Saturday, August 2, 2008

What Does Google Have on You?

Well, I am off on a much-needed vacation, as you can see by the picture of me in my traveling hat, and Deborah will be back next week, but I wanted to leave you with one last post for the weekend. Existing in the feminist blogosphere, one inevitably comes across the unpleasant, the misinformed, the spouters of inanities, the ignorant, bigoted, misogynistic and the more than slightly unhinged. In a world of internet anonymity, it is well known, seemingly mild-mannered humans will give free reign to all that is most crass in them. And it is up to the blogger or website master to decide how much they will stomach.

There are various options. Some allow everything and anything to be said—in the name of free speech or notoriety. Some screen all comments before they post, or any comments from new commenters. For example the policy at Bitch PhD is "Comments are great; obnoxious comments get deleted. Deal." Others, like Feministing, “don’t feed the troll”: i.e. they ask their commenters not to respond to comments that are intellectually prehistoric. The feminist blogosphere, constantly dealing with the misogynistic, are lucky to have a site such as Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog where they can send such misogynists for an elementary education. Needless to say, those sent to reform school are rarely pleased with the offering.

Ryan Singel at Wired Magazine recently wrote about a lawsuit against a number of commenters/posters and the administrator of the web forum, One commenter, charmingly named “AK-47” targeted two women Jane Doe I and Jane Doe II, who had been admitted to one of the country’s top law school, Yale Law. Here’s what happened:

The AutoAdmit controversy began even before one of the women, identified in court documents as "Jane Doe I," started classes in the fall of 2005, the lawsuit alleges. Doe I was alerted in the summer to an AutoAdmit comment thread entitled "Stupid Bitch to Attend Law School." The thread included messages such as, "I think I will sodomize her. Repeatedly" and a reply claiming "she has herpes." The second woman, Jane Doe II, was similarly attacked beginning in January 2007.

Both women tried in vain to persuade the administrators of the site to remove the threads, according to the lawsuit. But then the story of the cyber-harassment hit the front page of The Washington Post, and the law school trolls became fodder for cable news shows. Soon after, the female law students, with help from Stanford and Yale law professors, filed the federal lawsuit in June 2007 seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

The Jane Doe plaintiffs contend that the postings about them became etched into the first page of search engine results on their names, costing them prestigious jobs, infecting their relationships with friends and family, and even forcing one to stop going to the gym for fear of stalkers.

While the women asked the administrator, Anthony Ciolli, to take the comment thread down, Ciolli refused. He has since been removed from the lawsuit. I have various reactions to this, as I imagine you all do as well. In reality, internet “free speech” is a very different beast from real world “free speech.” Until now, the internet been an essentially anonymous forum with little chance that one will be held responsible or incriminated by one's words, as long as one remains behind the mask of the moniker. This has spawned good things, such as Bitch PhD. But it also allows for maximum impact with minimal responsibility. Here’s what I mean by maximum impact: the postings about Jane Doe I and II became so attached to their names that they showed up on the front page of search engines, which would inevitably be seen by future employers trying to dig up all the information they could on their potential law associates. AK-47, however, remained nothing more than AK-47.

I have been raised in a generation that understands that everything one writes or says may become fodder for the front page of a Google search devoted strictly to their life. Lucky are the Emily Smiths and Mark Cohens among us. Some would argue that our norms have changed as a result—we hardly bat an eye on learning that Obama tried coke, whereas just a decade ago it was a scandale whether Clinton had inhaled or not. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed has documented how the Academy views professors blogging for public consumption. And I am aware that the above silly picture might just be viewed someday by someone who wants to take my work very seriously. Alas.

But there is still an imbalance between the complete anonymity of some commenters who can drag a person’s name through the mud at will, the lack of consequences, and the inability of that person to erase the link from the Google frontpage. Should webmasters be required to reveal commenter’s identities in egregious circumstances? Should there be more lawsuits such as this one? In the future, will we become more permissive toward embarrassing photographs, blog posts, and stories from the past?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Anonymous commenting should be done away with. One cannot submit letters to newspapers or magazines without owning their words via allowing their names to be known. The net should be the same. Name, email and website address. It might not deter those with the knowledge to get around such things but how many of those people troll for kicks?