LIMITS OF FREE SPEECH ARE TESTED BY WEB SITE’S HURTFUL, HATEFUL POSTS
By Larry Magid
San Jose Mercury News
The online gossip site JuicyCampus.com carries this slogan: “Always Anonymous . . . Always Juicy.”I’m a strong advocate of free speech, and I recognize that there are legitimate reasons to protect people’s ability to be anonymous on the Internet. But JuicyCampus.com is exercising these rights in ways that are hurtful and possibly dangerous. I also understand the interest in gossip. But there’s a difference between gossip among friends, or published gossip about celebrities, and spreading nasty rumors about private citizens.
The site, which was reportedly founded by a 1995 Duke graduate, encourages students at selected colleges ranging from the Air Force Academy to Yale to anonymously post “juicy” comments about other students. And some of these comments can be downright vicious.
All of this is under the veil of anonymity. In support of its slogan “Always Anonymous . . . Always Juicy,” the site’s privacy and tracking policy states that “it is not possible for anyone to use this website to find out who you are or where you are located.” It further warns people who want to be “extra-cautious” that “servers do, as a matter of course, keep logs” that can include geographic information and IP addresses, the string of numbers that identify a computer on the Internet. It goes on to recommend ways to find free services that shield IP addresses.
A quick look at the site revealed a number of posts that use derogatory terms to out people as homosexuals, whether true or not. There were also posts suggesting that specific women students are sluts, often giving details about their supposed sexual activities. In some cases, these posts contain a phone number or even a dorm address, encouraging others to seek contact with the person. Other comments are sexist, racist, hateful and downright mean. Many mention names of what appear to be real students. Some postings might be best described as virtual terrorism. One posting implied a certain named female student was available for sex with strangers and included her cell phone number and dorm information. If not terrorism, this is at the very least cyberbullying. Posting false information about people, impersonating others or simply being mean are all classic examples of cyberbullying.
There is nothing new about Web pages that contain rumors or lies about people. ConnectSafely.org, a Web forum I help run, receives regular reports about such postings on legitimate social Web sites.
In some cases there is nothing that can be done – free speech does give people the right to say what they think. But if the postings are libelous, defamatory, hateful or otherwise contrary to the site’s terms of service, we are typically able to get them taken down. The same is true if there is evidence that the posting or profile is impersonating someone else.
Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender.com said the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects the owner of the site against prosecution or civil action for user postings but doesn’t protect individual users. In other words, if you post something libelous or defamatory, you can be sued by the victim.
Trouble is, says Fertik, it’s a “right without a remedy” as there is often no practical way to find out who did the posting. It might be possible to find someone from their IP address, but that doesn’t always work. Besides, as JuicyCampus points out, there are ways to hide your IP.
Ironically, said Fertik, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides victims of copyright infringement greater protection than the Communications Decency Act gives victims of libel or defamation. A record company has a better chance of getting a judgment against a college student sharing music than a college student has against someone jeopardizing his or her reputation, privacy or even safety.
It’s tempting to argue there ought to be a law against sites like this. But before reacting too quickly, we need to think about the unintended consequences of going after this type of site.
I don’t think we want to outlaw all forms of gossip, nor do I think it’s a smart to require authentication before anyone can post anything online. That could have negative consequences on political dissidents, whistle-blowers and others for whom anonymity can be vital. But just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. As a parent, I would discourage my kids from using a site like this, and I think it’s reasonable for college campuses to at least discuss what they ought to do about sites that encourage hateful comments.
About the only good thing I can say about JuicyCampus is that on the two days I tested it last week, access was extremely slow. Perhaps it was overwhelmed because of all the press coverage. Whatever the reason, it’s the first time I’ve ever been happy about a site being hard to reach.