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Boston Globe: Time To End Free Speech On The Web?

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Drake Bennett
Boston Globe
Monday Feb 16th, 2009

HERE ARE TWO stories about the Internet.

The week before last, the crippled economy coughed up a gift for picked-on college students across the country: It shut down Juicy Campus, a notorious website where campus gossips nationwide were invited to hold forth anonymously. “Just remember, keep it Juicy!” the home page had exhorted. Posters had duly obliged, and many students had found their social skills, weight, grooming habits, sexual orientation, and/or promiscuity to be the subject of gleefully vicious discussion by unseen online classmates. In a healthier economy, it’s unclear if anything could have closed down Juicy Campus – university administrators and even state prosecutors were eager to take it on, but had all but conceded that they had few legal options, and the website had been rapidly expanding the number of its member campuses.

And then there is this: Last month, someone posted a map showing the names, home locations, and occupations of thousands of people who gave money to support the passage of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative outlawing gay marriage in California. A number of these Proposition 8 supporters have since reported threatening e-mails and phone calls.

Speech now travels farther faster than the Founding Fathers – or the judges who created much of modern free speech law – could have dreamed. The Web has brought a new reach to the things we say about others, and created a vast potential audience for arguments that would once have unfolded in a single room or between two telephones. It has eaten away at the buffer that once separated public and private, making it possible to expose someone else’s intimate information to the world with a few keystrokes, or to take information that would formerly have been filed away in obscure public records and present it digestibly as a goad to collective political action.

One of the results has been the advent of a new culture of online heckling and shaming, and the rise of enormous cyber-posses motivated by social or political causes – or simple sadism.

Now, some legal scholars are beginning to argue that new technologies have changed the balance of power between the right to speak and the right to be left alone. At conferences, in law review articles, and, increasingly, in the courts, some lawyers are suggesting that the time has come to rethink some of the hallowed protections that the law gives speech in this country, especially if that speech is online. The proposals vary: Some focus on restricting material that can be posted online or how long it can stay there, others on whether we should be less willing to protect online anonymity. More ambitious schemes would have courts treat a person’s reputation as a form of property – something to be protected, traded, and even sold like any other property – or create a legally enforceable duty of confidentiality between friends like that which exists between doctors and their patients.

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This article was posted: Monday, February 16, 2009 at 12:01 pm

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