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Proving Damages to Get Damages: Liberty vs. Libel Online

Early Web Adventures Start Innocently Enough

So, in 1994/95, I was a lab technician in a big university science lab on a huge NIH grant for NMR/MRI research. Part of my job was to was to construct staff pages on the nascent web in the new html language. I practiced by making my own page first (after calling my CMU Engineering grad brother first for help). I managed to set up 3 pictures and a short bio. This is basically what it looked like:


a white 11x8.5 sheet with a title, 3 diagonally cascaded pics surrounded by lots of white space, and a bio paragraph underneath

Stunning design, I know.


Pathetic for today’s standards but back then it was hot stuff, especially for a Psych graduate whose only comp sci experience was gathered via osmosis by being around her WarGames-level hacker brother (who, funnily enough, hasn’t bothered to change his website design since 1993).

Soon after this web project started, I began full-time graduate school. I went from full-time to part-time at the lab. Despite my best efforts to transition some of my lab duties to new techs, the slack wasn’t being taken up.

The lab was a tad bit lawless. In fact, right before I was hired the lab had been banned from conducting human experiments for at least 6 months because the staff didn’t bother to comply with the Internal Review Board’s regulations. (That was another part of my job – to get human trials back online, which I did promptly).

This Is Where It Goes Incredibly Bad

Since no-one was handling any of the duties I worked so hard to transition, things grew out of control within about three weeks of me starting grad school. I was summarily fired in one of the most dramatic tugs of war between work factions I’ve ever encountered in fiction or reality. It was traumatic. The Omsbudsman and other university officials sent warning shots to the lab after my dismissal, but at the end of the day I didn’t keep fighting for my job back. It was time to move on to educational research and away from the (surprisingly) cutthroat world of science.

Because I had no indication that I was to be fired, I had no time to take down my webpage. I hardly had time to gather up my belongings that day, let alone dig around in the server and its archives to erase traces of my personal data. To be honest, I didn’t give that webpage a second thought.

Life moved on. I quickly got a research position on an NEA grant at school. I got engaged. I made life work with some student loans and my paltry stipend. A few weeks later, I was out at our local pub with my science lab buddies and they told me some of the mean graduate students had hacked my page.

I was probably a bit tipsy because I couldn’t really grasp the situation at the time. A few days later, I noticed the offenders had left my webpage up pretty much in tact, but changed the wording in the bio. In summary: It was a long paragraph, written in the first person, with the most disparaging and untrue remarks a bunch of socially inept bottomfeeders could conger. All of this below 3 different, very plainly identifiable pictures of my face and body (clothed, of course).

My stomach lurched a violent, disgusted turn. Someone had the admin passwords, naturally, and they let these evil men have them.

Online Reputations Didn’t Exist in 1995, Apparently

I sent word to the lab that the page needed to be taken down immediately. Nothing happened. A few days, maybe a week passed. Friends explained to me that this was a case of “libel,” which, at about 25 years old, I’d never heard of and didn’t understand. They urged me to just call a lawyer and ask.

So I called a lawyer. I remember her response so clearly: “You have to prove damages to get damages.” I would not be able to prove my reputation was being harmed by this false information paired with profile photos that were very obviously identifiable as my likeness.

I went back to the university offices and worked with them to get them to force the lab to bring down the website. It was a ridiculous mess and left me quite scarred. I still felt the burn when I began this blog almost a decade later in 2004.

Why am I telling this story now?

With the recent wedding controversy around billionaire Sean Parker, I was reminded of this idea that civil laws like libel exist to (after-the-fact) regulate reputation-damaging moves such as website hacks and irresponsible journalism. In case you’ve been living under a rock, let’s sum up: Sean Parker was ripped to shreds in a feeding frenzy of false reporting over his supposed environment-crushing and extravagant wedding celebration. In a long response on TechCrunch, Parker, founder of Napster and kinda-founder of Facebook, says that reporters, some being highly respected journalists, didn’t bother to interview him about the facts of the case. Only one reporter out of dozens even called him for a quote. And of course, the democratized web, the very one Parker himself dreamt about 20 years ago, ironically went in for the kill armed with sharp teeth and the stinging bite of unsubstantiated accusations put out by the more traditional media outlets.

Now Sean Parker, the self-made billionaire who had a dream of “Information should be free” is feeling the effects of dark underbelly of the Internet, an unregulated breeding ground of bottom feeders.

Mind: Blown

Maybe I’ll chat more about this tomorrow, but right now I don’t know what to think. Other people like to wallow in “just desserts” for Parker, and Parker is talking about how “weddings used to be sacred.” I’m more concerned about the structure of our society. How are we going to regulate and educate our people on the responsibilities of democracy and a capitalized open web?

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  • CMU Geek Brother 28 June 2013, 11:58 pm

    Ahem, that’s the *third* spartan layout since 1993, thankyouverymuch. We don’t get distracted and we don’t cause distractions.

    The “web-of-now”, on the other hand, is nearly completely constructed to distract people from what they would have otherwise done. This is the basis for internet advertising, pr0n, facebook, YouTube, online news, google, etc. All of these have layout and design for one specific purpose: to hook viewers into making “one more” click farther away from what they would have otherwise done.

    It used to be that honor and integrity were the basis for everyone’s livelihood. Insults were costly: they involved the physical risk of duels.

    Insults have experienced hyper-inflation. Naturally, when lawsuits replaced duels, insults got cheaper. Flame wars with ad hominem are cheaper insults than lawsuits. Now insults are worth just a fraction of 140 characters. (There’s a pun in there somewhere.)

    But, it’s some kind of progress. For some time now, celebrity livelihood is based on how well you can distract. Does sensational libel result in damages or windfall? Did you notice who’s running for office in NY?

    Sean Parker is living in a world of celebrity, not honor and integrity. Are we to believe he is “shocked, shocked to find out what is going on here.” “Your winnings, sir.” I wish him luck in his quest to be treated as a non-celebrity, he’s going to need it. I doubt he will be successful unless he finds a way to convert 99.99% of his $2B net worth. Good luck with that.

    • PurpleCar 29 June 2013, 11:32 am

      Wow. 3rd iteration since ’93. Can’t imagine what the original design looked like.

      I sadly agree with you about the web-of-now being the web of distraction. Unfortunately, I turn to the Internet and in turn the Web, for all my news. Google Reader is dead but it helped me cut through all the distractions and just read headlines. I’ll have to find a replacement. Blocking javascript sometimes helps, as a lot of pages just give up and render only text when java is blocked. Mostly I just limit myself to a certain amount of reading time and precious few websites.

      Did you see my post yesterday? http://www.purplecar.net/2013/06/learning-to-accept-new-tech/ We have had similar situations in history in terms of insults, but honor culture isn’t my idea of a great society. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor_culture#Cultures_of_honour_and_cultures_of_law)

      The law will need to catch up to the insult culture of the Web. Or chaos will reign.

      • CMU Geek Brother 29 June 2013, 11:53 pm

        You brought up too many things. Got. To. Fight. To. Stay. ON TOPIC. (Allow me these though: “Honor culture” is nearly a misogynist slur. And separately: have we completely descended into a culture of laws written by a culture of honor (lobbyists, career politicians, blackmail, and omnibus legislation?)

        Back on topic: My point was economic, not social/moral: in the web-of-now, insults are cheap and can pile up from everywhere at once. Lawsuits are expensive and target one individual.

        Here’s the thing: the law can say anything, but the economics of enforcement make many laws (effectively) null and void. See War on Drugs. (You probably can rattle off more examples than I can, right?)

        Now this may seem like a topic jump, but it isn’t: Snowden didn’t tell us what was coming. He told us what was HERE. The economics of detection and enforcement are nearly completely Orwell’s 1984. They collect and analyze everything everyone does online, (and infer a lot of off-line.) They already legislated the means to enforce your punishment: forced non-participation: They can tell your ISP to turn you off. (A.K.A. the “internet death penalty” to geeks.)

        I am not an economist. But using some economic reasoning, it seems that Insults will indeed become a crime that is easily detected and punished. This will be an unspeakable tragedy (pun intended.) It won’t make people civil, it will only create a new class of rulers: the “uninsultable.” Our rulers will feel free to govern without chaos and criticism. Won’t that be Utopia!