Death Threats, Harassment, Stalking, Google Plus and Identity

by Karoli on August 29, 2011 · 424 comments

From Friday’s New York Times, this lovely little gem

Using an ever-changing series of pseudonyms, the authorities say, Mr. Cassidy published thousands of Twitter posts about Ms. Zeoli. Some were weird horror-movie descriptions of what would befall her; others were more along these lines: “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.”

Gee golly, that sounds kind of like what Erin (@queenofspain) has been going through, doesn’t it?

Or the nonsense on Twitter aimed at slandering Shoq, My1BlueEye and vdaze by their disgruntled not-fans.

Or what the lovely heferdust pulled on me a couple of months back.

Or what this blogger is now enduring with the full blessing of another website owner. 

I just didn’t expect the death threats.

Wait a second. Death threats?

They decided I had to die.

I got a death threat.

I got another death threat.

And then I got one telling me that if I went to a popular blogger’s conference in November, they would find me, they would kill me, and they would kill everyone around me.

I then found out that the website owner had sent me a harassing email a few days earlier, ending it with “I guess I’ll see you around”.

As a reasonably prominent female face on the internet, I always knew the day would come when it would get very, very ugly.

I guess that day is here.

The authorities are on it, right?

Not so fast. I’m here to report that the answer to that question is really, really weird. From the NYT article:

Those relentless tweets landed Mr. Cassidy in jail on charges of online stalking and placed him at the center of an unusual federal case that asks the question: Is posting a public message on Twitter akin to speaking from an old-fashioned soapbox, or can it also be regarded as a means of direct personal communication, like a letter or phone call?

[…]
Federal authorities say Mr. Cassidy’s Twitter messages caused Ms. Zeoli “substantial emotional distress” and made her fear for her life, so much so that she once did not leave home for 18 months and hired armed guards to protect her residence.

In a complaint filed in federal court in Maryland, the Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded that Mr. Cassidy had published 8,000 Twitter posts, almost all of them about Ms. Zeoli and her Buddhist group, along with similar posts on several blogs.

Mr. Cassidy’s lawyers with the federal public defender’s office argue that even offensive, emotionally distressing speech is protected by the First Amendment when it is conveyed on a public platform like Twitter. Legal scholars say the case is significant because it grapples with what can be said about a person, particularly a public person like a religious leader, versus what can be said to a person.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered an analogy: the difference between harassing telephone calls and ranting from a street-corner pulpit. “When the government restricts speech to one person, the speaker remains free to speak to the public at large,” Mr. Volokh argued.

Well. I’m not a lawyer or anything like that, but I have a reasonable working knowledge of the Constitution, and I’m a little confused as to why very specific death threats like the ones conveyed on Twitter toward people like Queen of Spain, or in comments like Ms. Ittybiz above would be considered any different than someone walking up to me on the street, getting right up in my face, and telling me I had to die while the rest of the world idled peacefully by on their way to the damn grocery store. 

I’m trying to puzzle this out, but it’s difficult. In the case of the woman chronicled in the NYT, a man with a record of assault, arson and domestic violence posts 8,000 messages — that’s EIGHT THOUSAND, people — messages harassing and threatening an innocent woman to the point where she stays home and offline for EIGHTEEN MONTHS and there’s even a hint of an argument about whether this is protected speech?

Really? 

Yes, really. Enter the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) on a gilded lily-white horse to save said slime from the fate of being accountable for bullying someone online.

In support of a defense motion to dismiss the case, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group based in San Francisco, appealed to the court to protect online expression.

While not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that the courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech but is unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence,” it wrote.

Gee, who said anything about policing “every inflammatory word”? How about just the words that include things like “I hope you die.” Are they really arguing that THIS is protected speech?

Sure, it was said in public. So was this, to me:

.@Karoli: Your kids are NOT fair game to me but you and your husband ARE!!!!


or this (Image here):

.@theharryshearer: Sounds like the coporations [sic] put a contract out for a hit on somebody. Who did they put the hit on? I hope it’s not me. I hope it’s @Karoli

Mine were mild by comparison, but they did involve people in my family who don’t share my views or my first name, which is why Nadia the troll (aka PainterlyOne) chose to post my last name last week, so she could be sure and paint them with my views. How brave of her.

Will it stop when someone finally acts on their threats?

I sure as hell hope it doesn’t come to that. We have a problem, not only with sick people who feel free to post whatever pops into their brain cell at any given time, but also with companies like Google, who absolutely insist on requiring a real first and last name on Google Plus.

That demand is ridiculous and bogus. Sure, we can choose not to use their identity service disguised as a social network, and I’m betting most women will indeed choose that route, because they don’t especially care to be stalked, threatened and harassed online. But you see, that’s not Google’s problem, because that harassment will not take place on their service. No. Discovery will happen on Google Plus, but the harassment will be done on services like Twitter, where they can take your twitter identity and mash it up on a public stream with some threats, impersonations, harassing, and other fun so that the fucking EFF will leap to their defense too.

What Google Plus does is blend the worst of all worlds. They require a full first and last name, but also permit asymmetrical following, so that your stalker now knows your real name and probably your identity on every other website you inhabit. They might even have your phone number (or at least your Google Voice number) and one of those neat services that lets them send text messages via GTalk.

If you’re smart enough or savvy enough to learn how to delete all other vestiges of your online existence from your Facebook profile to your twitter profile, it won’t matter. Because they will always find you…they have your name.

This is what Google is doing. Setting up people, and women in particular, to be stalked, harassed, to have their families threatened and harassed, and to allow anyone with a smartphone and half a brain cell to track them down and make their lives miserable.

Way to go, Google. How’s that “do no evil” thing working out for you?

The more things change, the more they don’t

I’ve been writing about this since before I had a blog. On the Internet, free speech belongs to the deranged and misbehaved before it does the honest ones. Until there is a way to PRIVATELY (hear that, Google???) establish one’s identity to the satisfaction of the one certifying to it online, this nonsense will continue.

You’d think there would actually be solutions to this problem by now, and there would be, if the White Knights of the Internet would quit being such damn purists and start thinking about what really happens when idiots with a keyboard are let loose.

Identity, folks. Identity. It’s all about being able to establish it, prove it, and trust it. Not names. Identity.

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