A recent article explains the increased levels of anonymous sexual
threats that women bloggers are receiving online. Like any other entity with
power, prestige or wealth, women in the blogosphere are becoming targets of
stalkers and other predators. Threats received by women are sexual in nature up
to 25 times those received by men, according to the University of Maryland.


This issue brings salience to the ever-increasing problems
of cyber-civility. Whether abusers are
sexual predators in the comments section of a blog, webmasters posting
slanderous information about a competing colleague on the web or cyberbullys on
a high school’s chat room, the interests of safety, security and truth on the
Internet are in danger of becoming perilously scarce.


In the early days of the Internet, Congress was concerned
about interfering with the growth and evolution of the medium. This led to
legislation such as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects
online publishers from liability for content provided and created by others:


(c) Protection for
“Good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material. (1) Treatment of
publisher or speaker: No provider or user of an interactive computer service
shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by
another information content provider.” 47 USC §230(c)(1)


The rationale for the legislation was ensuring free speech
and protecting content providers from having to police all areas of their
content at all times. While well-conceived, the practical application of that
statute instead led to cases where the online publisher is notified of very
obvious defamatory materials, does nothing about it, and still avoids


Another survey cited in the article, conducted by the Pew
Internet & American Life Project, found that the proportion of Internet
users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in
2000 to 17 percent in 2005. While many of the battles over online defamation
are fought in the press and federal courtrooms, many more are fought outside of
the public eye. The results of those invisible battles are seen, at least in
part, in the decline in participation in online chats and discussion groups.


Law enforcement has similar problems. It is difficult to
spend serious time and energy on threats that are generalized or simply
repulsive. Without clear and present dangers, it is difficult to use limited
law enforcement resources to protect those who feel threatened.


Bottom Line: While online predators will never be
eliminated, there are opportunities to reduce the problem. Revision of the Communications Decency Act to hold publishers to a “notice”
standard would be one such step. Law enforcement’s attention to the shifting
nature of defamation would also help to reduce web stalkers. Finally, reevaluation
of policies and and reallocation of enforcers would be a welcome result in an
effort to address the still-growing problem of online predators.

CategoryBlog, Privacy
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