The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy and Reputation

February 17, 2011

This volume dangles the lure of much enjoyable moral indignation. Readers are promised "example after example of harassment" and "vile and hateful speech", after which they will "never again see the internet through rose-coloured glasses".

For better or worse, the book fails to deliver. It presents remarkably few examples of hateful speech. Much discussion focuses on two university gossip websites, AutoAdmit and JuicyCampus (both of which appear to have been very nasty indeed, in ways that are not at all entertaining). It is unclear whether all the authors who refer to these websites have in fact seen them, although they have surely read what others have said about them, which is, after all, very nearly the same thing. Some chapters have only the slightest connection to the offensive bits of the internet.

This may reflect the fact that contributors to edited volumes are often disinclined to do more than to dust off and lightly revise something they have already written, and some of these pieces appear far more closely connected to the authors' personal research interests than the internet's purportedly offensive bits. Lior Jacob Strahilevitz's chapter is good on privacy, but has little obvious connection to the theme of the volume. John Deigh's piece on the Cohen v California case and free-speech principles barely even tries to connect his arguments to the internet. Cass Sunstein's piece on how rumours spread is no more than a good precis of his book on the topic.

This text has other problems. In so far as it tries to communicate a coherent intellectual message, it is not a well-argued one. The editors appear to have decided to take the blithe utopianism of internet evangelists and turn it on its head. Instead of treating the internet as a utopian space of democratic experimentalism, they deplore it as a cesspit.

Saul Levmore's chapter unknowingly recapitulates webcomic author John Gabriel's pithy 2004 identity, "Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad" but at rather greater length than the six words and three mathematical relationships of the original would suggest necessary. Much of the chapter is devoted to developing his argument that "the internet is the natural and well-evolved successor to the toilet wall". The comparison is novel but limiting, as is Martha Nussbaum's conflation of the internet with a particularly vicious gossip site to reach the conclusion that "the internet world is a self-enclosed, self-nourishing world that is remarkably resistant to the reality outside". A more acute version of this criticism can be made of certain rarefied strata of academe.

Perhaps the most extraordinary chapter is Brian Leiter's piece on blog comment sections and chatrooms as the "cyber-cesspools" of the internet. Leiter, like other contributors, would like to see bloggers held legally liable for the potentially libellous behaviour of their commenters. While he acknowledges that this may dampen debate, he sees this as a benefit. He is unconvinced that the internet has any unique virtues, and suggests it might be a good thing if blogs and chatrooms were to disappear.

This would be less remarkable if Leiter were not himself a self-proclaimed enemy of the "cult of civility" and a vigorous participant in many unpleasant "flamewars" in the blogosphere. He occasionally comments on my own blog posts. If his proposed legal reforms were to pass, I would feel it prudent to ban Leiter from so doing in future, for fear that he would inadvertently expose me to legal liability. Such, perhaps, would be the costs of progress.

The volume is not all bad. Daniel Solove's chapter stands out for its careful consideration of the case against the regulations he would like to see. Danielle Keats Citron's argument in favour of using civil rights law against "online mobs" is empirically shaky but she cogently describes persistent misogyny across many areas of the internet. Nussbaum's Nietszchean analysis of misogyny is prima facie plausible, although its application to empirics is sketchy and cursory. Several chapters have useful legal analysis, even if the relationship of this analysis to problems of offensive conduct on the internet is not always clear.

By looking at the internet only through one ordure-befouled lens, the book fails to make a good case for its proposed changes. It is entirely possible that the US emphasis on free speech provides too much scope for offensive behaviour. But establishing this claim would require more than repeated description of the same cases and a nearly complete failure to engage with obvious counterarguments. There is space for a good book on this topic, perhaps even to be written by one or more of the contributors to this volume. This is not that book.

The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy and Reputation

Edited by Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum. Harvard University Press 312pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780674050891. Published January 2011

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