Free Speech Does Not Protect Cyberharassment Danielle Keats Citron



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Free Speech Does Not Protect Cyberharassment



Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, is the author of "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace."

Trolling — like the kind of exploitative abuse spewed against Zelda Williams on Twitter after her father’s death last week — is often nasty and hurtful. But it is routinely protected expression. Internet users are free to use words and images to get a rise out of others, even at their most vulnerable. In this case, two individuals tweeted photographs of dead bodies to a young woman and wrote that her deceased father would be “ashamed” of her — forcing her to quit the service altogether. These acts are offensive, disturbing and mean-spirited, and yet, they are examples of constitutionally protected speech.


Hateful, offensive and distasteful ideas enjoy constitutional protection, so debate on public issues can be “uninhibited, robust and wide open” under the First Amendment.


But there is a point when trolling escalates beyond the offensive and shocking into cyberharassment or cyberstalking — actions that are not protected. Intermediaries — usually the websites where trolls post comments — can step in to revoke the privilege of anonymity, or even remove abusive speech that violates their community guidelines but when trolling turns into cyberharassment or cyberstalking, the law can and should intervene.

Online perpetrators can be criminally prosecuted for criminal threats, cyberstalking,  cyberharassmentsexual invasions of privacy and bias intimidation. They can be sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a few states, they can also be held to account for bias-motivated stalking that interferes with victims’ important life opportunities, such as employment and education.

Law enforcement should be able to use forensic expertise and warrants to track down individuals who engage in this conduct anonymously. Of course, the law can only do so much: some abuse is left untouched, perpetrators can be hard to identify if they employ certain technologies and, ultimately, lawsuits require significant resources.
This is an opportune moment to educate teenagers about the suffering caused by online abuse. As parents, let’s put talking about cyberharassment on par with discussions about drunk driving. And if we discover that our kids are caught up in trolling or more extreme cyberbullying, no tool is more powerful in changing teenagers’ behavior than the possibility that they might lose their cellphones, computers or social network accounts. We should not squander this chance to reinforce the importance of respect as a baseline norm for online interaction.
Anonymity Online Serves Us All

gabriella coleman

Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, is the author of the forthcoming "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous." She is on Twitter.
While some stalwart free speech defenders oppose any limits on repulsive speech circulated online under the cover of anonymity, a lack of regulation leaves targets of harassment no alternative but to simply toughen up and wait for it to subside.

It is important that, when possible, Internet companies that specialize in content, like social media companies, curb harassment within their platforms. Solutions like pending comment systemscan limit nastiness without inhibiting diverse and creative free speech.

But we should also consider what we would lose were we to ban, or even discourage, the use of anonymity on the Internet. Debates about trolls routinely conflate anonymity with incivility but a broader look at online activities reveals that public good can come when users can hide their identity.

For example, medical patients and mothers discuss sensitive issues (be they clinical or related to parenting) in pseudonymous forums, allowing for candid discussions of what might otherwise be stigmatizing subjects. Anonymous activists rely on the web for whistle-blowing or to speak truth to power without fear of retribution. And, in a strange twist, victims of hate crimes use anonymity to speak out as well: anonymity can empower those who seek consolation and justice to speak out against assailants enabled by the same processes.

Anonymous expression has been a foundation of our political culture since its inception, underwriting monumental declarations like the Federalist Papers. At its best, it puts the attention on the message, rather than the messenger.

For these reasons, we should stay away from sweeping and blunt prohibitions on anonymity. Requiring real identities online would chill a vibrant democracy.


Women and Minorities as Targets of Attack Online

kristy tillman

Kristy Tillman is the design director at Society of Grownups, where she is currently leading the design effort to democratize financial literacy. She is on Twitter.


Anonymity on the web plays a precarious role in the ways we interact with each other. Some interactions justify, and are even strengthened by, anonymity – but it often comes with a huge price tag for marginalized communities on the web, leaving women and people of color to pick up the tab.

Vulnerable communities on the web often find themselves the biggest targets of anonymous trolling. Recently, a group from the popular Internet forum 4chan launched a trolling mission to harass and intimidate black feminists by hijacking hashtags they use on Twitter and posing as feminists on fake accounts that would send embarrassing tweets. Anonymous apps like Secret have played host to sexist conversations about women who work in technology. And teenagers, who are often ill-equipped to handle bullying even by named peers, are consistently the victims of anonymous bullying made possible by apps and social media.


App and platform makers show a glaring lack of empathy and a poor understanding of their role in the culture. Software for platforms like Twitter provide very little defense for those who are hurt the most by anonymous communication. There is an obvious connection between the weak tools that are barely implemented to combat online harassment and the fact that most of the engineers and designers who make the software are not members of marginalized communities. In fact, they profit from the abuse by continuously allowing abusive users to operate.


Some folks are fighting back. The rise of collective blocking lists has allowed digital communities to self-police together. Users contribute to the list by adding the names (or Twitter handles) of harassers. By leveraging the experience of each individual member, the list can better protect the group.


The lists are not perfect: I’ve found that some people have been automatically blocked for me and I wouldn’t have blocked them myself. But a few false positives are merely small hiccups in an otherwise very effective preventative tool. Within the larger discourse, collective blocking lists embody the empathy that makers of platforms should use to strengthen their built-in tools. The makers of technology must take some moral responsibility for the creations they profit from.

Anonymous communication certainly has its place on the Internet, but it is important to understand how our social ills are exacerbated when users are not required to be accountable for what they say, and how that disproportionately affects some individuals more than others.

Dialogue Is Important, Even When It’s Impolite



ryan m. milner

Ryan M. Milner is an assistant professor of communication at the College of Charleston, where he studies participatory media and public conversation. He is onTwitter.

Solutions to hateful speech often come down to gatekeeping. The Huffington Post, looking to “meet the needs of the grown-up Internet,” only allows comments from verified Facebook accounts. Google Plus launched a real-name policy, barring anonymous or pseudonymous participation. Reddit bans users and subreddits that garner widespread negative attention. 

But these restrictive practices are met with mixed responses. The Huffington Post continues to filter participants despite protests and angry readers who wanted to keep their Facebook life separate from discussions on the news website. Google Plus hassoftened its real-name policy to be more inclusive. Reddit still has trouble tamping down the creeps

The problem persists despite gatekeeping measures because of hazy distinctions in communication. Zizi Papacharissi, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, distinguishes between “civility” and “politeness” online. Impolite communication is antagonistic, but unlike uncivil speech, it is still compatible with the democratic value of voice. 

When antagonistic speech facilitates voice, satire or play, it may have civic value. The #AskThicke Twitter campaign — hosted by VH1 to publicize the singer’s new album — was repurposed by Twitter users to both playfully lampoon the pop star and criticize the misogyny in his lyrics.

While the #AskThicke campaign certainly became impolite, it has merit in our civil discourse.

Another example was the trending of the #YesAllWomen hashtag – cataloging the antagonisms women face daily – which became a conversation replete with impoliteness as participants debated gender inequality. However, it fostered robust conversations: uncivil perspectives were vibrantly and impolitely challenged. Voices were added to the dialogue, even when it got mean.

Ultimately, trolling blurs the line between impoliteness and incivility – it can, in its broadest definition, be either and both. And there’s no algorithm for parsing impolite and uncivil speech. The categories are muddy, dependent on context and open to interpretation. For this reason, vibrant voice is essential online. Platform moderators, diverse individuals working to curate a culture of civility, can powerfully shape the online conversation. Participants on sites can, and should, do the same.

Incivility is a difficult problem for Americans, because its underlying issues are social. But restrictive gatekeeping just serves to dampen the generative value of diverse voices engaging. The impulse to silence can be just as uncivil as the trolling that inspired it. 

Don’t Identify by Names Online but by Knowledge



annemarie dooling

Annemarie Dooling is an online communities expert who has worked with Salon, AOL and The Huffington Post. She is on Twitter.

Though Facebook and other social networks that connect you to people you already know will always have a place, more and more Internet users are seeking platforms that allow us to find people with common interests even if we don't know them. 

Attaching a legal name to a web persona accomplishes little when it comes to keeping online forums civil and safe. With an online community for everyone out there, it is unlikely that the incorporation of names will enforce better behavior; after all, cruel or troubled users can easily find others who support them either on the same platform or on another site. And publishing the name of one user means publishing the names of all users on a platform, making it very easy for predatory and argumentative users to find their targets offline.

Instead of ending anonymity, we should be verifying knowledge and elevating informed discussions above arguments. Commenters can send moderators personal information, like a business I.D. or copy or research documents, which add to their reputation scores or brand their accounts with special tags and allowances. They can be independently verified behind-the-scenes by administrators, but this information is never published. Reddit's /r/science subreddit, or community, has success with this, and Gawker'snew Kinja fix speaks to this method, as well. 

We've hit a crossroads from celebrating the Internet as the great equalizer that will give voice to everyone, to wondering if everyone needs a voice all of the time. But because there's no web-wide system of moral policing, each platform must decide what they will allow. The smart ones are already verifying the knowledge and background of their users to elevate informed conversations, allowing spam and nonsense to sink to the bottom. 
To Fight Trolls, Focus on Actions and Context

whitney phillips

Whitney Phillips, a communication lecturer at Humboldt State University, a Digital Ecologies Research fellow is the author of the forthcoming "This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture." She is on Twitter.

A significant percentage of nasty online behavior is conducted anonymously. But anonymous, or pseudonymous, activity doesn't automatically correlate with bad behavior. Rather, behavior is shaped by how participants in a group see themselves in relation to the whole – a point psychology professor Dr. Alex Haslam raises in research that explores the relationship between group dynamics and destructive behavior.


He has shown that who is performing what for whom is more important than whether the participants are anonymous. If destructive action is the norm or aim of the group, it will guide much of the members’ behavior, and was probably what attracted those members in the first place. This is an important point to remember when discussing anonymity on the Internet. Individual behavior is informed by groups – and never just whether someone's offline identity is attached to his or her online behavior.

"Trolling," as it is typically framed in the media, doesn't acknowledge the variety in group dynamics; it flattens the category into a single, undifferentiated mass noun, despite the fact that there are different kinds of trolls and trolling behaviors.


It is difficult to say anything substantive about trolling when the category subsumes everything from sophomoric pranks to identity-based harassment to online impersonation to political activism to straight forward racism and misogyny. The behavioral and linguistic nebulousness surrounding the word troll doesn’t just impede the ability to say anything substantive about trolling — it also impedes the ability do anything substantive about it. How can we modify group behavior if there is no consensus on what actually qualifies as the problem?

I believe we should focus on specific problematic behavior and the context in which the behaviors occurred. In each circumstance we should examine who is exerting power over whom, what the repercussions are for the target and whether the behaviors are persistent or ephemeral. By focusing on specifics, one is much more likely to arrive at nuanced conclusions, and more important, actionable steps – like the ones Twitter took in response to the Zelda Williams case. It might not be possible to apply these specific outcomes to all trolling behaviors, but it is a start. And for the targets of a given attack, this can make all the difference.


When ‘Trolling’ Becomes an Umbrella Term

vyshali manivannan

Vyshali Manivannan is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Studies at Rutgers University.
Before asking for a solution to trolling, we ought to be asking what we mean by "trolling."

Trolling describes a set of diverse behaviors -- everything from harmful efforts to destroy a target’s reputation to harmless pranks and serious political activity. Conduct on the Internet is spatially contingent: it depends on the website or platform and using the catch-all label of troll to describe different kinds of conduct has only limited our understanding of this phenomenon.




For instance, trolling has been used to describe Anonymous’s campaigns to bring down websites by generating more traffic than they can handle, as well as their efforts to expose the identity of individuals the group perceives as criminals.
When Anonymous accurately identified the football players who raped a young girl in Steubenville, Ohio, they were hailed as “hacktivists”; but when they inaccurately identified the police officer who shot a young black man in Ferguson, Mo., they were lambasted as “trolls.”

On 4chan — the popular nonhierarchical forum behind many of the Internet memes in mainstream circulation — trolling is more like tricksterism or like a Zen koan provoking “great doubt” through disruption, reminding 4channers to remain aware of the deceptive discourse. Because users on 4chan are exploiting opportune moments for trickery by gauging what will both interest and outrage their audience, the community anticipates it. The trolls “win” if they incite outrage; the audience “wins” if it refrains from outrage and frees itself from egocentrism.

Sensationalistic coverage of trolling heightens social anxieties and helps conflate hacking, identity theft and sexual predation with even harmless, or useful, disruption.

Accounting for tactical and ethical variances in different sites and platforms would change the terms of the debate, revealing a multifaceted social phenomenon that requires multiple approaches.



Engineering and Technology Magazine Debate
http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2013/09/debate.cfm

Web users shouldn’t have the right to remain anonymous in cyberspace

guy clapperton

http://eandt.theiet.org/staticfiles/images/curve_narrow_top_block.jpg

Profile: Guy Clapperton Guy Clapperton is a technology author and broadcaster specialising in social media and other forms of digital publishing. He is the author of ‘This is Social Media’ and his latest book - ‘This is Social Commerce’ - is published by Capstone.

I’m broadly in favour of all forms of anonymity and this is because I happen to believe that it is, or at least should be, a human right. Further to that, I believe that it is closely allied to privacy, which is one of the great privileges we have come to expect from being a part of society. It allows for nuances of truth, clarity and communication that would not otherwise exist. I admit the veil of anonymity has its drawbacks and nobody can reasonably make the case for cyber-bullying, which seems to thrive under the condition of anonymity. I am aware of the fact that there is a dark side. Digital stalking is quite ugly and can be fed by the idea that people’s real identities can’t be associated with it. This is creepy. But it’s not the argument against anonymity.

Now, we are specifically talking about anonymity online, which will be perceived as a technological issue. But, as is so often the case, what appears to be about technology is actually about society. Yes, the Huffington Post is removing the possibility of leaving anonymous comments on their site because they don’t want it to be clogged up with offensive rubbish from trolls. But I completely disagree with their stance, which actually punishes good, honest people who want to have their say without being identified, while doing little to rid the world of trolls.

Productive, polite people who want to behave in very much the way of an anonymous donor to a charity, lose their right to do so. Not everybody wants the world to know they gave a big cheque to a hospital, and that is their prerogative. So I think it is wrong of the Huffington Post to reverse their policy and it’s going to have unintended consequences, the main one being that people who would have been part of the conversation will turn their backs on it. There are other ways of policing this than having a policy that is 100 per cent against the use of anonymous comments. What they are doing is legislating for idiots, and as the saying goes, you can’t legislate for idiots. It’s the good guys who suffer.


There are times when I want to be anonymous online and this is based on my behaviour. When I leave quotations on the Internet that are traceable to me, I tend to leave too many positives. I’d be very inclined to support an article by a colleague whose opinion I agree with and say ‘bravo!’. And you can see this is limited. I’d personally love my work to be up for public scrutiny from people who felt free to say what they wanted, rather than feel they had to please me. It’s a case of someone politely and thoughtfully disagreeing with me while simply not wishing to reveal their identity.

If I had to identify myself every time I went online and left a comment my behaviour would change and I’d leave a trail of false positives. I simply wouldn’t be critical of anything, and that would mean that I was hardly contributing to any debate in a real way. If I can’t leave a negative comment then I don’t see how I can have my say and my creative expression would be curtailed. I should say here I realise the irony of taking part in this debate under my real name.

Why do I think people in general are so keen to be anonymous online? Well, I have opinions that I’d love to share without being embarrassed or reluctant. For instance, I recently stayed at a hotel that was sub-par, and they sent me the usual customer satisfaction survey to fill in. Had I enjoyed the experience I don’t think I’d have minded having my real name associated with the response, but since I didn’t I wanted to have my say without being perceived personally as a complainer.
This may seem a small point in such an important debate, but when you extrapolate this into focus groups about politics or public policy you can see how people end up hearing only what they want to hear. Or, more importantly, not hearing the truth. Okay, this form of identity privacy can appear suspiciously voyeuristic, to which all I can say is that if anonymity provides a vehicle for the truth, it should be respected.

debate pic

Let me start by saying that there are occasions when I think that anonymity can be a very good idea. When it comes to discussion groups among victims of, say, bullying, there may be people very uncomfortable about using their own names. And that has to be respected. But this is a specific instance where there are particular sensitivities going on.

I’m much more concerned about the people who do the bullying. Recently I was corresponding on Twitter with the broadcaster and historian Mary Beard. She had been the recipient of some particularly personal and offensive comments recently. I think that you’ve got to be able to track down people who post mindless stuff like that. This may be a bit of tittle-tattle, but we are seeing an increase in instances where people have been driven to self-harm and suicide after someone has been remorselessly bullied and vilified online.

I don’t for a moment think that the bullies thought this through and realised what the consequences of their actions would be. But I also think that they would not have perpetrated the bullying had they been forced to use their real names. That would have led them to a fear of being easily identified and it might also have led them to think that the person they were bullying was a real person too, rather than an Internet name. So on the whole I think it makes sense to be who we are, rather than have the ability to hide behind what is essentially a fake identity, adopting extreme right, left, sexist, racist or any other personalities online.


Responsibility comes with a real identity and vice versa. And so therefore I can readily understand why the Huffington Post is getting fed up with people leaving offensive anonymous comments on their website. I think they are well within their rights to alter their policy and ban them. After all it’s their website and they set the rules. It’s all very well people saying that they want to behave the way they want to behave on the website. But they don’t have that right, because it’s the Huffington Post’s website. Imagine they introduced a house rule that nobody could mention the colour orange - now, that’s a silly rule - but that would be their call.
I do support the Huffington Post in this instance. I never post anonymously and people can trace me back. What this means is I have to think about what I’m writing, and if I’m going to say something contentious then I’ve got to find some substance for it. We’ve talked about responsibility and this is accountability. It’s called thinking before you open your mouth, because people will see it is you, just as they see you in your everyday life. I’m not in favour of this division between the virtual and the real worlds. They’re both on planet Earth and you don’t have a different life just because you’re on the Internet. It’s still you typing or putting your YouTube videos up and these things have consequences.

It seems to me to be a slightly odd assumption that when it is practically impossible in most instances to be anonymous in real life that there should be an entitlement to anonymity in cyberspace. Of course, there are times in real life when you can be anonymous: if you telephone the Samaritans no one will expect you to reveal your name. And there have to be these exceptions in cyberspace too. But they should be no more extraordinary than they are in any other form of existence. People need areas where they feel safe. If I walk into a room I can be identified, and so it follows that you have a whole different relationship with the world if you sign up online as ‘Mr BaggySocks’.

It comes down to this. If you ask most people the simple question ‘should you be accountable for your actions?’ - particularly if you are harming or hurting somebody - I imagine they will take the view that there must be some form of comeback somewhere. Unless there is a legitimate confidentiality exemption you probably ought to be traceable somehow, without the right to anonymity. What constitutes legitimate exemption is a whole other debate.

Web users should have the right to remain anonymous in cyberspace

andrea kates

Profile: Andrea Kates Andrea Kates is the founder of the Business Genome project and author of the bestselling business innovation book ‘Find Your Next’. She is a member of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) community and a featured 2012 TED speaker.

debate pic

I’m broadly in favour of all forms of anonymity and this is because I happen to believe that it is, or at least should be, a human right. Further to that, I believe that it is closely allied to privacy, which is one of the great privileges we have come to expect from being a part of society. It allows for nuances of truth, clarity and communication that would not otherwise exist. I admit the veil of anonymity has its drawbacks and nobody can reasonably make the case for cyber-bullying, which seems to thrive under the condition of anonymity. I am aware of the fact that there is a dark side. Digital stalking is quite ugly and can be fed by the idea that people’s real identities can’t be associated with it. This is creepy. But it’s not the argument against anonymity.


Now, we are specifically talking about anonymity online, which will be perceived as a technological issue. But, as is so often the case, what appears to be about technology is actually about society. Yes, the Huffington Post is removing the possibility of leaving anonymous comments on their site because they don’t want it to be clogged up with offensive rubbish from trolls. But I completely disagree with their stance, which actually punishes good, honest people who want to have their say without being identified, while doing little to rid the world of trolls.

Productive, polite people who want to behave in very much the way of an anonymous donor to a charity, lose their right to do so. Not everybody wants the world to know they gave a big cheque to a hospital, and that is their prerogative. So I think it is wrong of the Huffington Post to reverse their policy and it’s going to have unintended consequences, the main one being that people who would have been part of the conversation will turn their backs on it. There are other ways of policing this than having a policy that is 100 per cent against the use of anonymous comments. What they are doing is legislating for idiots, and as the saying goes, you can’t legislate for idiots. It’s the good guys who suffer.


There are times when I want to be anonymous online and this is based on my behaviour. When I leave quotations on the Internet that are traceable to me, I tend to leave too many positives. I’d be very inclined to support an article by a colleague whose opinion I agree with and say ‘bravo!’. And you can see this is limited. I’d personally love my work to be up for public scrutiny from people who felt free to say what they wanted, rather than feel they had to please me. It’s a case of someone politely and thoughtfully disagreeing with me while simply not wishing to reveal their identity.

If I had to identify myself every time I went online and left a comment my behaviour would change and I’d leave a trail of false positives. I simply wouldn’t be critical of anything, and that would mean that I was hardly contributing to any debate in a real way. If I can’t leave a negative comment then I don’t see how I can have my say and my creative expression would be curtailed. I should say here I realise the irony of taking part in this debate under my real name.



Why do I think people in general are so keen to be anonymous online? Well, I have opinions that I’d love to share without being embarrassed or reluctant. For instance, I recently stayed at a hotel that was sub-par, and they sent me the usual customer satisfaction survey to fill in. Had I enjoyed the experience I don’t think I’d have minded having my real name associated with the response, but since I didn’t I wanted to have my say without being perceived personally as a complainer.
This may seem a small point in such an important debate, but when you extrapolate this into focus groups about politics or public policy you can see how people end up hearing only what they want to hear. Or, more importantly, not hearing the truth. Okay, this form of identity privacy can appear suspiciously voyeuristic, to which all I can say is that if anonymity provides a vehicle for the truth, it should be respected.



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