The end of anonymous trolling?


So long, farewell?
Yes, my headline is wishful thinking. But this is definitely a step in the right direction. (Ignore the article’s headline if you can, ugh.)

A Manhattan judge ruled yesterday that a blogger can’t hide behind a web of anonymity while flinging the ugly words “skank” and “ho” at somebody online.
The sternly worded ruling orders Google to give up the identity of an anonymous blogger-assailant who inexplicably devoted an entire blog — titled “Skanks in NYC” — to maligning beautiful blond model Liskula Cohen.

Once Cohen knows the name of her harasser, she can serve them with a defamation suit.
Now, how I feel about anonymous trolls – anonymous misogynists, specifically, is no secret. But Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet has a point: “I am a true child of the Internet and a libertarian at heart, so I’m not all that enthused by the prospect, repugnant as these characters may be.” What could a case like this mean for anonymous bloggers who aren’t harassing creepsters? It’s a tough one – I value the anonymity the Internet gives to people who are using blogging and online activism for progressive ends.
When it comes to the harassment and threats that so many people face online, the answer is clear – there should be some accountability. (And no, before anyone says it: Maligning people, calling women “whores,” and issuing online rape and death threats aren’t “free speech.”) Sometimes that accountability comes in the form of a blogger outing a harasser. Sometimes it means that said harassers will face consequences they never expected.
Most of the time, however, there isn’t any accountability – and the victims of online harassment and threats are left with no recourse except to live with it. I certainly know how that feels – having been the target of harassment ranging from bloggers calling me a slut from the way I looked in an innocuous picture, to rape and death threats in emails, to a website Photoshopping pictures of me to look pornographic. And let me tell you: that shit changes you. It changes your sense of safety, sense of self and any idealism you may have had about people being generally good.
And as I wrote in this 2007 Guardian article, battling online harassment should be part of feminist activism – because often the harassment is based on the same power structures and privileges that allow for real life racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it:

Is this what people are really like? Sexist and violent? Misogynist and racist? Alice Marwick, a postgraduate student in New York studying culture and communication, says: “There’s the disturbing possibility that people are creating online environments purely to express the type of racist, homophobic, or sexist speech that is no longer acceptable in public society, at work, or even at home.”

That doesn’t mean I know what the answer is. The truth is, I really don’t. But I do know that this is something feminists need to keep on their radar, keep talking about, and keeping fighting against. Because online or off – we all deserve to live free from harassment and fear.

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43 Comments

  1. Serafino
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with you, espically after hearing about the case where the young teenage girl killed herself over cyber bulling.

  2. Serafino
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with you, espically after hearing about the case where the young teenage girl killed herself over cyber bulling.

  3. ScottW
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    “Freedom of speech” isn’t a license to slander, libel or otherwise malign people. I’m Canadian myself but I gather the USA has similar laws to ours protecting people from slander, libel and hate speech. If I write book, make a TV show or just run around telling people lies about you then you can sue me for slander/libel. Why anyone should think doing it on teh internets exempts them from the law is beyond me.

  4. Ravencomeslaughing
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    And the one thing I don’t why people don’t understand that even if you delete something, it’s on a server somewhere. If someone puts the lie in writing, it’s just easier to prove they said it. This looks pretty helpful: http://www.expertlaw.com/library/personal_injury/defamation.html
    While I could see the person committing the libel trying to get off by claiming the blogger is a “limited public figure” as this page describes, I think it’s tremendously obvious that it’s with the “intent of malice” when they do horrible things like the sexual slurs, faked photos, etc. And threats are a whole new level of danger. But yes, people are really far less anonymous than they think. Anyone can figure out how to ping an ISP and get a bunch of info on the harrasser.

  5. PDXHopeful
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    It is a tough issue; if it wasn’t, we’d have a solution already. My view has been that freedom of speech isn’t absolute. One way that’s true IMHO is things like the proverbial yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.
    The other is that people have the freedom to say what they want but NOT to face no social consequences for it. A person who gets yelled at and dropped by certain friends after making a racist/homophobic/sexist remark and whines about how those friends are interfering with their freedom of speech is missing the point. Those friends are simply exercising their OWN right of free speech and association.
    While I think there can be good reasons for anonymous blogging in situations where the blogger’s security and that of his/her associates is under threat, or something along those lines, in many situations it’s simply a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s words.
    Perhaps there could be a process where anonymous bloggers/commenters could be ‘outed’ if a certain burden of proof is met that they’ve been harassing or threatening people.

  6. libdevil
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    IANAL, but I don’t mind this, as long as there’s some burden of proof to meet. Something similar to the burden that must be met to get a preliminary injunction. I don’t want this to get to the point where all the powerful have to do is file a baseless suit, collect the information necessary to intimidate and destroy their critics, then drop the suit. Anonymous speech, especially political speech, has a long and proud tradition in this country. It serves a valuable purpose allowing those with unpopular views, or those who oppose the powerful, to speak with less fear of retribution.

  7. Kim C.
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “The other is that people have the freedom to say what they want but NOT to face no social consequences for it.”
    As I like to say, freedom of speech is a right, not an excuse.

  8. instrumentjamlord
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an idea: allow libel lawsuits to be filed and prosecuted against pseudonyms. That way you still have to meet the court standards for allowing the proceeding to go forward, but don’t gain the ability to extra-legally harass or otherwise harm the person behind the pseudonym. If the case has no merit, it is thrown out, and anonymity is preserved. If the case has enough merit to make it through preliminary court proceedings, then there is justification for removing anonymity. (Compare this to the current situation, where the plaintiff has to discover the actual identity merely in order to file. This seems backwards to me.)

  9. JetGirl70
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been a journalist for almost 20 years, and I think bloggers and other people who write on the Internet should be subject to the same laws as members of the more traditional media.
    Putting something on the Internet is publishing it, and that should require the person who published it be accountable for what they write not being libelous or defamatory. You can’t just write whatever the hell you want in a newspaper, or say it on tv and radio. You can’t threaten people via snail mail. Why should the Internet be exempt, particularly since it is rapidly replacing the older media, and reaches so many more people across the globe?
    That is not to say I don’t think people should be able to stay anonymous if speaking out means their lives or livelihoods are threatened. But these anonymous people are also not allowed to indulge in libel or slander.
    I see a lot of people talk about free speech on the Internet, and complain that bloggers like Jessica not allowing them to abuse her verbally is “censorship.” You don’t have a constitutional right to abuse someone, and there is a big difference between abuse and “fair comment.”
    While the Internet can be a wonderful thing, I think it needs a lot more accountability. There is way too much abuse going on, and people are getting hurt, and enforcing already existing media laws is not a bad thing. Rights have always come with responsibilities.

  10. SamLL
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    You will never see the end of anonymity on the internet. It is simply inconsistent with the medium. That is not what it is designed for and not how it operates.
    Unless, of course, you are willing to criminalize use and possession of anonymizing tools such as Tor (http://torproject.org), which are used by journalists, whistleblowers, dissidents, and survivors of abuse.
    You would have to destroy the internet in order to save it. This is not a realistic path to ending harassment.
    We can at least take comfort in the fact that when people write here or elsewhere about their trans status, or that they have had an abortion, or about the sex-based discrimination that they have faced from their employer, they can be immune to recrimination thanks to their anonymity.

  11. hfs
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    ‘Maligning people, calling women “whores,” and issuing online rape and death threats aren’t “free speech.”‘
    I think that the first item on your list is protected speech, as long as you do not recklessly disregard the truth of what you write: you and other writers on this blog malign people all the time when you don’t agree with something they have done or said. The second item might be, depending on the sense of the word “whore:” if you alleging that factually, a woman is promiscuous, you could be slandering her; but if you just mean that she is of poor character, then that’s free speech.
    The same law that protects you from retribution if you call a government figure an asshole protects people whose speech you don’t like, even if it makes you feel unsafe or emotionally disturbs you.

  12. hfs
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this! Excellent points.

  13. hfs
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Because identification on websites is almost never done securely. Your feministing password, for example, is transmitted in cleartext. With sufficient technical knowledge it’s fairly easy to forge (non-digitally-signed) emails as well.

  14. hfs
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Won’t somebody think of the children!

  15. x-creepy-doll-x
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    I have been stalked and harrassed online also. When I asked the blogging service in question to take corrective action, they merely replied with a snide comment that the harasser “did not have to like me.” I couldn’t care less if they like me; the issue was that they were violating the blog’s TOS by hacking my account, copying things out of locked entries, and posting clear threats to my safety. But, as I’m a female…I guess I should just suck it up, according to them! I had to jump through an amazing number of hoops to get rid of this stalker, and the blogging service never did take it seriously. If people become legally accountable for harrassment online, just as they are in other ways already, then hopefully fewer women will have to go through all the horseshit that happened to me.
    I still don’t know who that stalker was. How am I supposed to defend myself?

  16. Posted August 19, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I see value to anonymous commenting, but I think there have to be limits (like with everything else). I think a court-ordered request to reveal someone’s identity, based on compelling preliminary evidence is a good measure. I don’t think that we should just kill anonymity altogether.

  17. cattrack2
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    (And no, before anyone says it: Maligning people, calling women “whores”…”)
    Pot meet kettle. This is hilarious coming from a blog which every Friday issues “Friday Fuck You’s”. This represents the second biggest double standard I know of…Of course threats of violence are not & never have been a part of free speech, but maligning??? WTF? That’s a European style free speech code, which is to say its not much of a free speech code. In America the KKK can call me the ‘N word’ and I support 110%. Free speech & free association is among the most basic rights we have and should enjoy (virtually) unfettered protection.
    As they used to say about terrorists and freedom fighters, your “Friday Fuck You” is another woman’s maligning…

  18. Comrade Kevin
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    What really concerns me is that there’s a tremendous amount of anger, violence, and bitterness in the minds of many people. Anonymous commenting allows these people to feel compelled to share their feelings without fear of being called to account for them. We can label them cowards if we wish, but my God—it makes me wonder why they feel so otherwise powerless in their daily lives that they have to resort to tactics like this to obtain some sense of gratification.
    It speaks to how this society deals with all sorts of issues and it draws in so many different overlapping topics that I wouldn’t even know where to begin to explain it.

  19. Gular
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I have close ties to an organization which gets accused of slander/libel very often by angry organizations.
    In the US, slander/libel can only be proven if (1)the person talking can be proven to know their words are going to do direct damage to their intended target, (2)the person’s words are known to the person speaking to be lies and (3)can be substantively proven to be harmful to the parties/entities being slandered/libelled.
    If all three of these points cannot be proven, then the case cannot be made for slander/libel — whether by a professional organization, private or public citizen. Writing nasty things online is not inherently libelous; saying nasty things isn’t inherently slanderous.

  20. metabonbon
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Nobody, whether anonymous or not, has the right to harm somebody with their speech (threats, slander, etc). But Americans do enjoy the freedom of general anonymous speech. News outlets tend not to publish anonymous authors, but that’s because anonymity harms credibility, and because the news outlet is legally responsible for what it publishes, so it wants to keep tabs on who wrote what, and pass the buck if it comes down to a lawsuit. But there’s no law that says a news outlet has to publish the author’s name. You can sue the news outlet for anything it publishes, but the government can’t prevent the organization from publishing an anonymous piece.
    My concern is with prior restraint versus civil litigation. A defamation victim has the right to sue the legally responsible party, whether that’s the blog owners, or the web hosting company, or the parent company of an online magazine/blog/forum. And, as such, the legally responsible party could require a verified identity before allowing people to post (or they may not – it’s their choice). But I’d be worried about making this a criminal matter where the law says you HAVE to provide your real, verified name before posting anything on the Internet.

  21. adag87
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Ehh … I don’t buy this comparison. Plus, this is about the issue of anonymity, which last time I checked wasn’t a problem in the case of Feministing Bloggers. They have real names and bios to boot.

  22. bifemmefatale
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Yes, in the case of “adults” disguising themselves as teenage boys to purposefully destroy a middle-school girl’s psyche, someone *should* think of the children. FFS.

  23. Oekedulleke
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    When I hear about something like that, I have to wonder what the parents where doing, or rather, not doing.
    As for the case itself, I didn’t read anything about threats of murder or rape, only that he called her a skank and a whore. I think this is a very bad decision, imo you have the right to be insulted, but not the right not to be insulted.

  24. cattrack2
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    How many times do people on this blog, and oftentimes the editors themselves, call people ‘douchebag’ or ‘asshole’ or ‘asshat’…and you don’t see the comparison??? Does that mean you want Marriot or Carlisle University to sue Feministing and its bloggers/commenters for the things said about them on this blog yesterday and Friday? Because that’s the ridiculous standard being being suggested here. Call someone a vulgar or sexist or racist term & find yourself sued.
    I find this personally hilarious because I don’t think vulgarity advances the debate & I don’t indulge it…yet here I am defending your right to it.

  25. Cola
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    He devote a whole blog to harassing one person. That person has a right to find out who he is, otherwise she has no recourse.
    This isn’t going to be about stripping anonymity from those who insult people, only from those who grossly go out of their way to harm someone by defaming them or corrupting their sense of personal safety.

  26. voluptuouspanic
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for pointing out things like Tor. It serves a great purpose for people who blog about controversial subjects. (I first read about it on a sex worker’s blog.)
    That’s not to say I don’t understand the pain of being stalked and harassed on the internet. It happened to me years ago, before anyone took it seriously. I’m glad to see it is being taken seriously, but I wish I’d known my option seven years ago.

  27. Ariel
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Eh. Not really buying into your argument. You’re comparing apples to oranges, but in this case name-calling to maligned language. Your examples of “douchebag”, “asshole”, and “asshat” are examples of name-calling. There’s no specific context nor a specific connotation. When a person uses the word “asshole”, it’s not attached to gender, race, or religion and the word is used to vent frustration. These words are just harsher equivalents to “jerk”, “nimrod”, and “doody-head”.
    Maligning language such as whore, the n-word, etc. are used in a specific context and carry a specific connotation. For example, the word “whore” is used specifically against a woman in an attempt to degrade her and has the connotation of a woman who sleeps with men.
    The difference is that anyone can be called an asshole and have it carry the same meaning. A whore is specifically meant for a woman.

  28. Alex Catgirl
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    That was the case that popped into my head, if the law would protect teenagers from obsessive bullying its benefits would outweigh it’s costs.
    Unfortunately such is rarely the case, “Slander” laws are usually enforced only in cases involving public figures, whom I have no empathy for. They went out of their way to get the public’s attention….guess it worked, not all attention is good.

  29. jason_
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Harassment, like threats, poses terrible problems not only for its direct targets but often for others; the milieu of danger can affect others’ felt ability to express themselves and participate in an online community. Yet laws restricting speech said to malign someone pose potential dangers of their own to political activism and to civic culture more generally. They may be used to stifle angry disagreement that is not intended to harass or threaten. Carefully drafted legislation may mitigate this risk, and I’m not prepared to oppose restricitons categorically, but I do think we need to be much more careful than this post would have us be. What constitutes maligning someone is not an easy line to draw if one cares about the ability to express strong feelings online. Anyone who blogs about gardening, technology, or soccer, but especially someone who blogs about politics, should want the ability to express strong feelings online. It’s easy to mistakenly assume the worst about someone else’s motives on the basis of a single blog post or comment, just as it’s frigteningly easy to create a hostile and dangerous climate in the same way.
    The history of censorship and other infringements on civil liberties suggests that democracies and the values that help keep them healthy are more fragile than we might like to think. Governments constantly claim a desire to protect the public when restricting people’s rights. Everything the Bush administration did after 9/11 was supposedly done to keep us safe. I assume many people here share my view that even if their motives were actually worse than our own, that announcing a benevolent or even an important public safety motive doesn’t make everything thereby done in our name acceptable. Perhaps we could discuss the dangers to human communication, and the possibilities for protecting it, of legislation on this issue, as well as whether there might be alternative means of achieving the goal of safe interaction that do not pose the same threats to expression that bloggers and all citizens need to be able to rely on.

  30. adag87
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Just to clarify, the myspace suicide thing was not just insults. The fake profile basically told her to off herself by saying ““You’re a shitty person, and the world would be a better place without you in it.” Also, the parents that were impersonating the young boy knew this girl had insecurity issues/had been on medication for psychiatric problems. So yes, again, think of the children.

  31. Unequivocal
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    “Why should the Internet be exempt, particularly since it is rapidly replacing the older media, and reaches so many more people across the globe?”
    It seems to me that there is a real qualitative difference between blogging and old media, that difference being an assumption of authority that is present in old media presentation but lacking in blogging. This of course depends on the blog, but it seems to me rather difficult to believe that the vitriol spewed by the average anonymous blogger would be seen as sufficiently authoritative to be capable of defamation.

  32. Gular
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I feel like there’s something we’re missing from the information about this case. Writing hateful and mean things on the internet, whether anonymous or not, does not generally mean that judge would rule this way. The blogger’s rights are to be able to say anything he wants so long as he’s not threatening any physical harm against any other person in an imminent fashion (which is how hate groups exist in the US).
    I feel like the descriptions are a little too simplistic to warrant this, or the state itself is going to face a really nasty charge from the ACLU because Supreme Court precedent protects free speech.
    When one of our bloggers here calls someone an asshole, or gives a Friday Fuck You, it’s the exact same rights that allow this blogger to say what he wants about whomever in his anonymous blog. Just because Jessica or Samhita or whoever actually has a name doesn’t mean that their right to speech is any more or less protected than someone spouting off an opinion of their own.
    I’m honestly a bit disheartened by this and want to know more about the content of the blog itself. This ruling doesn’t really mesh with the precedents of law as I understand them.

  33. JetGirl70
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Anyone can be prosecuted for defamation, slander or libel. They don’t have to be working for a news outlet for it to happen.
    If you stand in the middle of a square and loudly tell lies about someone, or do your best to rubbish their reputation, and the other people there hear you, you are liable for slander. An anonymous Internet blog is the cyber-equivalent. Actually, it’s worse, since a person standing in a square cannot be heard all over the world. It doesn’t matter if the person is credible or not; the damage is done. Making people responsible for the harmful rumors they spread is what slander laws are all about, and the Internet should not be exempt from such laws.

  34. aleks
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    The bar for slander is much higher for private citizens than for public figures. Jessica would have an easier time proving you’d legally libeled her than Obama would, if you said the same thing about each with the same level of regard/disregard for the truth.

  35. alice-paul
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    I have nothing to add except to say that my best friend has been cyberbullied/stalked/harassed for the past two years, and her emotional and mental health have deteriorated. She has nightmares and panic attacks. Her stalker, a writer, has a fictional blog about murdering people. It counts as free speech because there has been no direct threat. But intelligent predators are aware of this, so they find ways to instill terror and fear without doing anything illegal.

  36. cattrack2
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    So your argument then is that only women and minorities can be maligned…and that doesn’t make sense, in any sense of the word. Speech is sacrosanct.

  37. Unequivocal
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    My understanding though is that defamation has, as a prerequisite, quantifiable damages. That’s where it seems to me that the perceived authority of the source is relevant. I am not a lawyer however, so I could be way off.
    In any case, it doesn’t make this particular blogger’s actions any more or less reprehensible.

  38. Cola
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    Blah, I am wrong.

  39. Ariel
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    No, my argument is that maligning language is used to marginalize minorities while name-calling is not. You can’t say you feel marginalized if you’re called a douchebag. You can say you feel marginalized if you’re called a Polack.

  40. TeenMommy
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    You said it so well!

  41. hfs
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    What is the threshold for a public vs private figure? Does a blogger count? One could argue that a popular blog makes one a public presence.

  42. adag87
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    I think there is a difference between calling someone an asshat for doing something reprehensible and devoting an entire website to harassing one person. I wouldn’t call the Friday Feminist Fuck You harassment, per se.
    Anyway, that’s not specifically the focus of the ruling. The ruling deals with *outing* internet harassers/bullies. As I stated before, Feministing is not an anonymous source, and that is the issue. Technically, someone COULD sue feministing if they wanted to. In fact, anyone can sue anyone for anything, but of course that doesn’t mean the lawsuit won’t be thrown out. This ruling just puts everyone on an equal playing field, so I really don’t see the problem there.

  43. ladybeethoven
    Posted August 20, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    The First Amendment doesn’t protect the right of one to be *anonymous* when issuing such comments, which is why the judge is able to do this. Yet I’m troubled by the way this post stretches that to say that anything feminists could find potentially offensive doesn’t deserve free speech protection. But, whether you like it or not, Jessica, sexist, offensive, and just generally malignant comments are indeed protected by the First Amendment; it’s only when they cross the line into actual threats that the First Amendment no longer applies. E.g., the Neo-Nazis can say all sorts of bad things about the Jews, and it’s (in the eyes of the law) okay up until when they start talking about killing said Jews.
    Even libel/slander is allowed in some cases when referring to public figures; I can’t remember all the criteria, so I’d suggest googling the Supreme Court case “Hustler Magazine v. Falwell” if you’re interested.
    This always bothers me to no end when so-called “liberals” are so quick to applaud an affront to their opponents’ free speech rights. Don’t forget that “malignant” and “offensive” are terms very much open to interpretation, and a lot of what we talk about here would be considered thus by certain groups of people. (We have posts that are all about saying “Fuck You” to certain people or calling them “douchebags.”) Do you realize that by giving the government the right to censor speech that they consider “offensive” by someone you disagree with, you are also giving them the right to label your speech as such and censor it as well?
    The disconnect here from people who should know better never ceases to amaze me.
    So I’m saying that – I agree with getting rid of anonymity in these cases as the subject DOES deserve the right to fight back. However, going so far as to say these claims are not “free speech” shows a rather poor understanding of libel/slander laws, and the Bill of Rights in general.

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