Blog Post

Gossip Websites and Criminal Liability

This post discusses issues brought up in the panel discussion “Got Juice? A Forum on Gossip Web Sites” hosted at Duke University.

 

Gossip websites, such as collegeacb.com and (formerly) juicycampus.com, have received much scrutiny for their role in publicizing hateful and harmful posts.  These posts are in large part done under anonymous or pseudonymous names that allow the poster to hide their identity.  While these posts are protected under the free speech laws in our country, vile posts can lead students to anxiety, depression and, in some cases, even suicide.  I am certainly an avid supporter of the first amendment, but in an era where anyone can say anything anonymously online and suffer no repercussions for their actions that may cause harm to others, it has become apparent to me that the United States needs some form of mechanism by which they can hold people accountable for their harmful actions.  A person cannot falsely shout fire in a theater due to the danger that may ensue from a stampede of movie-goers, but you can go online and post a host of egregious lies about a particular person or group of people.  Some of these lies lead to dangerous consequences and, thus, those responsible for saying them need to be held liable. 

 

Under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the operator of a website holds no liability for user-generated content on their websites, but the user does.  However, there are a myriad of ways to hide your IP address and conceal you identity.  Not to mention that many gossip sites hide users’ identities for them.  While I am no lawyer, I would like to propose changes in how gossip sites should be handled under the law. 

 

First, anonymity does have certain advantages.  It allows political dissidents and whistle-blowers to stay undetected so as to not jeopardize their own safety.  However, posters on gossip websites serve no real purpose for our society.  If the information is true and verifiable, why not just come out and say it without hiding behind an anonymous account?  The answer, I suspect, is that the vast majority of things said on these sites are not true and the poster does not want to face the social pressure that may be exhibited if their identity was known.  I do not view the desire of a high school or college student to remain unknown as a poster on a gossip website as a compelling enough reason that they should not be able to be prosecuted for harm done to a third party, especially if the poster was intending to inflict harm on the person.

 

Second, since internet site operators hold no liability for user-generated content, they have no incentive to regulate user access or content.  They would lose money from a loss of traffic and, thus, choose simply to ignore whatever moral or ethical responsibilities they have to the community at large.  However, if the user-generated content is the subject of a criminal investigation, it seems to me that the user should be held accountable.  This would require a substantial change in how gossip sites track (or, rather, don’t track) their users.  I propose that gossip websites must maintain a database of all users’ IP addresses and their posts so they can be subpoenaed in the result of a criminal investigation.  Obviously, users can still use other ways to mask their identities, but assuming they don’t, the operators should have to have a list of those addresses.  Furthermore, if website operators choose to ignore this rule or fail to give relevant information to law enforcement officials, they too should be held liable for protecting possible criminal activity.

An additional issue is how to determine what a gossip site is.  This would be something that the judicial system would have to define, but I think it could be done in some reasonable fashion as to protect people like political dissidents and whistle-blowers.  However, I think it is sensible that users that may be implicated in a crime (some sort of cyberbulling that led to a suicide, etc.) should be held accountable for their actions.  Obviously, this is why they choose to remain anonymous, but it has become apparent to me that anonymity does have drawbacks that should be addressed especially with regard to gossip websites.

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