Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Freedom = $1.05

"He must not support free speech."

A reader made that comment in response to my post about the law which now makes it illegal to anonymously troll the internet.

That reader went on to observe: "[I]f you don't want to deal with them, don't host comments on your site and don't read the comments elsewhere. Trolls avoided!"

Other readers expressed similar sentiments, wondering how I could be pro-censorship.

So I think my support of this initiative bears a little explanation.

First, I believe that the law is poorly written and most likely violates the Consitution as-is, and should be struck down or overturned.

But the intent behind it, I support.

It is not, in fact, an issue of free speech. It is an issue of responsibility for your freedom of speech.

Allow me to explain.

When I was moderating a certain forum back in the early 2000s, we attracted a particularly vicious anonymous troll. This person masked his or her IP address and never used a real name, so banning the troll from the forum was impossible - plus, we had explicit instructions never to ban anyone from the forum, and to delete posts only when they contained malicious code that could harm a user's computer. Conservative readers might be surprised to find that those directives were issued to us moderators on the forum, but that's how us Liberals are: we really do belive in freedom of speech, almost to a fault.

But there is a distinct difference between allowing freedom of speech, and accountability and responsibility for freedom of speech. It is a subtle difference, and one that might not be readily apparant to my dear readers. So bear with me as I explain.

One of the things the above-reference troll used to post regarding me in particular was that I had contracted AIDS from letting my boyfriend fuck my fat black ass every night (I am neither gay nor black, and this troll was responding to my defense of gay rights in a discussion on this forum). This fits the classic definition of trolling: the user was attempting to distrupt discussion on the forum and to upset its participants (in this instance, with a personal attack).

Now I want to imagine that this Internet forum is actually a real-world community, like a small town. People live there and interact with each other - people who often possess different points of view, but have things in common. And for the most part, they are reasonable and get along well with each other.

If someone in this small town were to begin creating flyers at the local copy store that accused a specific resident - let's say, for the sake of argument, me - of contracting AIDS from a homosexual encounter, and then began dropping those flyers in people's mailboxes at night, would I simply have to shrug my shoulders and say "well, golly, that's their freedom of speech! If I don't like it, I should avoid my mailbox!"

According to some of you, dear readers, that's exactly what I should do.

And you are flat-out wrong.

I would take those fliers to the local police, and involve law enforcement in what could be threats against my character. I would have grounds, in court, to sue this individual once he was caught, for defamation in regards to putting these flyers in my nieghbor's mailboxes. And he would be caught. Why? Because in real life, you cannot avoid detection forever (I would argue the same is true online, if you know people with the proper 133t skillz). There are fingerprints. Someone would have seen him going into the copy shop. And I could always sit up and night waiting for him to slip into our neighborhood and start dropping fliers in mailboxes.

So why does this issue suddenly change and become one of freedom of speech when it goes online?

The argument is not against the content of the troll's posts. People can troll quite legally, rile people up without actually causing harm and doing anything illegal. There's no problem with that. And frankly, I could care less if someone called me a fat black fag if he did it with his real name, because it shows a degree of accountability and responsibility for his actions (something the Enron-Haliburton-NoWMD-Osama bin WHO?-Bushies know absolutely nothing about).

If the intent of the law were to outlaw people from making trolling speech, then it would be a freedom of speech issue. But the intent is to remove anonymity and require responsibility - and that, I can certainly support.

There is a long legal precedent for requiring people to be responsible for their words, from newspaper reporters who are forced to show sources when their stories could ruin someone's reputation and career, to it being illegal to shout "fire" in a crowded theater.

Why should the Internet not be subject to the same kinds of restrictions? Aside from the "it's teh awesome digital frontierZOR133t OMGOMGROFL and I should be able to download all the kiddie pr0n and MP3zors I want and say whatever comes into my head without fear of consequences!" argument, which holds about as much water as the "slam-dunk" WMDs in Iraq, there isn't any.


Jason said...

Next time I'll just post some stupid shit about zombies and not get any comments on it, rather than take the time to post my thought process on what I consider to be an important topic (and so did my readers, apparently) and net the same result.

Liz said...

Well, I’m late to post because I've been busy but here are my 2 pennies.

First, well done. Good rebuttal and one I’d hope most would agree with. Personal responsibility seems to be the unicorn of our day.

I only have this to add: based on our current political climate I could see a real value in being able to post anonymously. The kinds of posts I refer to might not be classified as "trolling" but nevertheless are worth considering as a counterpoint. So I present this scenario…

You once ran a website that the US government labeled as "crime" and prevented any government computer from accessing. You however, had committed no known crime. You merely spoke your mind about various crazy things - from zombies to politics - just like you do on this blog. You may very well have been denied a job with the Foreign Service because of it.

To this picture let's add the current political regime in power- one that cannot imagine a level too low to stoop, a law worth not breaking, and who does not believe they are accountable to the people who voted them in.

In this thought experiment, I posit that it is not unlikely that anti-administration comments could be perceived as inflammatory in much the same way you perceived the idiocy of which you were the target. Just imagine though that instead of you getting pissed off and possibly suing someone for slander, it's the government getting pissed off and they know exactly who you are and are more than willing to put a stop to you by using a law intended for another purpose. And they won't sue you for slander; they'll throw you in gitmo without any legal recourse and let you rot.

This may be a bit exaggerated - but I hope my point is illustrated. I am all for personal responsibility - I prefer to hold parent accountable for their children's actions, for example, over passing laws to hopefully prevent children from doing stupid shit. But there has always been a fine line between asking people to take responsibility in a reasonable way and government's ability to use that to truncate personal rights like freedom of speech or privacy - mostly in ways never intended by the original law.

And so it seems to me that we're left in a quandary. But maybe it is an issue like this that would help prompt us to take and action and change our government so we could hold individuals accountable for their actions on the internet without being afraid our government would be smacking its lips with joy at their extended power over us. People do have a history of electing their own captors and freely relinquishing their freedoms. I'd hate to see this become another example of that.