Shakespeare was well ahead of his time—yet again—when he wisely said that “All the world’s a stage.” Did he foretell private government secrets being broadcasted on Wikileaks and Kim Kardashian’s personal thoughts on Israel being splashed on Twitter feeds to cause uproar on our contemporary international stage? The Internet has made everyone and everything so connected and shared that one action or one thought can spread like wildfire on the web. Take Sophia Grace’s rendition of “Super Bass” as an example, and her two-week meteoric rise to stardom when she became the darling child of the new Oprah, Ms. Ellen DeGeneres herself.
She looks happy, to say the least. But not everyone can be as talented, cute, and frankly, lucky, as this young British girl. Well, maybe that is, except her cousin, Rosie, the hype girl, who’s also enjoying meeting the biggest stars and exploring Disneyland on Ellen’s dime.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the Internet does not just create stars instantaneously—it also creates monsters. People become envious, defamatory, bad-mouthed individuals when cloaked with anonymity on the world wide web. They begin to say and do things they would never do in front of another human being. It could be something as small as an insult in a Youtube video comment on Sophia Grace’s 6,798th visit to Ellen, to something as significant as an entire blog dedicated to blaspheme an ordinary person with big dreams (see Civilizing The Internet where a woman dedicates her blog to slander an aspiring model). In the latter article, Rosemary Port, the defamatory blogger, and her lawyer try to quash a subpoena seeking to expose her identity by claiming she was protected under free speech, asserting that her words were akin to Hamilton and Madison’s Federalist Papers. Yeah right. The judge, of course, did not buy it, and Port’s identity was exposed after Google released her information. The model’s lawsuit against her was dropped and Port got cyberSLAPPed, that is, her internet anonymity was taken from her, and the world saw her for the monster she was.
But the question of anonymity and defamation need not apply only to obsessed stalkers. It can also apply to you, yes you, who may write a short reply on a small forum thread. Anonymity on the internet has bred a slew of defamatory gossip in sites like juicycampus (RIP), formspring, and even the Ivy League equivalent, Ivygate. When alone, posters write spiteful insults and divulge the most private details of normal people on a forum for the whole world to see. Do you think the blurry posts in the forums below really count as protected “free speech”?
These trash talkers though are empowered only through their hidden identity—they write to hurt others under the belief that they are truly hidden and anonymous. They claim their right to free speech and latch onto the fourth amendment to prevent any type of search and seizure that seeks to expose their true identity.
The conundrum here is that on one end, our culture has grown to thrive on juicy gossip tidbits because it gives us a glimpse of someone else’s life that we may not be exposed to in our daily routine. It makes us interested, it motivates us to read the “sluttiest girl” thread and maybe we even up-vote it, because we learned something private, scandalous, and all of that makes us feel better about ourselves. We can comfort ourselves feeling that our own privacy and secrets are still safe, while our peers find themselves under the bright lights of the world’s stage. Feelings quickly turn though, when the stage flips us on and rotates to expose and defame us. We begin to take the insults personally and feel the world closing in on us when our reputation we took so long to build is chipped away by an anonymous comment (The Future of Reputation discusses this issue in great detail.)
The solution to this problem of loving gossip and avoiding gossip of oneself comes down to two possibilities: one, we can continue to fight gossip by publishing more gossip of others for vengeance. After all, our secrets would not be so bad if everyone else’s secret was out there and maybe even ours would pale in comparison to the next juicy tidbit. Eventually, though, this approach would snowball into tons of gossip pages that would hurt so many people and cause significant damage to unstable people. Instead, we can take the second approach: as the model Liskula Cohen did, we can cyberSLAPP defamatory posters to show that Internet anonymity is a privilege and not a right. It is a privilege that should be used to protect journalists and their confidential sources like those here; this privilege should not be used to protect blasphemous and envious individuals who spit hate on people who are not pubic figures and do no warrant such malicious words. Let us reframe our thinking about anonymous Internet usage to encourage users to become more mindful of the content they broadcast to the world. For this to happen, the legal framework must adjust to the technology and allow for expeditious cyberSLAPP process where people do not have to go through the lengthy process of filing lawsuits to expose the monsters of the Internet.
Look at just about any college-aged kid’s Facebook pictures and you’ll immediately understand the Onion article, “Every 2040 Presidential Candidate Unelectable Due to Facebook.” Be it a drunk picture or an ugly picture, a stupid Facebook status or a misspelled Twitter update, everyone has something embarrassing linked to their online identity.
Some try to make their Facebook profile inaccessible to outsiders, and some kids make sure their parents cannot see their pictures (as to spare them of the thought that their teenager drinks at school). But when you have hundreds of Facebook friends, most of whom you do not regularly think about, you often forget exactly who will see what you post. There is always that aunt that you forgot to block from seeing your pictures after she friended you four years ago who now creeps on you and emails incriminating pictures of you to your blocked parents.
There is a strange duality in social media that is near impossible to upkeep: on one hand, you want potential friends to look at your profile and think you are spontaneous and fun. But you want potential employers to see it and think you are responsible and hardworking. In the case of Facebook, the latter is often sacrificed for the sake of the former. So when applying to college or a job, you just change your Facebook name (linked to your awesome profile) to something totally unsearchable, but crafty and funny enough to still garner respect from your peers.
Social media caters towards our need to attention-whore. In the moment, it all seems like a great idea to post it so the world can see. But somehow, when I look back on all of my Facebook statuses from 2008, I wonder how I could have constantly been such an idiot. Seriously, why would you publicly post that you had a crush on Liz So in freshman year if you wanted that to go anywhere?
We’ve been so obsessed with how new our technology is that we sometimes forget how creepy it is (think Find My Friends app). There’s a constant evolutionary battle between technologies that let us creep and ones that secure our privacy. For one reason or another, creepy technologies seem to have the upper hand.
Enter the new advancement on the privacy side, the proclaimed messiah of sexing, Snapchat. The app allows you to send picture messages to friends for a specified amount of time – somewhere between 1 and 10 seconds. According to the website, “snaps disappear after the timer runs out.” If the person you send the “snap” to takes a screenshot, you are supposed to be immediately notified.
Can Anthony Weiner finally sext without the entire world having to see him flex?
Some of the details are still shaky: what is meant by “disappear” is never specified. You may be notified of a screenshot, but it still exists on the other person’s phone and can later be sent around. You could take a photo of the screen with a separate camera. Still, it is still a better, more secure, alternative to sending a picture message.
A “snap” need not be a nude picture; my roommate recently sent me a picture of his bowel movement. Snapchat is used to #embracetheugly. Users will often take ugly selfies to show how they’re feeling — maybe a tortured Edvard Munch “The Scream” face to express their boredom. The privacy settings of Snapchat are effective enough that people are willing to let their friends briefly view embarrassingly unattractive pictures for laughs.
As Snapchat has gained in popularity, a trend is emerging. Instead of embracing the extra security, people appear to be more interested in how to take away other’s privacy than how they could be retaining their own. Snapchat seems to be inviting people to attempt to circumvent another’s privacy.
How does Snapchat know if you’ve taken a screenshot? How can you get around the company notifying the person? Already, there exist sites explaining in detail the steps necessary to circumvent this privacy measure.
Snapchat cannot monitor whether you take a screenshot. Instead, it checks if you press the buttons for a screenshot – home and power – while in using program. After jailbreaking a phone, you can change the screenshot buttons such that you will no longer be pressing home and power simultaneously. Thus Snapchat never registers you as having taken a screenshot. Or, if you’re not as tech savvy, you can download an app that takes a screenshot when you shake the phone vigorously.
What does Snapchat represent? Snapchat seems to be a step in a new direction: an attempt to protect our online identities from constant future privacy breechings. “The idea, really, is that the images expiring means that you can be really silly, really funny, really ugly,” Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat says. “And that’s a really powerful and exciting thing — especially my generation, who grew up with everything they’ve ever done retweeted, liked or forwarded all over the Internet.” Spiegel is right here. Facebook applications are known for selling user data. Public tweets were recently deemed to have no “reasonable expectation of privacy.” This remains a theme throughout: we have very little privacy in most social media outlets. That concept has always been disconcerting, but for some reason, it is not enough to stop people from using them.
In Snapchat’s creation exists a recognition that people want privacy that they otherwise cannot have on the internet. However, when you type “snapchat” into Google, one of the first autofill options is “snapchat screenshot hack.” Maybe we’ve gotten so used to the lack of privacy that we no longer respect other people’s right to it.
The internet is becoming less anonymous. What was once a free-for-all space where you could create a social media profile pretending to be Kanye West, bash your ex’s new boyfriend on JuicyCampus or post that your professor only gives good grades to students willing to sleep with her, is now unmasking some of its harshest trolls and making it harder to be who you aren’t or say whatever you want.
However, some of this online unmasking could also be due to a cultural shift, possibly in reaction to the vulgarities and obscenities posted on unfiltered forums. The rise of Facebook, a site that began by requiring a valid .edu email address to sign up and still promotes a single identity transparency, over MySpace as the most popular social networking site, signaled our generation’s growing acceptance of using our real name on the internet.
Stories of anonymous sex offenders targeting teenage girls on MySpace or trolls pretending to be famous celebrities on Twitter further increased our desire for authenticity on the web. In reaction to the swarm of fake celebrity Twitter accounts, the site introduced verified accounts for select high profile individuals and companies, and a few years later Facebook followed with verified profiles. Amazon includes a “Real Name” badge next to your avatar if you’re willing to post reviews using your real identity (verified by your credit card account). More and more forums and comment feeds require a user to sign in before posting, and some even allow logging in through an account on another social networking site that uses your real name, such as Facebook or Google.
Of course, there’s still value in allowing pseudonymous and anonymous posts in forums. Not everyone wants to be google-able for the questions they posted in a firearms forum or for their detailed comments on the latest episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In the case of reviews, some anonymity allows for more honest opinions of the product in question. Online anonymity can also allow a safe space for discussion of taboo topics and create a community for marginalized groups such as psychologically troubled teens, rape victims or individuals coming to terms with their sexuality.
With anonymity can come a lack of accountability, but as we move more and more towards integrating our real and online personas, we should remember the virtues of conditional anonymity. Whistleblowers, confidential surveys (imagine how different OCI teacher evaluations would look if they weren’t confidential) and those of the minority opinion all deserve a forum to speak, and the internet has proven useful as such. Yes, we do need a way to prevent slander and other forms of online defamation, but considering the most recent lawsuits it seems like we’re moving in a direction towards traceable anonymity, where your identity will only be revealed if you intentionally harm someone else. Whether having your comment downvoted, your video flagged or even being cyberSLAPPed, just as in the real world, anger enough people and you’ll be shunned.
So what about anonymity for the rest of us on the internet? After all, we’re not CIA Directors or infamous internet sensationalists, worthy of special attention by the government or the vengeful press. Well…..
We live in a world where much of our internet activities leave a distinct digital record through which our personal identities can be compromised. Our IP Addresses are available through even the most cursory Google search of “IP Address”. Our internet service providers retain mounds of data available to law enforcement, and it’s suspected that a few might even be selling them to commercial third parties. “Web cookies” installed on any computer record private browsing histories, in many cases “personalizing” web pages based on a user’s preferences. And this is not to mention the many, many forms you’ve probably voluntarily filled out on the internet with your personal information before clicking on the “I’ve read the terms of service” box. (Are you sure you’ve actually read all this? And this? And this? And this? Just like you were supposed to?)
The fact of the matter is that if you’re a dog on today’s internet, given enough time and resources, the chances are good that they would at least suspect that you had some canine preferences.
Today, we hear of countless attempts by both private industry and government to break the veil of anonymity on the internet.
However, in the end of it all, despite all the trolls, internet anonymity remains something to be defended. The fight for internet anonymity in many ways represents the classic struggle between social control and personal freedom. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, of the press, of association, of assembly and petition. Anonymity has been affirmed by the Supreme Court as having significant social and political value in public discourse. Recent events during the Arab Spring have vindicated the power of anonymous communication on the internet.
So… if you’re a dog on the internet and want to keep people from learning that you’re a sentient, computer using canine (probably a good idea), there are a bunch of things you can do to further protect your anonymity online.
Along with tweeting, liking, posting and producing, trolling has been a very prevalent feature of the Internet in recent years. As it constantly grows more widespread, it brings with it its controversies and legal ramifications. Trolling can be variously defined, but looking at it broadly, it basically consists of posting in an online community something emotionally provocative, offensive, or off-topic to elicit some sort of reaction from other users. While it is usually used to frustrate or poke fun at an overly aggressive or sensitive user, it too often crosses the line into libel, cyber-bullying, or other forms of destructive and illegal speech. Trolling is very much a result of the anonymity of the Internet that leads people to believe they can be truly anonymous on the Internet, and therefore have power to say whatever they want without being accountable for their words. However, this way of thinking is wrong, not only morally, but also legally, and some trolls are starting to face the consequences of their actions in courts.
Before completely dismissing trolling as a malicious, illegal action that should be condemned and outlawed, we should first appreciate its merits. When done correctly, trolling can be used to make a criticism, or serve an educational purpose—such as an educator trolling his students to teach them what trolling is. These kinds of trolling are protected forms of speech, and can be both entertaining and innocuous.
After recent court decisions, it appears that true anonymity on the Internet is coming to an end, and people will be responsible for what they say, unable to hide behind the anonymous cloak of the Internet. The legal system will use its resources to find the identities of lawbreakers, and the law will be applied to speech online the same way it is offline. Still, this does not mean trolling must come to an end. Following a few easy guidelines, trolls can bring trolling back to its old glory without getting sued! A few tips:
Don’t engage in unprotected forms of speech. A fairly simple rule: just use caution when engaging in defamation, copyright infringement, obscene, actionable, or otherwise unprotected speech. Piece of cake!
Don’t target an individual. If you’re really set on singling someone out, it’s best to go after a public figure, as criticisms against them are more likely to fall in a legal gray area.
For a full guide, watch this quick, comprehensive video!
While many Internet users will be displeased with the disappearance of anonymity on the Internet, it is worth sacrificing a few laughs to enforce the law and prevent tragedies resulting from trolls going too far. Cyber-bullying is an undeniable issue plaguing the nation during this digital age, and preventing bullies who break the law from hiding behind anonymity will help discourage these acts that many of them would not engage in if people knew they were the ones doing them. Although some may argue this kind of transparency goes against the spirit of the Internet, the Internet was not meant to be a breeding ground for hate and illegal activity. Protecting victims of cyber-bullying, especially vulnerable teens and children whose lives are potentially at risk, should be the main priority. Trolling can still exist, but the distinction between trolling and defamation and cyber-bullying must be explored with great care. Eventually, lack of anonymity will become an accepted facet of the Internet, and this transparency will not hinder the distribution of information that the Internet provides, but rather make it a safer and more harmonious place.
As a suite, we decided to write a rap as an educational piece, lecturing small children about the risks involved in hateful speech and defamatory claims against an individual/others. The introduction begins with a terse explanation of defamation in U.S. law and common defenses in court. Transitioning into the topic of defamation per se, the rap speaks about the difference of defamation per se as compared to regular defamation, specifically, that damages are assumed for defamation per se.
Utilizing celebrity cameos, the rap introduces the four specific instances of defamation per se and continues to provide detailed circumstances under which each could be found applicable or a notable exception. Explicitly, the four categories are allegations or imputations injurious to one’s profession, of criminal activity, of loathsome disease, and of unchastity, which is duly noted in the rap’s chorus.
In addition to the four instances of defamation per se, Internet libel laws are also discussed as a means of exhibiting the relevance of defamation laws in modern culture and technology.
We aptly decided to construct this project as a rap song in order to cast the subject matter of defamation into the medium of aggressive hip-hop, a genre which is often plagued with defamation within its context, thus creating a parody of the genre and of defamation itself – allowing us to discuss and commit speech acts that might otherwise be construed as defamatory.
With much serendipity, we invited many famous artists from the hip-hop industry to spit their game on this track. In a surprising turnout, we were able to have featured performances by The Ying Yang Twins, Chris Ludacris Bridges, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Eminem, T-Pain, Dr. Dre, Jamarius Brahamz, Gangreeeeeeen, and Notorious B.I.G. (posthumously). Unfortunately we could not produce a promotional video due to scheduling conflicts and the fact that one individual is currently deceased. Much to our surprise, our producers have signed a contract for another track to be released in the near future. Follow us on twitter @twitter.com/FratCity.
People are getting smarter about their privacy online. By now we all (hopefully) know to restrict our profiles so that only friends can see our personal information. But after 3, 4, 5+ years of social networking, how many people still know ALL of their Facebook friends? For our final project, we set out to design a fun, interactive website that would work to remind Facebook users of their overly extended networks.
After launching this weekend, we’ve seen over 700 users (Mostly college age students) tag 35,000 friends, and it turns out that the average player only knew 70% of their Facebook friends presented. Now, of course, the term “average user” is very skewed given our user base. Facebook reports that the average user has 130 friends, while our average player has boasted a whopping 880.
We argue that anything under 100% recognition of your “friends” should raise some privacy red flags. Every one of your friends can share your information with third-party apps (in fact it’s this that allows our app to function); we are able to pull all of your friends photos, without their permission–that is, unless they’re smart about their privacy settings. Even if you can’t bring yourself to defriend a long-lost acquaintance, at the very least you should consider creating managed friends lists with restricted privacy settings.
We also hope to remind people to consider their audience when sharing content. “Friends of Friends” is never a good idea. For the average Facebook user, that’s 17 thousand people you don’t know, and why would they need to see your information anyways? Entire networks are generally a bad idea as well. You have no idea how large those networks can be, and with companies asking alums to Facebook stalk you on their behalf, does all of Yale really need to see you with your solo cups?
You probably think you know all your friends. Maybe you even pruned the list recently. But you had names and faces, and it’s so much easier to identify someone with a name. Try out whatsherface-book.com and you’ll understand just what we mean when whatsherface from freshmen year comes up and you’re forced to think, “Who the hell is that?”
A Slanderous Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
As we all know, Section 230(3) of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 made it so that websites couldn’t be sued for hosting user comments and submissions in the same way they could if they were hosting their own original material. This made sense at the time for a variety of reasons. A website couldn’t be expected to monitor and filter every incoming post. Additionally, if you found the website accountable for material posted by a third party because the website made some effort to filter out objectionable material, it would discourage websites from making any effort to filter at all. However, what this legislation and the thinking around it failed to predict was the emergence of websites that existed solely to spread gossip and other malicious postings. While there are sites and forums that host a combination of both useful and derogatory messages, there have emerged sites since the original legislation that prosper solely by providing an unfettered forum to such messages. Sites like AutoAdmit, CollegeACB, and others are able to thrive simply because they promote gossip and unsubstantiated rumors.
In Stratton Oakmont, Inc V. Prodigy Services Co. the court ruled that Prodigy was liable for postings made on the website because it acted in an editorial role by attempting to remove some messages. The controversy caused by this decision lead to the passage of Section 230(c) granting the provider of an internet service immunity if the information was “provided by another information content provider.” This seemed logical because companies like Prodigy weren’t dependent on their reputation as a website for defamatory information or postings. In contrast, sites like AutoAdmit, CollegeACB, and Juicy Campus essentially advertised themselves as a place to post and read defamation. They essentially take Section 230(c) as carte blanche to provide the atmosphere for harmful behavior without providing any of it themselves, thus rendering themselves immune.
To me, these sites have a strong parallel to Napster, Kazaa, etc — their entire appeal is derived from the fact that they let users submit and share content that is essentially illegal. Had either Napster or AutoAdmit originally committed the copyright infringement or written the slander instead of merely providing an avenue to do so, it would have been obvious that they should be found legally responsible. However, because they’re simply the conduit by which illegal material is disseminated, a much grayer area emerges. Much like Kazaa, where a vast majority of files were found to be copyrighted and thus illegal to share, gossip sites rely on slanderous rumor and gossip to be successful. They advertise themselves as places where illegal activity is encouraged, but gossip sites still hold immunity because of the provisions of Section 230(c).
An interesting parallel between the two types of sites can be found in the way they evolved. After Napster was shut down, Kazaa sought to fill the void. Kazaa bought ads so that when someone searched for “Napster Replacement” or similar terms, they were brought to the Kazaa download site. In this case, these actions were considered “Inducement to Copyright Infringement.” Somewhat similarly, after JuicyCampus closed, the founders of College ACB made a deal with the founders of JuicyCampus to redirect traffic from Juicy to College. Why is this not considered “Inducement to Defamation” or “Inducement to Libel?” Peter Frank, CollegeACB’s founder, was clearly trying to mimic the success of Matt Ivester, JuicyCampus’s founder.
Obviously, there is a distinction between gossip sites and P2P sharing sites. P2P sites are much easier to prosecute because either something is copyrighted or its not; there’s not the same gray area of whether or not the law has been broken as there is with the harder to define the crime of libel. However, the way that gossip sites solicit, encourage, and depend on defamation draws inarguable parallels with P2P sites and copyright infringement. However, unlike the artists whose music was being pirated, those slandered on gossip sites have no huge corporations looking out for their interests. There’s no Brittan Heller & Heide Iravani Industry Association of America to sue these websites and push for legislation when someone gets called a whore.
Adapting to an Anonymous World
One of the things that makes the internet so susceptible to slander and defamatory remarks is the idea of anonymity. Its obvious that people feel emboldened when they’re online to post things to a public forum that they’d never go around shouting in the dining hall. The end result of this is that there’s a lot of outpouring of hateful and spiteful messages that don’t exist with the same frequency or regularity that they do outside of cyberspace. This breeds a more malicious culture with a more harmful nature.
However, with this heightened tendency to post derogatory and embellished things comes a heightened degree of skepticism from the part of the readers. Just because I read about a girls lascivious nature online doesn’t mean I’m going to believe it. Just like if you heard your school’s big gossip, with a tendency towards making things up, say something about someone doesn’t mean you’d believe them. You learn to take everything on the internet, but especially those posted from anonymous sources, with a Roman legion’s annual salary worth of salt.
Attributing Quotes to Anonymous and Unintended Consequences
While posters may be emboldened by their online anonymity, they generally overlook a simple fact: they’re not actually anonymous. Levels can be taken to secure one’s identity when posting online. A combination of technology, proxy servers, and browsers like Tor make online posting significantly more anonymous. But the thing is, even ignoring the fact that these technologies usually won’t make users completely anonymous, most users don’t bother with these precautions anyway.
There’s something unsettling about the internet. Without directly interacting with another human being, without speaking a single syllable or putting a single word on a tangible piece of paper, from the comfort and solitude of one’s own home, we can still spread our opinions or rants to the entire audience of the internet. But people don’t take the time to think about how clicking submit on a website will immediately and permanently put their thoughts or slander out into the world.
Posters are emboldened to post things they wouldn’t say because posting online doesn’t seem like it could have the same ramifications as saying something or writing something in the real world. However, as the litany of litigation bringing libel charges against “anonymous” users in the past few years has demonstrated, there can still be serious consequences to online postings. These lawsuits make sense, people are committing acts of defamation quite maliciously. If someone makes claims that you cheated on every test or that your accolades were undeserved, potential employers may question your character. This brings up an interesting distinction between real world gossip and that which appears online. Whereas college campus used to be confined to the campus, it is now out there for anyone to see. Someone may post something malicious as part of a petty fight meant solely to be read by the poster’s classmates. But these posts are accessible to anyone — parents, school administrators, and perhaps most worrisome (to Yale kids anyway) future employers. However, as I pointed out in the previous section, people generally don’t things posted on the internet, anonymously, as seriously as they would claims from a credible source. In this way, it would seem that online libel poses a threat, but not to the same extent as defamation in the physical world.
However, the fact that people can be prosecuted for things they post “anonymously” online does bring worries about the extent to which the government can uncover information about a poster. Something posted online doesn’t necessarily reflect a person’s mindset, beliefs, or their intentions. In the case of Heller and Iravani, AutoAdmit posts about raping one of the women probably didn’t indicate any actual intent to commit rape. These posts were disgusting, vile, and clearly unacceptable, but shouldn’t be taken at face value. These posts are certainly threatening, but they don’t constitute a threat in the sense that the poster had the determination or intention of committing the act. Should they be punishable? Probably. Do they deserve the same scrutiny as other threats? Probably not.
It is in the previous example that we see a problem with the government being able to know exactly who posted everything. In the case of Watts v. United States, the Court addressed hyperbolic threats made against President Johnson. In that case, the defendant jokingly made a remark insinuating he would kill the President, after which he looked down the barrel of an imaginary rifle. The comment was met with applause and laughter and didn’t constitute a serious plan to assassinate LBJ. It was within this context that the Court was able to decide that Watts didn’t actually intend to kill the President. The Court explicitly said “taken in context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners, we do not see how it could be interpreted otherwise.” The Court ruled that hyperbolic threats against the President needed to be differentiated from legitimate threats. Online, it can be extremely difficult to understand the context of comments and things can easily be taken more or less seriously than they should. The reactions of an online audience will also differ drastically from the reactions of a physical audience. Unlike in the physical world a comment is made to a predetermined audience with a certain, somewhat known mentality, postings online are generally made to a more unknown audience that can actually change and interact with the post after it has been said. Whereas a bunch of nutjobs won’t be able to bust into a student discussion after someone makes a joke about an assassination and then elaborate on a real plan, radical internet users could come across a joking post and then take it in an unintended direction. While federal investigations would hopefully be able to determine the nature of the comments, its an uncharted area. There’s a lot more unknown factors at play on the internet.
Let’s Wrap It Up
Essentially, what all of these issues come back to is an issue of accountability. For whatever reason, we tend to think of the internet as a place separate from the physical world. Its the same ridiculous mistake John Perry Barlow made in his A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and it affects us everyday. You can claim that there’s no government to stop us or to censor us, but let’s face it, as long as you still live on this planet, there’s someone who can punish you for what you do. While many of the things that happen online may stay confined to cyberspace, there’s certainly no guarantee of such a thing. Because so much of the stuff that’s said on the internet is so inconsequential, some people might start to think there are no consequences online, but that’s obviously not the case.When you post something, it can be read, it can be discussed, and you, the physical you, not some avatar or username may have to pay the consequences.
One of the strange things about the Internet in 2011 is that it merges the wild-west, free expression culture idealized by John Perry Barlow with the professional world, where public image is important.
Moot, founder of 4chan, expressed the importance of anonymity and a safe space to express “wrong” views, without causing harm to society. In contrast, Facebook has attempted to increasingly merge all other websites with Facebook in order to create an online identity for each user. Furthermore, employers often look at a job applicant’s online identity as part of a background check. These websites present the opposite ends of how an individual can interact with others on the Internet and how the individual will be held accountable for those actions. There are many websites that have less anonymity than 4chan yet do not link to an individual’s real name. While these Internet cultures seem to be opposing, the users on websites are not separate. Many Facebook users also use 4chan and there are many sites with similar as these iconic websites. These worlds are not in intense conflict with one another and users often change their behavior based on the website they are on. However, when these cultural norms are broken, and people deviate from the accepted behavior on a given website, the law is often invoked by an individual who feels that his/her rights have been violated.
Most of the anonymity/privacy issues everybody’s talking about boil down to a conflict between the culture of free expression and the professional world. The things we say online and the things people say about us online can both tarnish our reputations in meat-space. As such, this affects anybody who uses the Internet.
However, I think the notion that the Internet is suddenly becoming “srs business,” that real-world laws are increasingly enforceable on the Internet, is highly sensationalized. We are told “Lawsuits against Web Trolls are on the rise,” but what does this mean?
Each individual has a different relationship with the law. Most people (with the exception of legal professionals) rarely come in direct contact with the law, and when they do, it means something is deeply wrong. Individuals interact with the law on a daily basis, but their interactions are based on their conception of the law, not the actual written law. A person’s legal consciousness is based on their conception of what the law can do for them and when it is applicable. This varies immensely amongst individuals. When someone experiences hateful comments on the Internet, the law may be the last thing that comes to their mind. But there are some people who view the law differently — as a tool for control, a way to squeeze personal benefit out of any situation.
These are the people that sue YouTube commenters. Therefore, these widely publicized cases don’t necessarily reflect anything about the Internet itself changing. The cases do set a precedent for future cases but they do not mean that everybody on the Internet is going to start lawsuits. Many people do not have the financial means, time, desire or investment to sue. All that this means is that certain types of people have discovered new opportunities to exercise their power. This is especially true in the case of CyberSLAPPs.
Efforts to “civilize the Internet” through litigation seem impotent for another reason — anonymous comments online carry little weight. If a newspaper ran articles containing the kind of defamatory language blogs and forums habitually use, the potential damage to the victim’s reputation would be much higher. People trust newspapers more. As result, the chaotic nature of the Internet is to an extent self-contained: if spewing violent and hateful speech is the norm in an Internet community, defamatory comments made in that community have little power to damage one’s real reputation.
Therefore, it seems that these cases have perhaps over-sensationalized an interesting phenomenon, which does indicate a change occurring: the Internet is the process of becoming more regulated. However, the extent to which regulation will be successful both in regards to privacy and anonymity as well as issues of piracy among other things is unclear.
Ahhh, a symbol of progress: The Facebook Like Button. Residing on almost every legitimate page on the internet these days, it enables socially hyperactive users to let the world know that they “Like” the page they are currently visiting. The button above, for instance, could enable you to like YaleBluebook, a new course information system my suitemate and I designed for students at Yale. But that’s not all this nifty little button can do, it also let’s Facebook know that you are currently viewing a blog post on the Yale Law & Technology class blog.
On a large scale, the question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we have the right to privacy on the internet? The current cultural movement seems to answer with a resounding “yes.” All major browsers have recently implemented a private browsing mode which allows people to view sites without having any of their activity stored locally. This is the “Incognito” or private browsing window you probably use while perusing porn. However, this only protects your local computer. The servers hosting these websites still store information about your visit, with potentially personally identifiable information (IP Address). A recent movement by the Mozilla foundation has tried to standardize the use of the “Do-Not-Track” signal, which is a message that could be sent by your browser to websites, asking the websites not to record any information about your visit. However, there’s no way to enforce such an option, and no incentive for the website to do so.
The issues of privacy and anonymity seem to have become more intertwined recently. The only way of ensuring that my personal information isn’t being mis-used is to make sure that they don’t have any of personal information. Yet there are many positive reasons for websites to track IP addresses, so it seems the only logical course is to focus on privacy and when recording personal information on our net activity goes too far.
So why would Facebook care about this little blog though? Good question! Turns out behind the scenes Facebook has been working to create Google AdSense a nifty social advertising program. Unfortunately, the Pacific Ocean sized amount of data they have on you right now isn’t enough to compete with Google. So they figured, why not collect data on you about every site you visit? This recent patent is the key to unraveling Facebooks creepily invasive monetization scheme. In this post I plan to look at a few key points of the new patent.
In one embodiment, a method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain…The method additionally includes receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the third-party website. The method additionally includes logging the actions taken on the third-party website in the social networking system, each logged action including information about the action. The method further includes correlating the logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to the one or more users on the third-party website as well as correlating the logged actions with a user of the social networking system.
There’s three main components this patent describes, they are, in order of ascending bothersome-ness:
The ability to transmit information back to Facebook from a website that is not facebook
The ability to log actions you take on that non-facebook site and send those actions back to facebook
The ability to use that data to display ads to you and your friends, on facebook and on third party sites.
Putting those three components together, we come up with some exciting scenarios:
Now you might think to yourself, “I’ve seen things like that already” (the friend recommendations I mean), but this ain’t your standard friend recommendation system, there are a few key passages in the patent I want to highlight.
In particular embodiments, the social network system receives messages from these third-party websites that communicate the actions taken by users while in the third-party websites.
Ever wonder why your Facebook ads always tend towards singles dating sites, ben and jerry’s, and Notebook Blu-Ray ads? (Or is that just me…?) Turns out that Facebook plans on mixing various data sources to decide which ads to show you. Right now, this is restricted to data facebook has access to such as your relationship status, favorite movies, political interests, etc. But in the near future, partner websites will be able to send data back to facebook with information about which ads were shown to you and which you clicked on, in addition they might send information about which products you bought from the partner site. This serves the two-fold purpose of telling Facebook how effective their advertising was (did you buy the yoga pants after you were shown the yoga ad yesterday?) and also telling facebook your interests (I see you could use a Yoga ball to go with those pants).
And for the majority of the patent, Facebook talks about wanting to know what ads you’ve seen, clicked on, and actually purchased the product from. However, if you wade through the million times they say “In particular embodiments”, you come across:
Another example illustrating real-world actions that may be tracked involves what program material the user is accessing on a television system. A television and/or set-top receiver may…transmit a message indicating that a user is viewing (or recording) a particular program on a particular channel at a particular time.
Wait, I’ve totally seen this somewhere before…
That’s right. There is apparently no limit to the amount of data facebook is willing to know about you. They want to know what events you attend, what credit card purchases you make, what stores you enter, classes you take…everything. Facebook wants to know every detail of your digital life.
So the real question is, what do they plan to do with all this data? Well currently it looks like they plan to use it to inform advertising not only on their site, but on other sites. I’ve already shown an example of how it might be used on other sites (OhMiBod). In addition, they might show more traditional Google AdSense ads (profit sharing with publishers). The secret sauce is in how the ads are selected and displayed. It seems they will use some combination of your profile, friends profiles, your browsing history and your friends browsing histories. Ads will be inherently social, letting you know that n of your friends recently purchased a product, or are attending a promoted event, or simply liked an emerging brand. The transition to this new system will actually be transparent to users:
Coincidence? I think not. For instance, Facebook can correlate the fact that you were recently on the McDonald’s homepage with the fact that 6 of your friends like McDonalds, AND the fact that Johnny Rocket likes him some BigMacs (ironic isn’t it?), throw it all into a magic algorithm and come up with the brillant idea to show you some McDonalds ads. While this might normally appear on your newsfeed, it just so happens that McDonalds has paid to have this “news article” appear more readily (the barrier number of friends before it’s shown might be lower). From the patent:
One benefit of mixing the newsfeed stories and the social ads in a single list presented to a user is that there may be little or no differentiation between advertising and general information that a user would want to know. Users visit social network systems to keep up to date on what their friends are doing, and the social ad can be as useful to the user as any other newsfeed story. Because the social ads and newsfeed stories may all be taken from the action log it may be impossible for a user to determine whether an entry in the user’s newsfeed is a newsfeed story or a social ad. In fact, the content of a social ad could actually show up as an organic, unpaid newsfeed story in other contexts.
And therein lies the beauty of this whole thing. You’ll never even know. They will take your browsing history, your friends information, and your relationship status and a whole lot of advertisers money, but to you it’ll just look like another average news feed story.
I have two fundamental points to make on this issue.
1. As an experiment, go to this page. Did it ask you to login? Chances are that if you’re reading a blog post such as this one, you were already logged into facebook. So it doesn’t really matter that it only tracks logged in users, since who actually logs out?
2. Although this patent doesn’t specifically mention tracking logged out users, it never explicitly denies that possibility. In fact, in the very paragraph Facebook refers to when defending its position, the text states:
By using this technique, the third party website and the social network system can communicate about the user without sharing any of the user’s personal information and without requiring the user to log into the social network system.
To me, this text reads quite the opposite way. It seems that although Facebook isn’t sending data about a specific user…it could still send data about the users events. From a technological standpoint, this information could be saved in a cookie on the users computer which could then be transmitted when a user logged into Facebook. Put differently, even though you’re logged out of Facebook, if they can make a reasonable inference about which Facebook user was using the computer when it was logged out, they might just queue that data and associate it with you when you log back in.
The Good News
I realize this post sounds somewhat alarmist, but the fact of the matter is if they patented it, they probably intend to use it. This is actually a brilliant idea which will undoubtedly immediately bring them into contention with Google AdSense. Right now, they claim to not be using this technology and they have stated that if it does become used it will of course be subject to their industry difficult opt-out program. I can’t help but wonder where it will end. Once this infrastructure is in place, it’s just a small side-step for them to track everyone.
We should be aware of our rights as internet users. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to change the internet culture to the point where Facebook doesn’t track our actions on its site, but I certainly think we should have the expectation of privacy (from Facebook and really anyone else) on third-party sites. When we view websites, that should be a privileged relationship between the viewer and the site. That site should be able to track our movements for it’s own reporting purposes, and maybe even to provide aggregated data to other parties, but it should not be able to sell tracking data alongside personal data (I.E. cannot say IP Address 126.96.36.199 visited A, B, and C). It should be made much clearer what companies are doing with the data they collect on us, and we need to ability to opt out. I don’t think the way the internet works currently supports this, but hopefully through cultural, technological, or regulatory changes we can work towards a more data-safe internet in the future.
The FCC needs to step up it’s game and require more clear communication when user data is being collected and sold to third-parties. Facebook is starting to move into shady territory. It seems that neither the person publishing the like button, nor the consumer clicking on it understand exactly what is going on behind the scenes. No more legalese, implicit privacy agreements. I want a big fat popup, with clear instructions on how to keep myself hidden.
For now, hope for the best and be aware of your facebook privacy panel. Make sure you opt out of as much as possible! And please be sure to start an uproar if this Apple patent ever becomes used. Remember, just because it’s patented doesn’t mean it’s legal.