What Charles Carreon could teach ICANN

Popehat is happy to offer a new guest post from Cathy Gellis.

There is no question that the right of free speech necessarily includes the right to speak anonymously. This is partly because sometimes the only way for certain speech to be possible at all is with the protection of anonymity.

And that’s why so much outrage is warranted when bullies try to strip speakers of their anonymity simply because they don’t like what these people have to say, and why it’s even more outrageous when these bullies are able to. If anonymity is so fragile that speakers can be so easily unmasked, fewer people will be willing to say the important things that need to be said, and we all will suffer for the silence.

We’ve seen on these blog pages examples of both government and private bullies make specious attacks on the free speech rights of their critics, often by using subpoenas, both civil and criminal, to try to unmask them. But we’ve also seen another kind of attempt to identify Internet speakers, and it’s one we’ll see a lot more of if the proposal ICANN is currently considering is put into place.

In short, remember Charles Carreon? [Read more…]

Reddit's Doxxing Paradox

You might recall that popular social media site Reddit doesn't like doxxing — that is, the public identification of online speakers and revelation of their personal information. Gawker's public identification of vile Reddit creeper and troll Violentacrez was controversial to many Redditors, condemned by Reddit administrators, and has led to some Reddit mods engaging in a long-term ban of links to Gawker media sites.

So — Reddit's culture is strongly against doxxing. Right?

Well — sort of.

Last week, the online community briefly thrilled to the outing of a bad actor — a St. Louis pastor named Alois Bell who wrote a snide and obnoxious message on a receipt to a server at Applebee's. Another server posted the rude receipt — including Bell's legible signature — to Reddit, and the game was afoot — Redditors promptly identified Bell, her tiny storefront church, and her congregation. When Bell doubled down and successfully demanded that Applebee's terminate the waitress, she made herself more famous; Reddit was flooded with threads about her.

So, I have a question for the Reddit community:

Why is identifying Bell acceptable to your community, but identifying Violentacrez unacceptable to your community?

Both engaged in vile behavior. Bell was entitled and nasty to a server (remember what Dave Barry says — someone who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person), and later vengeful to someone less powerful when called publicly on her behavior. Violentacrez was a purveyor of creepshots, racism, and gleeful trolling. Why is it right for Reddit users to identify Bell by name — inflicting real-world consequences on her — but wrong for Gawker to identify Violentacrez, inflicting real-world consequences on him?

Is the idea that Violentacrez' behavior was "only online," and thus somehow qualitatively different? That strikes me as an archaic viewpoint. A startling percentage of modern life is conducted "online," and the view that things that happen "online" are somehow consequence-free or morally neutral strikes me as difficult to defend.

Is the idea that Bell — who acted in public and signed her receipt — had no expectation of privacy, but Violentacres did? Again, I find this unconvincing. Bell probably didn't expect that her credit card receipt would be published — but she acted in a way that allowed it to be. Violentacrez might have hoped that nobody would identify him — but he left the clues and crumbs that led Gawker to him. Both must contend with the truism that people have an urge to identify and shame bad actors.

Is this a mere crass "one of us, one of us" thing? Do Redditors merely feel that members of their community deserve protection, but outsiders do not? Is there an element of contempt for the religious in the mix?

I don't know that there are any easy answers. I don't know that Reddit admins, or the diverse Reddit community, could justify the difference. I've been writing for a long time about how the internet makes a big world like a small town — how the internet can counteract the anonymizing tendencies of a vast, complex society by subjecting the occasional notable miscreant to village-square shaming. It's like getting struck by lightning — there are too many miscreants and too few hours in the day — and we're still grappling with whether it is "fair" or "proportional" or "right." Colorable arguments can be made for or against the phenomenon. But I'm skeptical that Reddit can make colorable arguments that "it's cool when we do this to outsiders, but not cool when outsiders do this to us."

Follow-Up: A Few Questions About Reddit's Stance On Free Speech

My post yesterday about the dispute over Gawker outing a Reddit moderator generated a lot of interest and discussion. I'd like to revisit the issue in light of a statement by Reddit CEO Yishan Wong. Gawker published that statement here.

Wong's core statement of Reddit's support for free speech is this:

We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that's the law in the United States – because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it – but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that's what we want to promote on our platform. We are clarifying that now because in the past it wasn't clear, and (to be honest) in the past we were not completely independent and there were other pressures acting on reddit. Now it's just reddit, and we serve the community, we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse (cat pictures are a form of discourse).

These are admirable goals. It's a good thing for sites like Reddit to create free-speech platforms, particularly in light of the sort of pervasive threats to free speech we like to discuss here at Popehat.

Wong follows up with the exceptions:

Our rules today include the following two exceptions:

1. We will ban illegal content, and in addition sexualized pictures of minors, immediately upon any reports to us. We gave our rationale for that back when that issue was resolved, and we will maintain that policy for the same reasons.
2. We will ban the posting of personal information (doxxing), because it incites violence and harassment against specific individuals.

It's important to emphasize as a starting point that as a private actor, Reddit is free to restrict whatever speech it likes. In fact, Reddit is free to call itself a free speech platform and then still restrict any speech it likes. The only consequences are social ones, barring breach of contract or fraud (if, for instance, Reddit were in the business of selling membership based on a promise of free speech, then restricted it, you might have a cause of action).

However, observers of Reddit have free speech rights as well. Reddit's stance is fair game for criticism and inquiry.

Take a look at Wong's explanation of the anti-doxxing policy:

The current events have made it clear that the implementation of #2 requires some development. Those of us who've been around are familiar with the reasons behind that rule, the destructive witchhunts in reddit's past against both users and mods – even people who had no idea what ‘reddit' was – prompted by suspicion and ire, and often ending with undeserved harassment, death threats, job loss, or worse for the affected individual. Even reddit's favorite journalist Adrian Chen once wrote an article decrying the practice and mob mentality behind it (see: http://gawker.com/5751581/misguided-internet-vigilantes-attack-college-students-cancer-fundraiser).

But our ability to enforce policy ends at the edges of our platform. And one of the key functions of our platform is the sharing of content on the internet. I'm sure you see the problem.

So we must draw a line, and we've chosen to do the following:
1. We will ban doxxing posted to reddit.
2. We will ban links to pages elsewhere which are trivially or primarily intended for the purposes of doxxing (e.g. wikis or blogs primarily including dox).

Wong follows up later:

We do believe that doxxing is a form of violence, rather unique to the internet. Even innocent individuals can be accidentally targeted due to mistaken identities – a key difference between online mobs versus with journalists who have a system of professional accountability. And we believe that while we can prohibit it on our platform, we can only affect the opinion of others outside of reddit via moral suasion and setting an example. From the time when reddit first banned doxxing on its platform, I feel that there has been a change in the general attitude towards doxxing on the internet. It's still widespread, but we made a clear statement that it was a bad thing, worth exercising restraint over.

This leaves me with some questions.

To whom does the anti-doxxing policy apply? I think it's clear that Reddit means its anti-doxxing policy to prohibit Redditors from posting the "personal information" of Reddit users — that is, it prohibits "outing" Redditors.

But does it prohibit "outing" non-Redditors?

For instance, this week Anonymous outed someone they accused of driving Canadian teen Amanda Todd to suicide through vile conduct. Can a Redditor do that on Reddit, if the person outed is not a Redditor, or didn't bully the teen on Reddit? Can a Redditor link to an Anonymous site that is primarily intended to out the bad guy?

Does the policy only apply to online conduct? Does the anti-doxxing rule only apply to pseudo-anonymous or anonymous online conduct, or to real life conduct as well? Assuming these two louts aren't Redditors, would a Redditor be allowed to post on Reddit something like this piece at Above the Law, identifying two law students who killed an exotic bird at a Vegas casino? What about someone like, say, Jennifer Petkov, the woman who mocked and harassed a dying seven-year-old neighbor — would the doxxing ban prohibit someone from releasing personal information on Reddit about her, perhaps by digging up court records of arrests or child custody disputes?

Let me give you another example. After yesterday's "Town Hall" debate, some people researched whether a purported undecided questioner was actually a political operative from an interest group. Would that sort of analysis — which involved inquiry into the name and suspected work contact information of the individual — be banned on Reddit under the anti-doxxing rule?

Or, in another example, let's say someone is accused of a terrible crime and their name is published in a local paper. Would the anti-doxxing policy prohibit Redditors from, say, researching and then linking on Reddit to his Facebook page, or the web page for his employer? What about pulling the person's criminal records and posting them?

Why I Care

I ask these things because I'm trying to get at the heart of what Reddit is actually doing. Are they trying to prevent real-world harm — or are they trying to create a space where the expression of their own members is insulated from real-world consequences, including social consequences? I ask these things because, though I think anonymity should enjoy protections from the government, I don't think that it's clear that insulating anonymity from private inquiry is a free-speech value. Can the prospect of being outed "chill" speech? Of course. But anonymous harassment and abuse can "chill" speech as well. I tend to argue that the remedy for the chilling effect of anonymous harassment and abuse — if it doesn't break the law — is more speech. I think that more speech is the right remedy for the chilling impact of outing as well. It's not clear to me why it is principled to give anonymity preferential status.

If Reddit's anti-doxxing policy would not prevent the outing of Amanda Todd's tormentor, or the outing of the accused bird-killers, or finding and posting the Facebook pages or company web sites of people in the news, then I have to ask how sincere they are about their concerns regarding "undeserved harassment, death threats, job loss, or worse." If the position is "Redditors will be protected from outing here, but non-Redditors will not," then, well, that's an ethos, but I'm not sure it's one worthy of any respect.

Again, Reddit can run their show any way they like, and can set up any rules they like and put the label "free speech" on it. But the accuracy of the label, and the credibility of their justifications for exceptions to it, are fair game for discussion.

A Few Words On Reddit, Gawker, and Anonymity

Perhaps you've heard of neither Gawker nor Reddit. That would make you (a) isolated from internet culture and (b) quite arguably lucky.

But if you've heard of either of them, then you've probably heard about the internet-drama swirling around them in the last week. Here's the bullet: Reddit is a content-sharing site that's a microcosm of the internet. It has everything from funny cat pictures to the President of the United States answering political questions to bitter arguments about video game characters. Like the internet it mirrors, it also has a lot of crazy and creepy people and sub-forums devoted to their tastes. In the past, Reddit has been criticized for hosting child pornography and various "creeper" forums devoted to pictures of unwitting women and children taken in public.

Recently the Gawker family of blogs has started to report on and criticize Reddit's creeper subculture and Reddit's inconsistently tolerant attitude towards it. This criticism culminated in a Gawker post revealing the real-world name of a Reddit figure known as Violentacrez, a self-described troll associated with what Gawker calls "an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations," and with subforums like "Jailbait," which was about what you'd expect.

Gawker's actions — and the actions of some Reddit subcultures that oppose the creepers — has created substantial internet drama, including — and I'm not making this up — a broad movement by many Reddit moderators to ban links to Gawker.

I have a few criticisms of the ensuing drama.

[Read more…]

Standing Up For Free Speech: Thanks For Responding To The Popehat Signal!

Last week I sent out the Popehat Signal asking for pro bono help from a Maryland attorney in support of a political blogger who was seeking to preserve his anonymity in a SLAPP suit.

Many people kindly retweeted it and blogged it and passed it along, and several stand-up attorneys inquired to see if they might be able to help. Eventually we found the right match. Now, more can be told.

The blogger is "Aaron Worthing," who currently blogs at Allergic to Bull. You can read about the case at his blog, and read about the motion he has just filed here. I will refrain from discussing the specifics; discover them for yourselves. Suffice it to say that I find the plaintiff in the SLAPP suit quite evil.

Aaron was caught in a ridiculous Catch-22: he was capable of drafting an opposition to the plaintiff's motion seeking to unmask him, but he could not file it without unmasking himself. The dilemma was solved when Elizabeth Kingsley of Harmon, Curran, Spielberg + Eisenberg, LLP in Washington, D.C. answered the Popehat Signal and stepped in for the limited purpose, as I understand it, of petitioning the court to allow Aaron Worthing to file his papers seeking to preserve his anonymity without breaching that anonymity. (Aaron drafted, and is responsible for, the substantive motion to quash subpoenas linked above.) Aaron may post more specifics about that soon. [Edit: here is his post about resolving the Catch-22.]

Beth specializes in representing non-profits and political campaigns, but quickly offered to step in here, to Aaron's gratitude and satisfaction. Beth and Harmon Curran acted in the best tradition of attorney pro bono work. As I've frequently argued, such generosity and civic spirit is essential to protecting freedom of expression in America from threats of all sorts. Beth has my admiration and thanks for helping, as does her firm.

So. What can you do for free speech?

By the way, Aaron is to the right of me, and has written for blogs even more firmly to the right of me. We undoubtedly disagree vigorously about many subjects. I don't have the privilege of knowing Beth well enough to know her political stances, but it would not surprise me in the least if she differs from Aaron as well. But that doesn't matter. You know why.

Reason's Superlative Prison Issue, And A Note About Anonymity

For reasons that will be evident below, I didn't push Reason Magazine's fantastic July 2011 issue, which took a hard look at America's criminal justice system. I should have sooner. If you care at all about criminal justice issues, it's well worth a read. As I've been saying for a long time, everyone should be outraged about how the system doesn't work, because it strikes at the hearts of all of our values — conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and [whatever you call the people who want to regulate Happy Meals]. It deserves the praise it has gotten. Radley Balko and the others involved (including but by no means limited to Jacob Sullum) deserve major kudos for showing what a news and commentary magazine can still do.

Let me add that I'm very proud to have been a small part of it. Radley kindly recruited me to write a blurb about the culture of prosecutorial misconduct. That was my first byline in a national publication; I'm stoked that it was in Reason.

Wow! Hey, Ken, you just revealed your secret identity! Well, yeah, kind of. But realistically the veneer of anonymity has grown pretty thin. When even a cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs twit like Marc Stephens can find me in a few minutes, and when newspapers are making the connection, and when relatively soon I expect to be further outed in a story of a successful pro bono defense of a science blogger against a SLAPP threat [watch this space], there's not a whole lot of point in making a big effort to remain anonymous. I still support bloggers who do, and still believe in my reasons, but the cat is pretty thoroughly out of the bag at this point.

It shouldn't be said, but I will say it anyway: I don't use this space to promote my law firm, and nothing here represents the position of the firm. It's all my fault. I don't plan to throw my full name around here, because this space isn't about my firm.

Seriously, go read the Reason criminal justice issue, if you haven't already.

More Thoughts On Blogging Anonymity

Dan Hull at the entertaining and informative What About Clients? (currently headed "What About Paris?" for reasons unclear to me) has re-run a post I missed the first time around — a stirring call to action against blog anonymity, at least among people who comment on blogs. I don't agree with all of it, nor (obviously) with the ultimate conclusion, but it's well worth a read, and is a very strong exposition of the anti-anonymity point of view, made more interesting by Dan's vision of how openness can improve legal blogging.

My position hasn't changed, as I said when Mark Bennett talked about this issue and instituted a no-anonymous-comments policy on his blog. (And by the way, I see that Dan commented on that thread back then.) I'm still at peace with my reasons for blogging semi-anonymously. You'd have to ask Patrick yourself, but I suspect he agrees. Our experiences since I wrote about this have only confirmed my position — notably based on our experience with a convicted rapist and registered sex offender (not to mention subject of outstanding harassment warrants) who engaged in nutty stalking behavior against a group of law bloggers that included us after that group criticized his content scraping. That dude is within driving distance of me, and I'd prefer not to deal with the paperwork and front-porch power-washing involved if I have to put a couple of bullets through him because he shows up at my door.

But I enjoy dialogue on the subject, and recommend Dan's post to you. Also, let's be realistic: I've been outed before by talented people, and will be again.

More on Anonymity on the Internet

Mark Bennett, consummate defense attorney and proprietor of the hold-no-punches-take-no-prisoners Defending People blog, will no longer accept anonymous comments — we wants real names and verifiable email addresses. In this, he is joining a minor movement.

I'll miss commenting at Mark's blog. I'm secure in my reasons for blogging semi-anonymously, and at peace with the fact that some people I respect think it's chickenshit. Obviously, as semi-anonymous bloggers, we won't be requiring commenters here to use their real names. We will, however, continue to reap your credit card information and your hot cousin's beach pictures from your hard drives.

Sometimes You Want to Go where Nobody is Allowed to Ask Your Name

Anonymity — it's not just for bloggers any more. Cops like anonymity too.

Of course, when bloggers fight for anonymity, they tend to do it with sarcasm and impassioned arguments of the tl;dr variety. When cops — who generally don't like to be photographed while doing what our tax dollars pay them to do — fight for anonymity, it tends to be with the less refined but more effective tools of truncheons, knees in the small of your back, handcuffs, and criminal charges.

Case in point: Rogier at Nobody's Business has the video of British cops arresting Val Swain and Emily Apple, who had the indecency to ask a cop for his name and badge number and take his picture when he would not give it. Swain and Apple are part of a group called FitWatch. FitWatch exists not to harass me for eating entire large pizzas in one sitting, but to observe and protest Britain's Forward Intelligence Teams, which "monitor" (or, if you credit FitWatch, harass) protests over in Merrie Olde. In this case FitWatch was watching cops as cops watched the "Kingsworth Climate Camp" in a British town called Hoo. I am reliably informed that "Hoo" is not made up. Nor, regrettably, is it proximate to a village called "Ha."

FitWatch is now trying to identify the arresting officers in this case.

What FitWatch does is dangerous to itself, in England or anywhere else. It's particularly dangerous in England thanks to that worthy nation's drunken careen towards comic-book authoritarianism, which includes a recent proposal that could criminalize taking pictures of police officers. The same conduct will get you in trouble in America as well, of course. There are many ways to punish the crime of contempt of cop, and they come under guises like "obstructing a police officer" and "resisting arrest" and "creating a public disturbance" and "disturbing the peace." If you try to question a cop — or take a picture of a cop in the course of his or her public duties — you may find yourself wearing one of those labels, may find yourself faced with a fraternity of armed and uniformed people pleased to perjure themselves to assure your conviction, and find yourself faced with a justice system that views your side of events with a mixture of hostility, cynicism, and apathy. So good luck with that.

This situation will prevail as long as people put up with it. Cheap digital cameras, broadband, and citizens who do not believe that cops are owed unquestioning deference will help limit it.

In The Left Corner, China, The UN, And The NSA. In The Right Corner, Terrorists, Identity Thieves, And You.

I'll go with the little guy, thank you very much.

A United Nations agency is quietly drafting technical standards, proposed by the Chinese government, to define methods of tracing the original source of Internet communications and potentially curbing the ability of users to remain anonymous.

The U.S. National Security Agency is also participating in the "IP Traceback" drafting group, named Q6/17, which is meeting next week in Geneva to work on the traceback proposal. Members of Q6/17 have declined to release key documents, and meetings are closed to the public.

As the source points out, in the US this will be sold (assuming anyone even knows about it) as a means of going after terrorists, identity thieves, and Lori Drew-style internet sociopaths.  Internal UN documents, however, clearly indicate the real focus:

A political opponent to a government publishes articles putting the government in an unfavorable light. The government, having a law against any opposition, tries to identify the source of the negative articles but the articles having been published via a proxy server, is unable to do so protecting the anonymity of the author.

In China, an anonymous political critic is the same or worse than a terrorist, an identity thief, or a Lori Drew-style internet sociopath.  The end goal, for both China and the US, is intelligence and data mining for more or less unsavory purposes.  On general principles, I oppose both, and am ashamed that the government is cooperating in this.