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Techno-bullying grown-ups

The pervasive accessibility and popularity of social networking sites, now estimated to be more popular than online pornography, has led to increased awareness of online bullying. There was a famous case involving a woman who used MySpace to bully a teenaged girl. (The girl later committed suicide over the matter.) As our society becomes more and more technologically interconnected, individuals make contact, communicate, and network across the nation and the world with ever-greater ease and amazing power. What many citizens do not realize, however, is that this increased connectivity and Internet networking leaves adults more and more vulnerable to the equivalent of bullying. Specifically, increased use of the Internet and an increased “Web footprint” on the part of individual citizens means more Americans are a Google search away from having their characters assassinated.

You’re probably already aware of various people whose stories have hit the newspaper features. Most common are individuals whose racy or reckless online pictures or personal websites led them either to be fired from jobs they held, or to fail to get jobs for which they applied. Social networking giant MySpace, for example, allows individuals to completely delete their profiles, an option instituted partly in response to this issue. Most people are at least dimly aware of this, and many use discretion in what they choose to post about themselves online. What if, however, your name and location were posted without your knowledge and consent, and attached to potentially ruinous, defamatory and libelous accusations? You might think that you’d simply fire off a cease-and-desist letter to the owner of the site in question. You’d probably be surprised what you found out, though examples of both sides of such arguments abound online.

Thus summer, for example, a blogger named Vlad Zablotskyy was sued by the site ePerks.com when he posted material critical of ePerks. This came after he initially participated in a paid program to help promote the real estate referral and networking site. After firing off a cease-and-desist letter to Zablotskyy, ePerks sued him, alleging hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Contentious and expensive as that example will end up being for those involved (even if no judgment is made, they’ll both be out legal fees), it can be argued that both the management of the site in question and the blogger who criticized that site engaged in their behavior of their own free will, putting their reputations on the line by making claims that they were then forced to substantiate (if not in the public arena, then in the realm of civil complaints). In other words, the folks involved wanted to be on the Web, and their activities online can be explained as part and parcel of doing your business (personal or otherwise) on the Internet. While the lawsuit against this blogger could be seen as an attempt to bully him into silence – certainly a cease-and-desist letter can be seen that way – it was based on behavior in which both parties knowingly engaged.

This is not the case for individuals who find themselves the subject of unwanted scrutiny on third-party gossip sites. I refer now to sites intended to spread the word about individuals for some specific purpose. If you find yourself wrongfully accused on such a site, I learned, your recourses are few. This was underscored for me when a friend found himself listed on a website intended for ex-girlfriends to share – complete with names and locations – their dating experiences.

In the anonymous online entry (users must register for the site in order to contact those who post their stories), my friend’s ex-girlfiend accused him of all manner of heinous crimes, from an incipient pornography addiction to serial cheating to being a rapist and a “leech.” Distraught, he called me and asked for help. On his behalf, I fired off a terse but professional letter requesting that the gossip site remove my friend’s entry.

I immediately received an automated response, informing me that the site was indemnified from lawsuit for third-party content by the Communications Decency Act. I later received an incredibly nasty personalized message. Among the dire predictions of ruin and doom that would rain down on me should I help my friend pursue this issue were the following:

… Any e-mails containing threats of litigation will not be answered by us and instead forwarded to law enforcement and our attorneys. … Any frivolous litigation filed against the site will be vigorously defended including seeking Rule 11 sanctions in federal court against both you and your attorney, should you find one who will file your case and risk losing his or her law license. We will also seek our attorneys fees from you. … Do not contact our site again. Should you do so, it will be considered harassment and we will forward your information, including your IP address and other identifying information, to both our attorneys and law enforcement.

In our litigious society, this is the sort of threat that prompts a user to delete the e-mail, close the program, format his hard drive, close his laptop and fling the machine into the nearest wood chipper before dousing the chipper with kerosene and setting it ablaze. Impressed by the vehemence with which the site owners would defend the posting of unsubstantiated and potentially libelous material about private citizens, I stopped short of setting my Dell Inspiron on fire and contemplated the technological bullying I had just experienced.

The existence of programs like the Internet Archive means that anything ever posted on the Internet stays there in some form, effectively forever. Be it a personal website you wouldn’t want a prospective employer reading, or a bitter ex-girlfriend falsely accusing you of rape, you as an adult could be technologically bullied as easily (if not more so, and with far more destructive consequences) as a seventh-grader receiving nasty messages through her MySpace page. All it takes is a few ill-chosen words.

It’s a sobering thought.