The New York Times wants you to know there are some bad people on the internet. You know what? There are some bad people walking the streets of your home town.
The question is: What do you want to do about it?
Here's the conclusionish stuff at the end of Mattathias Schwartz's fascinating article. (He embedded himself with evil trolls and lived to tell the tale.)
Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying “uncle”?(Hang on. I'm going to do a separate post about the use of the word "eristic.")
Is the effort to control what’s said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?This is extremely useful to know. Remember that principle. People who want the most freedom for themselves and the least for you. They're not just the trolls of the internet. They're everywhere. Defend yourself by identifying them and continuing to claim a good amount of freedom for yourself.
One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.
[T]echnology reduces the social barriers that keep us from bedeviling strangers, it does not explain the initial trolling impulse. This seems to spring from something ugly — a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon, the ambient misanthropy that’s a frequent ingredient of art, politics and, most of all, jokes. There’s a lot of hate out there, and a lot to hate as well.It's human nature.
So far, despite all this discord, the Internet’s system of civil machines has proved more resilient than anyone imagined. As early as 1994, the head of the Internet Society warned that spam “will destroy the network.” The news media continually present the online world as a Wild West infested with villainous hackers, spammers and pedophiles. And yet the Internet is doing very well for a frontier town on the brink of anarchy. Its traffic is expected to quadruple by 2012. To say that trolls pose a threat to the Internet at this point is like saying that crows pose a threat to farming.Ha ha. Great. Exactly.
So can we have maximum freedom of speech or do we need legal remedies for the really bad people?
Are we ready for an Internet where law enforcement keeps watch over every vituperative blog and backbiting comments section, ready to spring at the first hint of violence? Probably not. All vigorous debates shade into trolling at the perimeter; it is next to impossible to excise the trolling without snuffing out the debate.That's Free Speech 101, but people seem to need to hear it again.
Schwartz assumes that trolls will successfully hide behind anonymity/pseudonymity, but we need to take note of the new developments in the AutoAdmit case:
With the help of a subpoena issued six months ago, attorneys for two Yale Law School students have succeeded in unmasking several anonymous users of the Web forum AutoAdmit whom the women are suing for defamation.Actually, the First Amendment won't protect you. A court is going to decide whether the plaintiff has met the legal standard Volokh is talking about, and a judge may not care enough about the right to say fuck you. You need more than the First Amendment for protection, you'll need judges who care about it and will stand tough and enforce hardcore free speech values even when confronted by seemingly nice, respectable plaintiffs who are royally outraged at insults and obscenities and delighted to use the courts to ruin brash young people who have said too much.
Some of the defendants will finally be named when the students soon file an amended complaint, said their attorney, Stanford Law Professor Mark Lemley, who declined to comment further....
John Williams, a court-appointed lawyer who represented AK-47, whom he has never met and whose identity he does not know, said he was disappointed by the judge's decision to sustain the subpoena, which he said went beyond where any other court has gone.
"Free speech takes another hit," he said....
Courts have long recognized that subpoenas may be available to identify anonymous commenters if litigants can demonstrate a plausible case for defamation and are not simply trying to intimidate critics, said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles....
“If you’re doing right, the First Amendment will protect you,” [First Amendment lawyer Marc] Randazza said. “If you’re doing wrong, it won’t.”