Friday, February 13, 2009

Portfolio: 'Slimed Online'; David Margolick tells the tale of the AutoAdmit lawsuit

David Margolick has a great article in Portfolio on the lawsuit brought by two Yale Law School students against anonymous posters on the message boards of "AutoAdmit" who wrote unbelievably nasty things about the students. Summing up the stew of anonymous speech, irresponsible commenters, Google search results, and a federal law that provides virtually unlimited immunity to hosts of defamatory comments posted by others, Margolick writes:
Were Google and AutoAdmit newspapers or television stations, [the plaintiffs] would have had a ready remedy: They could sue. Someone printing or airing falsehoods or statements likely to defame or cause extreme emotional distress couldn’t then simply walk away. But different rules apply to internet intermediaries: Websites like Google and AutoAdmit merely deliver content rather than producing it themselves. Just over a decade ago, seeking to encourage the free flow of information on the internet and itself under pressure from telecommunications companies, Congress passed legislation stating that such websites could not be sued for carrying defamatory material. The measure in question is Section 230(c) of what has surely become one of the most striking misnomers on the books: the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

As a result, two entirely different brands of discourse have developed. In the traditional media, things remain reasonably decorous. But online the promise of anonymity, though far flimsier than most suspect, unlocks something ugly and menacing in ostensibly normal people. And while anything goes in the Google era, everything also stays, and spreads. The whole world is now the bathroom wall, and that wall can never be entirely painted over.
I have great sympathy for the two women at issue, who deserve redress. And I have only contempt for the posters, who deserve whatever is coming to them, and probably more. At the same time, however, I have serious doubts that this lawsuit will achieve any of the desired results. But read Margolick's article, and decide for yourself.

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