There’s a name for how cruel people can get given a little anonymity on the internet. It’s called “online disinhibition effect” and the resulting venom can ruin your day or worse, destroy your good name. Bob looks at the fraught relationship on the web between reputation, privacy and the law.
BOB: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. This spring we aired a series of stories about the internet: We explored what it’s doing to our ability to concentrate and socialize; we asked whether we need a new internet all together, a safer yet more restrictive web. And we considered the darker side of internet anonymity. This week we’re combining those pieces into a single show, starting with Bob’s piece on how online anonymity creates a new class of victim and predator. BOB GARFIELD: Through your Explorer toolbar, Microsoft knows your every keystroke. Your E-Z Pass and your GPS cell phone monitor your whereabouts and record them. Your financial details and health information are data files somewhere, most likely many somewheres. Your purchases are tracked at the supermarket checkout, and Google serves you online ads based on the content of your personal gmail. It’s downright creepy, if you think about it.
[MOVIE SOUNDTRACK UP AND UNDER] If Big Brother were interested in you personally, you'd have nowhere to hide.
ACTOR PLAYING WINSTON SMITH: We are one people -
[SOUND OF HORN] - with one will, one resolve, one cause.
BOB GARFIELD: But on that point, I've got some good news for you. Big Brother isn't much interested in you personally. Every marketer in America is extremely interested in your IP address, which tells them what the consumer at your computer is likely to buy. But unless you get in the government’s crosshairs, the chances of you, the actual person, being victimized by the powers that be are quite remote. But here’s the bad news. In a connected world, there are six billion “Little Brothers.”
MICHAEL FERTIK: The Orwellian literary landscape imagines a universe that made sense at the time it was written, which is to say there is a concentrated amount of power in a central authority figure, and that central authority is the hub around which the rest of us are spokes.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Fertik is founder of the Internet privacy service ReputationDefender.
MICHAEL FERTIK: We now see that the world is one in which there are many, many hubs and many spokes.
BOB GARFIELD: Millions of blogs, websites and comment boards provide millions of opportunities for someone to insult you, to float rumors about you, tell lies about you, reveal secrets about you, host compromising photos of you and otherwise make your life a living hell. You have very little to fear from 1984 but every reason to quake about Lord of the Flies. Anyone who frequents sports websites, or politics, or classical music, for that matter, knows that the anonymity and physical distance of Internet communication can lead otherwise civilized people to barbarism and cruelty. The “online disinhibition effect,” it’s called.
ADAM JOINSON: Some research we did out of my lab found that when people are communicating online, they tend to become more focused on themselves, which means they're more focused on their attitudes and emotions.
BOB GARFIELD: Adam Joinson is a professor of psychology at England’s University of Bath.
ADAM JOINSON: And if you combine that with a lack of concern about the person you’re talking to, not being aware of their reaction and their response, then quite often you can get a powder keg where people do tend to vent, they do tend to flame.
BOB GARFIELD: The rage manifests itself in various ways and creates various categories of victims. Websites such as DumpOnYou.com and RevengeWorld exist for the very purpose of character assassination. Many celebrity websites are E-tabloids, hungering to embarrass the rich and famous.
ALEC BALDWIN: I don't give a damn that you’re 12 years old or 11 years old or that you’re a child or that your mother is a thoughtless pain in the ass. You have humiliated me for the last time with this phone.
BOB GARFIELD: When Alec Baldwin’s angry voicemail to his daughter showed up online, the actor was excoriated. When skanky pictures of American Idol contestant Antonella Barba appeared, she was briefly the most googled woman in the world, but nothing to do with her singing. They, of course, sought the spotlight only to get more than they bargained for. Not so Ghyslain Raza, the chubby teenager known worldwide as the Star Wars Kid.
[THUMPING SOUNDS AND LAUGHTER] He was victimized by classmates, who came upon a videotape of his Darth Maul light-saber routine and, without his permission, posted it online. Because of Ghyslain’s unheroic appearance and because his light-saber was actually a telescoping golf ball retriever, he’s been laughed at more than a billion times worldwide, making him the most ridiculed of all ridiculed fat kids in human history. And then there was Megan Meier. She was a 13-year-old Missouri girl who made a fast friend on MySpace only to have that sweet, cute, 16-year-old Josh turn on her, ridicule her, tell her the world would be better without her. Only after Megan committed suicide was it revealed that Josh was an invented character, created by two adults to intentionally crush her. Yes, for all its revolutionary benefits, the Internet is also a malice engine, the men’s room wall writ unimaginably large – but with one devastating difference. You can scrub the bathroom wall. Google just crawls the Web and brings back what it finds from wherever and whenever. Search for someone who has been defamed ever and up the slander pops, because a search engine can't distinguish between truth and falsity, much less malice and goodwill.
MARK LEMLEY: Google just passed one trillion websites it indexes with its search engine.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Lemley is a professor of law at Stanford University.
MARK LENLEY: To create a legal regime under which Google had an obligation to check all of the content on those one trillion websites and have a lawyer determine whether it might defame somebody would essentially mean that you couldn't have a search engine.
BOB GARFIELD: Lemley gets that, but he also represents two former Yale law students, Brittan Heller and Heide Iravani, who were repeatedly viciously targeted by anonymous online critics on a law school admissions discussion board called AutoAdmit.com. The women were falsely accused of everything from sexual impropriety to heroin addiction to cheating and were subject to lascivious speculation of the most graphic and sometimes violent kind by dozens of unknown attackers. David Margolick wrote about the case in this month’s Portfolio Magazine.
DAVID MARGOLICK: In Brittan Heller’s case, somebody who knew her as an undergraduate posted something anonymously saying, hey, Yalies, Brittan Heller is gonna be in your entering class. Watch out for her. Heide Iravani got involved because one of her classmates posted a picture of her and started commenting on her breast size, and then everybody starts jumping and pouncing in and contributing to the degeneration. It became a kind of cyber free-for-all.
BOB GARFIELD: With consequences beyond humiliation. Heller says she was turned down by the first 16 law firms she approached for job interviews because, she was certain, Google searches returned results from AutoAdmit besmirching her every which way. And here’s where it gets ironic. Two law students victimized on a website for law students found themselves stymied by – the law. Heller asked AutoAdmit to remove the offensive postings but the proprietors refused, citing the First Amendment. The women asked Google to take down the defamatory posts from its search results but Google also refused, citing federal law. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Web entities cannot be held responsible for defamation or libel perpetrated by users. Lawyer, Mark Lemley.
MARK LEMLEY: That immunity provision doesn't have a counterpart in the physical world. It was created, I think, because of one of the significant differences between the Internet and the physical world, which is the sheer volume of information that can be posted on these electronic equivalents of bulletin boards.
BOB GARFIELD: Thus Congress granted blanket immunity to everyone but the author of libelous or defamatory content. If you've been slimed online and you want justice, you've got to take it up with the slimer. Heller and Iravani attempted just that by filing John Doe lawsuits and subpoenaing AutoAdmit for the identities of their harassers, but under the protection of Section 230, David Margolick explains, AutoAdmit had scrubbed its servers of the data that could connect IP addresses to those posts.
DAVID MARGOLICK: So the women could identify a grand total of only five or six of them, and most of them they identified because they at one time or another gave away information that identified who they were.
BOB GARFIELD: So does the Communications Decency Act need a do-over? It was passed, after all, in 1996 while the Internet was in its infancy. Privacy hawks say no. Kurt Opsahl is senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
KURT OPSAHL: We as a society have taken a bet that it would be better to have a lot of different voices rather than have the law or the courts decide which voices can come forward.
BOB GARFIELD: For one thing, he says, this country has always had rude ad hominem speech, clear back to the founders. Furthermore, he says, as some courts have ruled, readers know how to look at salacious material in context. DumpOnYou.com isn't exactly the Congressional Record.
KURT OPSAHL: And a lot of these sites, it’s hard to find them very credible. You know, if you see somebody say that so-and-so is a criminal on a site that is filled with hyperbole and bile, how much credence should you really give it? Not much.
BOB GARFIELD: But Google reports results entirely out of context. Ask Brittan Heller, who sued her tormentors, hired ReputationDefender and still must live with a Google results page that has, as item number five, “Is Brittan Heller a lying bitch?” To Michael Fertik, this screams for a revision in the law, one that would give targets of character assassination at least as much protection as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act confers upon intellectual property owners. Under that law, a website is under no liability if it takes down copyrighted content at the written request of the copyright holder.
MICHAEL FERTIK: Now, under this comparative set of regimes, NBC can send one letter to YouTube and force it to remove 50,000 videos, as happened.
BOB GARFIELD: But if someone Photoshops you into Nazi regalia or worse, then posts it all over the Internet with your name and address attached, well, that’s just hard cheese. Yes, under current law, a Saturday Night Live skit is afforded more protection than you are. Still, Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation worries that giving privacy the same status as copyright would encourage anybody whose feelings get bruised, especially government officials, to inundate websites with demands to take down unflattering material, even truthful unflattering material. But Fertik says that’s silly.
MICHAEL FERTIK: We could require, for example, that anyone who believes himself or herself to be defamed to file an affidavit saying that to the best of my knowledge this is totally false, and to be penalized under penalty of perjury if his or her own claim filed in front of a clerk of the court turns out to be false. It’s not like the alternative to the status quo is totalitarianism. It’s not true. It’s false. It’s wrong. There are one hundred steps between where we are today and a scenario in which we really chill speech. So I suggest we take three steps down that primrose path, not one hundred.
BOB GARFIELD: Or else, never mind what Andy Warhol said, in the future, everyone will be defamed in perpetuity.