Monday, March 2, 2009

When the Internet Gets Mean...

...there's only one thing left to do: Sue.

Most people who spend their time online know about flames and trolls. It's a part of the Internet, something unpleasant that happens to people - a little like getting hit by bird shit. There are no words to describe the horrors when it happens to you, but it's a little funny when it happens to someone else, and there's always something distasteful about it either way. Some people have no trouble shrugging off flamers and batting away trolls; it's just a part of their online routine. For others, however, there is a very thin line between flaming and libel - and they're not afraid to show when they're offended.

A teenager in Oceanside is suing former high school classmates, their parents, and Facebook for their (the classmates') creation of a password-protected Facebook group which she claims they used to ridicule and disgrace her. According to the article, the teenager is accusing the others of using the group to say that she had AIDS, and that she "participated in bestiality." Somewhat short story even shorter: four people talked shit about a fifth person in a group on Facebook, and said fifth person did not see this as merely another aspect of the Internet. She saw it as bullying, a way of making her life miserable, and decided to sue them, their parents, as well as Facebook for allowing the four to use their site in such a way.

In Clarksville, a small town in Texas, a couple was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, and their story was posted on, a site that categorizes news by topic and geography (so that you can get news stories from your town only, etc.). Immediately, there were people posting anonymous comments on this article, linking the accused couple to drugs, rape, perversion, etc. Which, as it turned out, was a big mistake, as the couple was cleared of all charges, then proceeded to turn around and file their own lawsuit: against the 178 anonymous commenters who posted defamatory comments about them online. Despite the fact that the couple had not yet gone to trial, people commenting on their story (where they were accused of the assault) assumed that they were guilty and posted flames. The couple saw this as attacks on their character, which made it very difficult for them in already difficult times, ruining their reputations and killing their businesses.

So, when is a flame a flame and when is it an attack on some one's character? Is it okay to sue someone for attacking your character online? Should Topix unveil the identities of the 178 anonymous commenters in the pursuit of justice, or should those commenters remain anonymous in the interests of freedom of speech?

And is Reputation Defender for real? (Amazingly enough, this is the first I've heard of something like this...and, yes, it does seem to be real.)


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