration for users to comment to merely requiring an email address, in order to make people at least somewhat accountable for what they say.
Tracking IP addresses can help too. It can also reveal what I call “the 1% Rule” and what Jakob Nielsen calls “participation inequality”, which basically means that only about 1% of blog readers and online community members regularly comment and contribute to the discussion. Another 9% participate occasionally, and 90% are “lurkers” who read everyone else’s messages but never comment themselves. That means that it’ really easy for a tiny group of anonymous commenters, talking mostly amongst themselves, to create disruption that sees bigger than it really is.
So, why let them be anonymous? Isn’t “sunshine the best disinfectant”? Who’d know better than the Washington Post, after dealing with its own comment drama?
You would think Web sites would want to keep the hate-mongers from taking over, but many sites are unwitting enablers. At washingtonpost.com, editors and producers say they struggle to balance transparency against privacy. Until recently, many of the site’s posters identified themselves with anonymous Internet handles — which were the site’s default ID. Now, people must enter a “user ID” that appears with their comments.
In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.
Hal Straus, washingtonpost.com’s interactivity and communities editor, says the changes “move us in the direction of transparency.” But the distinction is not quite a difference, because washingtonpost.com user IDs can be real names or fictional Internet handles. While the site prohibits comments that are libelous, abusive, obscene or otherwise inappropriate, Mr. anticrat424 could still find a well-amplified podium at washingtonpost.com.
And should Mr. anticrat424 have a “well-amplified podium”? Does he have a right to one on any blog or online community he chooses to visit? Does anyone who maintains a blog or online community have a responsibility to give him one? Does he have a right to be anonymous? To be anonymous on any forum he chooses? To be anonymous on any forum he chooses, and to use it as an opportunity to abuse, threaten or libel someone else? Does anyone who maintains a blog or online community have a responsibility to let him do so in their forum?
After Kathy Sierra’s experience became news, Tim O’Reilly led a discussion that yielded a set of voluntary guidelines for bloggers, which included the advice to “consider eliminating anonymous comments.”
When people are anonymous, they will often let themselves say or do things that they would never do when they are identified. There are important contexts in which anonymity is important, for example, for political speech in repressive regimes. But in most contexts, accountability via identity changes how people behave. Requiring a valid email address for comments won’t prevent people who want to hide their identity from doing so, but it’s one more indication that accountability is valued.
Making people accountable for what they post in comments may become an inevitable part of running a blog or online forum, because site owners may find themselves being accountable for what they allow users to post in forums they own. I wrote earlier about a blogger who was sued because of comments made by readers, in a case that was later thrown out. A more recent case, involving a site that matches roomates, suggests that site owners may be accountable for what users post.
A Web site that matches roommates may be liable for what its users say about their preferences, a fractured three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled yesterday.
The suit was brought by two California fair housing groups that objected to postings on the matching service, Roommate.com. The groups said the site violated the Fair Housing Act by allowing and encouraging its users to post notices expressing preferences for roommates based on sex, race, religion and sexual orientation.
The ruling knocked down the main defense of the site. In 1996, Congress granted immunity to Internet service providers for transmitting unlawful materials supplied by others. Most courts have interpreted the scope of that immunity broadly.
Though their rationales varied, all three judges in the decision yesterday agreed that the site could be held liable for soliciting information from users through a series of menus about themselves and their preferred roommates and for posting and distributing profiles created from the menus. The choices on the menus included gender, sexual orientation and whether children were involved.
It’s not quite the same scenario as running a blog, though, so the jury may still be out on whether “you own your own words” alone or whether you own the words you allow others to post anonymously in your forum and/or allow to remain posted. And while you may not be legally liable, as the young man associated with AutoAdmit found out, you may find yourself held accountable for them other arenas? So, why allow anonymous comments?
Bloggers have pointed out that job applicants might not want prospective employers to Google them and discover their political or religious beliefs, embarrassing photographs or their frank thoughts about their workplace. And employers are checking.
Jackie Thompson, HR manager at PR agency Brands2Life, has rejected a candidate based on what she found out about them online. She told CNN, “I looked up a person and found some content about their previous employers which I didn’t think was suitable. I decided not to go ahead with the application.”
More seriously, bloggers cite the right of those in oppressed countries to write about their situation without fear of governmental recrimination. As the Pakistani Spectator said on Tim O’Reilly’s blog, “Blogging is the great and unique way of protest for the oppressed people against such regimes.”
But many Internet users also believe that people using the Internet need to act responsibly online, and realize that their words and actions can — and do — affect other users.
So, does the “wild west” atmosphere of the net mean that in order for the rest of us to participate as we please mean that Mr. anticar424 and the “jerks” that Doctorow referenced in his column must have untrammeled ability to post whatever they want, where ever they want, about whom ever they want, anonymously and with no accountability?
Or is there a middle ground?