The slime still oozes– and weeps — online

A must-read Portfolio article for anyone concerned with cyberstalking, cyberstoning, Google bombing and harassment — especially if, say, you’re a woman or care about a woman or girl.

The Portfolio article chronicles the background, legal ground and possible outcome of the lawsuit brought by the brave Yale women who confronted their online attackers. Attackers who suggested, among other things, that the women ought to be raped, that they carried venereal diseases and more. The women’s crime: Being successful, attractive and living among a boorish group of peers who hid behind anonymity and pseudonymity.

An article excerpt:

But the Yale lawsuit has sparked considerably greater interest than the others, many of which remain tabloid curiosities. It’s a test case for the fragility, in the internet era, of one’s professional reputation and for what—if anything—can or should be done to protect it. (Brittan) Heller and (Heide) Iravani, who both declined to comment, are seeking monetary damages—though, given the paltry resources of some of their adversaries, the two women may not get much. They are trying to reclaim their good names and guard against career harm. They’re also trying to send a message: that even in the wild world of the internet, smearing comes at a cost. Perhaps they’re hoping that by tracking down, outing, and punishing a few loudmouths, they can muzzle—or at least sober up—an exponentially greater number.

Though they do not raise the issue explicitly in their suit, Heller and Iravani may even end up helping prompt a change in the law: forcing internet intermediaries to bear greater responsibility for what they carry. Frank Pasquale, an authority on internet law at Seton Hall University’s law school, predicted that the case could hasten calls to make intermediaries take down offensive material, in the same way they must remove pirated copyrighted material. The suit’s potential impact helps explain why one of the country’s leading litigation boutiques, the San Francisco law firm Keker & Van Nest, is representing the women for free. But Keker is proceeding cautiously. The firm does some legal work for Google, and according to a figure close to the plaintiffs, the company has demanded that the lawyers neither challenge Section 230(c) directly nor erode its protections. (The plaintiffs’ chief lawyer, Mark Lemley, said this is not so. A Google spokesman said the company backs current interpretations of that law, which he says “enable the free expression of hundreds of millions of individuals,” but declined to comment on any conversations with Keker.)

-Christy

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