Apparently it’s not just the intraweb.
[quote=“Wired: Yale Students’ Lawsuit Unmasks Anonymous Trolls, Opens Pandora’s Box”]“Women named Jill and Hillary should be raped.”
Those are the words of “AK-47” – a poster to the college-admissions web forum AutoAdmit.com. AK-47 was one of a handful of students heaping misogynist scorn on women attending the nations’ top law schools in 2007, in posts so vile they spurred a national debate on the limits of online anonymity, and an unprecedented federal lawsuit aimed at unmasking and punishing the posters.
Now lawyers for two female Yale Law School students have ascertained AK-47’s real identity, along with the identities of other AutoAdmit posters, who all now face the likely publication of their names in court records – potentially marking a death sentence for the comment trolls’ budding legal careers even before the case has gone to trial.
The unmasking of the posters marks a milestone in a rare legal challenge to the norms of online commenting, where arguments live on for years in search-engine results and where reputations can be sullied nearly irreparably by anyone with a grudge, a laptop and a WiFi connection. Yet a year after the lawsuit was filed, little else has been resolved – and legal controversies have multiplied. The women themselves have gone silent, and their lawyers – two of whom are now themselves being sued – are not talking to the press. Legal experts are beginning to wonder aloud if there’s any point in pressing the messy lawsuit.
"You have good lawyers putting their time in on the case, and in a policy sense, they are achieving something, says Ann Bartow, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “But in a victim sense – assuming you think of the women as victims – it’s not clear what this is going to achieve.”
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 AutoAdmit.com 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.
“We have never had such a way to lie and distort facts about people – to spread lies and distortions in a way that is attached to them,” says Bartow. “And you can game it to come up on the front page of Google.”
Bartow believes the problem lies in technology outstripping the law and our cultural responses. George Washington University Law Professor Daniel Solove, who’s been thinking about the issue long enough to have written a book called The Future of Reputation, agrees. He says the law needs to change.
“The internet isn’t a radical-free zone where you can hurt people. But on the other hand, we can’t have everyone rushing to the court, because the court is a blunt tool,” Solove says. “We need something to help shape norms – there needs to be some kind of push back against the notion that the internet is a place where you can say what you want and screw the consequences. That’s not what free speech is about.”
Since libel lawsuits are mostly about clearing one’s name, Solove finds himself lamenting the lost ritual of duels, which he describes as an elaborate nonjudicial way of settling disputes that rarely actually got to the shooting phase.
“We don’t have any middle-ground dispute resolution processes in society anymore, and courts aren’t a good way to vindicate these non-monetary harms,” Solove says. “I think we need something else.”[/quote]
“Something else” sounds about right. Lots of luck coming up with it.