Time to rip the mask of anonymity off online trolls

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Rights and Freedoms

Web freedom advocates (which should include all of us) often advance quite fuzzy conceptions of Internet freedom. Many, especially the young male new-adopter demographic that dominates “geek culture,” see the Internet as a vast new frontier of freedom that operates almost in another dimension.

But the reality isn’t quite as noble as one might expect.

On the web issues surrounding freedom of expression are adjudicated by people like Facebook’s Dave Willner, a 28-year-old white male with no legal training or experience in human rights.

Hired fresh out of college at 23, Willner had been doing a great job in Facebook’s Help Center, especially with user inquiries about photo uploaders, so within a year, he was asked to draft the company’s content policy.

Facebook could have hired someone like Louise Arbour for a critically important task like this. Arbour is a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She’s got 40 years of global experience in human rights law under her belt, is one of the most respected jurists on the planet, and understands at a granular level that the exercise of individual liberty by one citizen can conflict sharply with another’s human rights.

Louise Arbour

But instead, they went with the 24-year-old in the Help Center.

Willner and his team would have been closely involved in community standards decisions that outlaw depictions of infants breastfeeding, but permitted (until recently) extremely graphic violent rape imagery and even two videos of beheadings.

But what’s most troubling about this scenario is almost wholly obscured from view: The primary brief is to develop content review policy that can be easily interpreted and applied by outsourced labour in India.

We could hardly have done worse than abandon our historic jurisprudence and rule of law to place our freedom and liberties in the hands of unelected and immature companies that answer to advertisers, banks and institutional shareholders. There is no transparency, accountability or inclusion. No chance to be heard, and no appeal.

None of this fits the model of responsible governance in the public interest.

Missing is that defining hallmark of of justice: judicial independence and impartiality. Gone are the blindfold and the scales--where competing rights and interests are balanced with the public good, and decisions are made publicly in open court.  Where justice is not only done, it is seen to be done.

This is why the framers of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one of the finest constitutional documents in the world, permits such minimal incursion on individual liberty as "can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."

In real life, liberties and freedoms bump against human rights, against the public interest in safety, against society's need for a safe environment for children.  On the Internet, many web enthusiasts simply reject the legitimacy of any impingement on freedom.  

It's not going to work.

Kids like Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons and Hannah Smith are our canaries in the coalmine. They are telling us there’s a problem. It's a very big problem.

Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, was reportedly not considering suicide after her alleged gang rape, but killed herself due to the relentless online bullying that followed.

Let’s do better

The public is entitled to better. Industry will act when its revenue stream is threatened or government moves to regulate it.

One interesting step is that advertisers are increasingly expressing their agitation over these events. Just this May, feminist organizations launched an extremely successful campaign against Facebook advertisers whose ads were found next to violent rape imagery on social media. An exodus of advertisers forced Facebook to agree that its content policy was failing women.

Sir Martin Sorrell, possibly the most influential ad-buyer in the world, also said in interview that social media sites can’t escape accountability as media outlets. Speaking in the UK, he made clear that these sites are responsible for their content, and advertisers will increasingly hold them to this.

And UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s July 22 announcement matters. He laid it on the line that this problem lies at the feet of industry, and he will hold them accountable.

Government could, as Cameron has, move to place controls on web content.

And industry did snap to attention when Cameron threw down the gauntlet of government regulation. In less than a week, Microsoft, Google and Twitter all made substantial announcement tightening up public protections against pedophiles and trolls. It’s very likely that more is in the pipeline.

Yet another option might be to amend consumer protection legislation and directly enable families who’ve lost children to bring actions for special punitive damage awards.

Web activists concerned about this development should amp up their pressure on industry to clean up its act, because the status quo is intolerable, and worsening by the day. Trolls, predators and pedophiles, if not stopped and controlled from within, will force government to act.

There is a realpolitik at play here that web freedom advocates need to acknowledge: society – meaning the people who vote and elect governments – won't stand for kids hanging themselves in their bathrooms. Kids aren't roadkill on the information superhighway, nor are women and minorities.

And what society won't stand for, advertisers won't stand for either.  

We must all work together to build an Internet that can stand the test of time by keeping its best and brightest promise to the future: making a better world.

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