And Tracking Down Trolls Online
Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye. There are no editorial threads implied connecting these items together, other than being interesting.
We’re also pleased to introduce Ross Slutsky, a new intern here at Digital Frontiers. Slutsky is a senior at Emory University, studying history and political science. He’s pursuing a graduate certificate in digital media studies, and will be working with us this summer. Among Slutsky’s favorite memes are the “y u no” guy and the “Philosoraptor.”
Ross Slutsky and Doug Bernard | Washington DC
#1: Networked. Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s new book Networked: The New Social Operating System adds a valuable, if somewhat
restrained, voice to the ongoing debates about the role of digital media in our time. In keeping with their academic pedigrees, they work hard to objectively weigh the implications, both positive and negative, of the digital age. But this is no document from the mushy middle. In the end, they land closer to sunny tech evangelists like Vint Cerf and Chris Anderson than their somewhat gloomier peers like Sherry Turkle and Evgeny Morozov.
Rainie and Wellman argue the “triple revolution” of
social networks, the Internet, and mobile computing are the primary driving forces responsible for the present state of technology in North America. Most memorable here is is their concept of “networked individualism” – noting that while computers and mobile technologies may limit our contact with those physically near us, they can also keep us connected with others online .
The picture they draw is more finely detailed than previous efforts, such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, that overly focus on the decline of civic groups like the Kiwanis or local bowling leagues. Rainie and Wellman counter that these groups’ membership declines don’t reflect a loss in American sociability so much as a change in how Americans are connecting with one another. Additionally, the authors exhibit a nuanced understanding of the Arab Spring, offering a comprehensive account of the role of both social media and offline mobilization in the uprisings.
All things considered, Networked makes a solid text for those curious about our evolving relationship with digital technologies. We look forward to speaking with the authors in-depth in the near future.
#2: Intertroll Alert. A proposed defamation bill in Britain could make it easier for victims of trolling to seek legal action against anonymous online commenters who subject them to “scurrilous rumor and allegation.” But critics warn it could end up limiting online speech.
Currently, website owners are relatively shielded from disputes between “trolls” – people who target and harass others online – and their victims. The new proposal would flip that, making site owners responsible for attempting to resolve disputes between troll and target. That may be good news for victims, but troubling for website operators put in between accusers and the accused. It’s a debate that boils down to which is more important: protecting people from cyber-bullying, or ensuring free and robust expression.
In order to understand the range of protections available to website operators in different countries, let’s take a hypothetical
: say that Tom the Troll anonymously posts a “trollish” message about Verona the Victim on Bob Loblaw’s law blog.
In the United States, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, website operators are generally not liable for user generated content. In other words, Tom the Troll would be safe, Bob Loblaw would not be legally required to do anything about the obnoxious comment, and Verona the Victim would be flat out of luck. While some may consider this system insensitive to the plight of victims of bullying, it clears the path for the full range of free speech and does not interfere with user content generation.
On the other hand, in Britain, if the proposed defamation bill passes, website operators would essentially be forced to serve as intermediaries in disputes involving alleged “trolling” comments. If a dispute can’t be resolved, the site operators would have to turn over information about the alleged trolls so that complainants could pursue legal action. In other words, Boblob Law would have to try to make nice between Verona and Tom, and, if all else fails, breach Tom’s anonymity.
While this proposed system is more sensitive to the interests of victims of trolling, it affords a lesser range of protection for free speech. Also, some privacy advocates worry that website operators, fearing possible legal entanglements, will be quick to block or remove content. As Emma Draper of the group Privacy International told the BBC, “gun-shy website operators will start automatically divulging user details the moment someone alleges defamation in order to shield themselves from libel actions.” Moreover, commenters themselves may begin to censor themselves.
On a related note, earlier this year, the Chinese government forced users to register their real names on the micro-blogging site Weibo, revoking the ability of site users to post anonymously. While such requirements no doubt have a chilling effect on free speech, they haven’t tamed the Internet. In the words of New York Times columnist Eric Abrahamsen, “Chinese citizens remain uncowed. The sheer joy evident in the fabrication, dissemination and discussion of online rumor is all the proof anyone should need that China’s civil society has a bright future.”
In other words, limiting anonymous speech might be easier said than done.
#3: Who’s Colluding Against You? Finally, we’ve been known to fret about the erosion of online privacy and the hidden – or not-so-hidden – sharing of personal information by web networks. For anyone needing proof, just check the “cookies” file on your browser and count how many companies are watching your every move on the Internet.
But as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words – or a dozen finger-wagging lectures. That’s why developers at Mozilla created “Collusion” – a new tool that tracks which companies are sharing information about you and presents it in a real-time map format.
At present, Collusion is only available as an add-on for the Firefox browser, and only in beta form. Yet it’s still fairly powerful. As an example, I cleared my browser of all cookies and then visited the Huffington Post, which dropped a cookie into my browser cache. Immediately, the Collusion map identified 15 additional sites that the new Huffington Post cookie “told” of my visit – sites as varied as social networks like Facebook and Twitter, to more hidden tracking services such as ScoreCardResearch and QuantServe. Additionally, Collusion then informed me that one of those sites – atwola.com – further pushed that information onto even more services like Freewheel, a company that describes itself as giving “…enterprise-level media companies the infrastructure they need to create scaled, profitable content businesses in the new media landscape,” whatever that means.
Presently, Collusion is just an informational tool, graphically illustrating the unseen tentacles that monitor your movements online. However, in the future developers plan to unveil options that let users turn off data-sharing to third-party networks, and alternately allow sharing to an anonymous data map, charting global tracking trends and developments.
In any context, it’s a potent reminder of just who is colluding about you on the web.