JuicyCampus, free speech, and personal responsibility

Well the latest fad is upon us, and after a bit of a hiatus, I just had to write ... It is called JuicyCampus (see http://juicycampus.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

Well the latest fad is upon us, and after a bit of a hiatus, I just had to write ... 

It is called JuicyCampus (see http://juicycampus.com/, if you must) and it certainly brings out the worst in us. 

Let's face it, people love to gossip.  About their friends, about their 'enemy du jour'; "Yesterday she was my friend but now I hate her!", about their boss, pretty much about anything that ticks them off today.  We all learned about The Golden Rule in kindergarten but by the time we get to college, we've often chosen to think only about ourselves, our feelings, and getting even with those whom we have perceived to have slighted us in any way.  To paraphrase a recent film, "The Golden Rule?  Well, it's really more of a guideline!"  Fortunately, most of us outgrow this stage and once again become upstanding members of a generally civil society. 

Most college students crab about their instructors, about their parents, and about the mean old RIAA and MPAA but there has to be is a line somewhere -- and just when we think we've found that line in the sand, JuicyCampus has crossed it. 

The very name of the site suggests it's entire purpose is to spread hurtful words said about people -- often vulnerable young people.  But (you say), isn't this just Free Speech that we are talking about?  Well, when said in front of a group of people, perhaps it is just Free Speech but when in print, or broadcast to millions of people, it is another matter.  Newspapers (and generally most media outlets) have always been held legally responsible for their actions. 

LIBEL: 1 a: a written statement in which a plaintiff in certain courts sets forth the cause of action or the relief sought, b archaic: a handbill especially attacking or defaming someone, 2 a: a written or oral defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression b (1): a statement or representation published without just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt (2): defamation of a person by written or representational means (3): the publication of blasphemous, treasonable, seditious, or obscene writings or pictures (4): the act, tort, or crime of publishing such a libel

Why shouldn't this definition apply to the web as well? 

Some of us are held to a high standard.  ZDNet, for instance, maintains editorial control over the content produced by its bloggers, and our bloggers are treated (at least by our colleagues -- not always our readers) with the same professionalism, courtesy, and respect as any other journalist of good repute.  For the most part, our readers are tasteful and respectful as well -- but when they are not, there is always the <Delete> key. 

Apparently JuicyCampus, while having the same editorial control over it's content, thrives on the hurtful, and perhaps libelous, words published on their pages. 

It is no different than Kazaa or BitTorrent making money off of piracy while proclaiming tongue in cheek that they do not condone copyright infringement on their sites. 

Or is it?

If Kazaa enables you to steal a song, they are complicit in your illegal activity but the damages are monetary.  When hurtful or libelous words are printed about a human being, the impact may be far greater.  Just a few months ago, a mother and daughter were complicit in driving another young woman to commit suicide in what has been termed as a 'prank'.  Mother and daughter lived down the street, and ultimately came forward, but that didn't change the outcome -- and the damages can never be repaid, regardless of the ultimate outcome of any litigation over this poor young woman's death. 

So where am I going with all of this? 

When anyone speaks their mind (or takes any action) in public, they are accountable for their words and actions.  They are identifiable and they can be held accountable.  Their Free Speech protections remain in place until they yell "fire" in a crowded theater -- an action which can lead to harm of others.  Similarly, all of their other freedoms are protected until they break the law (rob a bank or steal a purse, for instance). 

The web is a public forum where the same rights and responsibilities apply -- except for one big difference.  ANONYMITY ...

Unless you identify yourself, no one knows who you are, or where you are.  There is no accountability whatsoever for your words or actions.  There is no identifiable jurisdiction whose laws apply to you. 

The result?

Less than scrupulous people use the web for all sorts of illicit or illegal activity. 

  • On college campuses, it is mostly copyright infringement -- made worse because otherwise honest people are confused about what they can and cannot do legally under the terms of fair use in the context of the DMCA. 
  • Under the guise of harmless fun, sites like JuicyCampus are enabling the thoughtless among us to do (often unanticipated, but serious nevertheless) harm to the most vulnerable among us. 
  • Sexual predators are trolling through FaceBook and other more or less innocent social web sites looking for the vulnerable or the naive.
  • Spammers are looking for customers for legitimate, and often not so legitimate, business ventures.
  • Phishing scams abound, with the intention of stealing the identity of users.
  • And some I probably haven't thought of ...

Even the most scrupulous and upstanding may occasionally indulge in the guilty pleasures of an anonymous romp through perfectly legal but sometimes unsavory places on the web -- places they wouldn't want their mothers or spouses to know about. 

The solution.

Unpopular to the extreme, the only viable solution is to remove the anonymity of the Internet.  Should the government be able to peruse through those sites that you frequent?  Of course not!  But, if the authorities have probable cause to issue a search warrant, their needs to be some way for the authorities in the jurisdiction to identify anyone suspected of of illegal activity. 

Editorial standards