In Norse mythology, trolls hide in wait for their victims. On the online world today, they destroy lives and reputations without ever being seen.
Kashmir Hill of The New York Times wrote a piece about a software engineer in the UK who is being victimized by an internet troll – including false accusations about him being a pedophile, as well as being “a former janitor” masquerading as an IT consultant. Not content to destroy this man’s reputation and livelihood, the troll went on to do the same to the software engineer’s wife, brother-in-law, cousin and teenage nephew.
As she was writing the piece, Ms. Hill interviewed the person linked by metadata to these attacks. Soon, Ms. Hill herself and her husband were getting hit with lurid accusations on such select sites as Cheaterbot and BadGirlReports. One of the sites that carried the reputational attacks on the software engineer was Ripoff Report. Hill writes:
Ripoff Report, like the others, notes on its site that, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, it isn’t responsible for what its users post.
“If someone posts false information about you on the Ripoff Report, the CDA prohibits you from holding us liable for the statements which others have written. You can always sue the author if you want, but you can’t sue Ripoff Report just because we provide a forum for speech.”
With that impunity, Ripoff Report and its ilk are willing to host pure, uncensored vengeance.
Google has taken a stronger hand in deleting reputational attacks of a sexual nature. It has also downgraded Ripoff Reports. But the question of what to do about trolls remains.
Section 230 defends third-party posts, so it defends these kinds of ugly attacks. At the same time, without Section 230 the robust world of online speech we know today would be a ghostly realm of anodyne, curated and legal-reviewed speech.
Protect the 1st is in discussions with leading Members of Congress in a quest to see if it is possible to close loopholes that allow such obvious personal defamation without degrading freedom of speech. Can that needle be threaded?