Death Threats, Harassment, Stalking, Google Plus and Identity

by Karoli on August 29, 2011 · 19 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?


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.

  • Nadine S. Husain

    great rebutal to google+ real name silliness

  • samala5793

    Great article!  I have already decided not to be on google+. Why do I need to be on another social networking site?  Isn’t 18 enough? (totally joking about the number)  :)

  • Kip Hampton

    The Constitutional issues are murky. We really are on new ground and I’m
    not sure where to draw the legal line in a way that 1) makes the sort
    of blatant harassment you, QoS and others have suffered actionable while
    2) not ceding even *more* power to an already over-intrusive security
    state. Putting that aside, though, two things:

    First, and this may just be my perception, but this sort of harassment
    seems to have gone from the usual level of (sadly) expected Internet
    lunacy to a constant bombardment almost overnight.  It’s like someone
    flipped a switch, or something. That suggests coordination to me.

    Second, while the legal issues may be tricky, one thing is clear: every
    one of the harassers is using *some* ISP’s network to connect to the
    ‘Net and while the legal scholars can debate the finer points of free
    speech viz the law, that sort of behavior *has* to break those
    companies’ Terms Of Service, I would think. Has anyone tried that route?
    Getting the harasser’s ISP to cut the cord?

    The whole thing is sickening, honestly. *No one* deserves to be treated that way.

  • Karoli

    At BlogHer, QoS talked more about that whole ISP thing. In some cases the person was traced to a public connection, so cutting off access would have meant cutting off entire communities.

    Is it coordinated? I’m not sure. I think access is quite easy now, not so tied to your desktop or your employer’s desktop. Got a Blackberry? Twitter is yours. Same for any other smartphone. And trust me on this…getting Twitter to act takes even more than an act of Congress.

    Yes, I do understand the “slippery slope” theory. For example, I wouldn’t view what was tossed at me as rising to a level where an arrest might be warranted. But it damn sure abused the ToS of Twitter, and should have been dealt with by them far more rapidly than it was. After I reported it, I got a too bad, so sad reply from their Tweetbot replier system. Not even human eyes.

    I was a moderator in some of the hottest issue communities on the web over ten years ago. I was a moderator in health communities, where the discussion can get hot and nasty fast, believe it or not. But I have never, ever seen it so prevalent as I do today. It’s been just as evil, but not quite as free.

  • bmull

    Google+ will be great without all the blowhards hiding behind fake personas. The truth is no one’s going to go to the trouble of stalking a blogger unless you’re constantly sending out bad vibes. And even without real names it’s not hard to out someone on Twitter, as your experience with Nadia proved.

    As for Mr. Cassidy, the case is actually much more complex than the NYT story suggests. The woman is a somewhat controversial public figure whose dealings have been profiled in WaPo. Cassidy has been “investigating” her temple on and offline for years. Many, if not most, of his tweets were about the temple not about her. There is no way that the online behavior for which he is charged could be illegal. Otherwise you could be charged for saying nasty things about @Koch_Industries, at least after they told you to stop.

  • BlueEye

    “The truth is no one’s going to go to the trouble of stalking a blogger unless you’re constantly sending out bad vibes.”

    What a complete pantload. That is not “the truth.” The truth is that people will go to all the trouble of stalking a blogger for any number of reasons that neither you nor I nor anyone else can predict. Mental illness is funny that way. 

  • Anonymous

    bmull, considering you’re building up quite a reputation for leaving inflammatory, immature comments like this one on the blogs of a certain few – all those mentioned in this post, as well as Joy-Ann Reid’s blog among others – this comment seems a little self-serving. Obviously you’re out to justify your own behavior as well as the behavior of those harassing anyone you don’t like.

    “The truth is no one’s going to go to the trouble of stalking a blogger unless you’re constantly sending out bad vibes.”

    With that one comment, you’ve rationalized all kinds of crimes in your ignorant mind. I hope you’re never on the receiving end.

    Anonymity – including yours – is and should be the sole choice of the person choosing it.

  • Samantha

    Protecting one’s true identity while online is a valid point, but saying Google+ requires you to use your real name is simply not true.  Just like any other social networking platform, you must take the initiative to make informed decisions on what information to share with who.  I do NOT connect every social network together, I keep them deliberately separate.  The idea that one must always use their real name online has been the exception instead of the norm practically since the days of ARPAnet.  Pseudonyms are very common, and I use them all the time.

  • Lazy Jay

    Not only women, of course. I’ve seen men threatened for no reason other than they hold a different opinion to the lunatic stalker. As for LGBT people like me… This isn’t even the persona I usually operate under, since that one could quite easily be linked with my real life identity.

  • Karoli

    True, Not just women. Men are also threatened, which is why I used the examples of My1BlueEye and Shoq as illustrations. But I can imagine situations where women who have been battered or have abusive relatives might actually be hunted down via services like this. By forcing them to use real names, they’re confronted with the situation where they either remain silent or put themselves in danger. Why should those be the only options?

  • Karoli

    True, Not just women. Men are also threatened, which is why I used the examples of My1BlueEye and Shoq as illustrations. But I can imagine situations where women who have been battered or have abusive relatives might actually be hunted down via services like this. By forcing them to use real names, they’re confronted with the situation where they either remain silent or put themselves in danger. Why should those be the only options?

  • Karoli

    Sorry, but Google absolutely requires real names, and if someone questions a name, the user is left with the responsibility to prove that the name they have is real, or they lose their account. 

  • Karoli

    Sorry, but Google absolutely requires real names, and if someone questions a name, the user is left with the responsibility to prove that the name they have is real, or they lose their account. 

  • EdgarAllen

    And there is nothing you can do about it because you are forced to agree to their terms & conditions when signing up.

  • BlueEye

    So, bmull, you’re just another blowhard hiding behind a fake persona. Got it. Thanks for clearing that up for us.

  • EdgarAllen

    A simple bot with a message run through a spinner and you can spam someone with hundreds of hate messages instantly. You don’t even need a coordinated group anymore.

  • EdgarAllen

    But, but, but… it’s so much cooler than facebook!.

    Sad thing is, once it goes out of beta, they will probably op you in by default if you use gmail or any of their other services.

  • EdgarAllen

    I’d like to know how the Japaneses feel about the name thing. I remember reading an article a while back on how Facebook was doing horrible in Japanese market because the culture likes their alter egos.
    They didn’t understand having their own names tied to online services. 

    Also, I don’t know how they would deal with my situation. I don’t even use my real name in the offline world unless I absolutely have to. Which surprisingly, is hardly ever.  Short of a passport and social security card, everything else is under a pseudonym.
    Which, isn’t for any reason other than I just hate my birth name.  I guess I should have it officially changed, but I am not legally required to do so, and have not bothered with the hassle of it all.

    Which reminds me, when I was looking at changing my name, there were different kinds of name changes available. The one type stated something along the lines of you not having to do anything special to acquire the name; you just started using the new one and it would be legally binding. i.e. if you use a pseudonym on a contract, you are still liable for said contract. I wonder how that loophole fits into the g+ equation.  

  • Erin

    As someone who has had her life threatened as well as the lives of her children threatened, this case and the EFF’s comments have me seething. Just because it’s on the internet does not make it free speech or automatically OK. This is NOT the wild west and there are laws, even if the EFF would rather there weren’t. I am all for privacy and free speech – I’m a blogger and social media strategist for christsake…but you don’t say you are going to kill someone, or kill their children at their school, and hide behind some fake cloud covered webby internetty ‘we’re all anonymous hahahaha free speech and privacy too bad suckers’ lie of a shield. Times have changed in this online world of ours, and that means people can reasonably expect to be SAFE and free from constant DEATH THREATS because they use the internet. These techy boys little playgound of happy funtime is over. The adults are now here and it’s time to fucking act like a civilized society. There is a HUGE difference between using a ‘soapbox’ and telling everyone how you plan on splattering my children’s brains on their playground and then listing my home address. There is a HUGE difference between trolling me on blogs or twitter and hating everything I talk about and telling the world which gun you will use to blow my brains over the car you are currently spying on in my driveway- after having the pizza delivery boy knock on our door while you call us to say you’re coming. I’ve had it with this crap- the rest of the world has come to play online with you, so get out of your parent’s basements and be prepared to be held responsible for your actions instead of hiding behind those pc’s. 

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