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EFF lays out plan to end online harassment

Matt Weinberger | Jan. 12, 2015
Caution: This won't be easy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the non-profit digital rights advocacy group known for its strong public stances on topics like Net Neutrality, piracy and privacy, on Thursday expanded its focus with a blog entry identifying online harassment as a digital rights issue that stands in the way of true freedom of speech.

The big problem, as EFF co-authors Danny O'Brien and Nadia Kayyali readily acknowledge, is that it's hard to address online harassment without pushing up against the Internet's cardinal benefits of open communication and free discourse. 

"Unfortunately, it's not easy to craft laws or policies that will address those harms without inviting government or corporate censorship and invasions of privacy--including the privacy and free speech of targets of harassment," writes the EFF. "[But] there are ways to craft effective responses, rooted in the core ideals upon which the Internet was built, to protect the targets of harassment and their rights."

The (long) post goes on to lay out exactly what the EFF means by harassment -- defined as "[what] happens when Internet users attract the attention of the wrong group or individual." Escalating levels of harassment, from inundating a target with horrific violent or sexual imagery all the way up to death threats, is frequently used to silence women, minorities and members of any other disadvantaged population, which makes it run counter to the whole "equality of speech" thing the Internet is supposed to be all about. 

"The sad irony is that online harassers misuse the fundamental strength of the Internet as a powerful communication medium to magnify and coordinate their actions and effectively silence and intimidate others," the EFF wrote.

For a case in point, check out the ongoing #GamerGate "movement," which began with the bullying of a woman in game development to silence her and resulted in an ongoing campaign of harassment involving credible death threats, the release of private information like home addresses and lots of other unsavory behavior. 

The obvious solution would be stronger laws. But as the EFF notes, there are plenty of well-meaning laws on the books with upsetting and negative unintended consequences. The laws can be applied unevenly, for instance, with recorded instances of the police telling victims of online harassment to simply turn off the computer or that it's just kids being kids. 

From the private sector, "real name" policies like Facebook's are great for improving transparency and tying harassers back to their everyday lives. But they come at the cost of protections for people who need to maintain the protections of online anonymity, from corporate whistleblowers to citizens in totalitarian regimes to victims of domestic violence. That goes for things like logging IP addresses or physical locations, too. 


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