Civil Liberties

I Did It for the Lulz

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"I can't push you into the fire…but I can look at you while you're burning in the fire and not be required to help."

Reading Mattathias Schwartz's New York Times Magazine story about Internet trolls is like eating blowfish: Fun during the doing, and a little nauseating afterward, when you realize that the stuff could mess up your day.

Trolls are people who lurk Internet comment boards under pseudonymous handles, posting stupid questions and antagonistic comments in hopes of baiting the devout into flame wars. Schwartz managed to meet and interview one of the worst of the breed: Jason Fortuny, who lured responses from over 100 Craigslist users with a sub-seeking-dom ad, and then posted their pictures and personal information on his blog. More recently, Fortuny created the Megan Had It Coming blog, where he drew over 3,000 comments with a few posts mocking the Myspace-related suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier.

Fortuny, along with most of Schwartz's anonymous trolling subjects, is remorseless and—this is purely my amateur psychological opinion—bat-shit insane. But he and his kind are also the Janus-headed future of the Internet, because a number of them aren't just trolls; they're hackers, identity thieves, and genuine misanthropes, and they wreak with ease a kind of petty yet terrifying havoc that's difficult to stop.

Schwartz shares one story about Sherrod DeGrippo, the web administrator for a site about trolls called Encyclopedia Dramatica. According to DeGrippo, a band of trolls bombarded his apartment with pizza deliveries, escorts, and taxis when he refused to edit the group's entry. Other trolls that Schwartz interviewed link fabricated records with real Social Security numbers. Some are able to block or cancel cell phone access.

Not every troll is a hacker—many trolls are just run-of-the-mill assholes; the guys and gals who stick out a leg when you're trying to make your way from the bar to a table with an armful of drinks, or shout "Fight!" in a high school hallway as a couple of twerps roll around on the linoleum. Nevertheless, Schwartz brings up the question, Should we do anything about this? If yes, what exactly? The answer is, well, complicated:

Several state legislators have recently proposed cyberbullying measures. At the federal level, Representative Linda Sánchez, a Democrat from California, has introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would make it a federal crime to send any communications with intent to cause "substantial emotional distress." In June, Lori Drew pleaded not guilty to charges that she violated federal fraud laws by creating a false identity "to torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass" another user, and by violating MySpace's terms of service. But hardly anyone bothers to read terms of service, and millions create false identities. "While Drew's conduct is immoral, it is a very big stretch to call it illegal," wrote the online-privacy expert Prof. Daniel J. Solove on the blog Concurring Opinions.

Many trolling practices, like prank-calling the Hendersons and intimidating Kathy Sierra, violate existing laws against harassment and threats. The difficulty is tracking down the perpetrators. In order to prosecute, investigators must subpoena sites and Internet service providers to learn the original author's IP address, and from there, his legal identity. Local police departments generally don't have the means to follow this digital trail, and federal investigators have their hands full with spam, terrorism, fraud and child pornography. But even if we had the resources to aggressively prosecute trolls, would we want to? Are we ready for an Internet where law enforcement keeps watch over every vituperative blog and backbiting comments section, ready to spring at the first hint of violence? Probably not. All vigorous debates shade into trolling at the perimeter; it is next to impossible to excise the trolling without snuffing out the debate.

If we can't prosecute the trolling out of online anonymity, might there be some way to mitigate it with technology? One solution that has proved effective is "disemvoweling" – having message-board administrators remove the vowels from trollish comments, which gives trolls the visibility they crave while muddying their message. A broader answer is persistent pseudonymity, a system of nicknames that stay the same across multiple sites. This could reduce anonymity's excesses while preserving its benefits for whistle-blowers and overseas dissenters. Ultimately, as Fortuny suggests, trolling will stop only when its audience stops taking trolls seriously.

In a strange way, trolls represent the best and worst of the Internet. In applying their anarchic philosophies, trolls like Fortuny end up on the front line of the fight against censorship and regulation. Yet their small-scale terrorizing expands the list of potential victims to include anyone who happens to earn the ire of these tech-savvy psychopaths.