Law in the Internet Society

-- By ShakimaWells - 15 Oct 2012

After President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated over the future of nation’s economy, healthcare and domestic policies a few weeks ago, user TheDailyConversation? posted the 1.5 hour long video on Youtube. While many of the comments regarding the video focused on the personal and political attributes of the candidates, there were also some less relevant and unsavory remarks. Joh2628, for instance wrote, presumably in regards to the President, “People are mad because that half-black motherf*cker doesn’t know what he is doing!” Roshg1 contributed, apparently in reference to Mitt Romney, “Mormons are just as f*cked up as Jehovah’s Witnesses.” As America nears the eve of an election where it will choose between re-electing its first black president and electing its first Mormon president, such comments seem to be in stark contrast to the progress that the country has made over the years in regards to racial and religious tolerance. Indeed, the internet is commonly host to inflammatory speech in comments, posts and blogs. Hidden under the garb of anonymity, trolls--individuals who post inflammatory and/or off-topic messages with the primary goal of garnering an emotional response— have found the internet to be an effective and high profile platform in which to articulate their ideas (cite). This paper examines laws the problem of trolling and the ways in which private and public entities have attempted to address the problem. It concludes that while government action may have its place, the actions of private entities and the internet community itself are also useful in curbing troll behavior.

As noted above, the rampant nature of online trolling can at least partially explained by anonymous nature of online posting. This concept has also been formally referred to as the Online Disinhibition Effect, which is described as the “loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet” (cite). Because the individuals is able to navigate the internet without others knowing their true identity, without being seen and even without returning to read the fallout from their post, anonymous posters can engage in behavior that they would not attempt in an ordinary social setting.

Companies like Youtube have already begin to brainstorm ways in which to limit the trolling. One new policy prompts commenters to change their username to their real name. Although the initiative was launched earlier this year, it is still optional and users can decide to continue to post under their usernames if they provide a reason. The explanation “I’m not sure, I’ll decide later” is currently accepted as sufficient (cite). Twitter has also changed its policy to prohibit specific threats of violence and prevent user abuse (cite). In its terms of service, Twitter notes that such behavior will result in permanent suspension. It is not clear, however, whether individuals will be able to circumvent these rules by opening an account with another user name, for instance. In New York, the State Assembly proposed the Internet Protection Act, which allows for web site administrators to remove comments by posters who do not have a verifiable name, IP address and home address. This has riled the passions of some observers who note the Supreme Court’s assertion that individuals have a right to be anonymous in some circumstances. One article (cite) cites the ruling in McIntyre? v. Ohio Elections Commissions, where the Supreme Court stated, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority…It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the Frist Amendment in particular; to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.”

On an international level, the UK has been noted for its active, if heavy-handed, reaction to trolls. One well- known case in the UK involved a Welsh student in his young twenties who was jailed for making racist tweets against Fabrice Muamba, an athlete who had a heart attack and collapsed during a soccer match. The student, Liam Stacey, who had been drinking while watching the match, was sentenced to 56 days for a “racially aggravated public order offense.” The chief crown prosecutor noted “Racist language is inappropriate in any setting and through any media. We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law” (cite).

Is law, however, even the right way to handle trolls online? In many cases, trolls are challenged socially, either through the response of other users or by being ostracized and/or ignored online. In the case of Liam Stacey, above, the backlash was so intense that he tried to delete the messages, claimed that he had been hacked and then deleted his account altogether before being arrested. Given that social isolation can be a powerful modifier of human behavior, would society and the online community have been better served with Stacey simply deleting his account and finishing his Biology degree without a jail sentence? On the other hand, it was perhaps precisely the threat of police action that forced Stacey to take down his Tweets. Although the words of the UK court suggests that Stacey was pursued as an example, the comments under the video of the Obama-Romney debate indicate that trolls remain a persistent problem. While governmental or police action may be too extreme and unrealistic to tackle the every day problem of trolling, perhaps the actions of private entities, such as Twitter or Youtube, can help curb the scourge of trolling and promote more effective and socially beneficial online communication. Such actions may have to have more teeth than they currently do, however, so that trolls actually fear the repercussions of their actions and other users also know that they have recourse, even if not legal, to deal with other antisocial users.

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r1 - 15 Oct 2012 - 18:11:07 - ShakimaWells
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