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April 12, 2007

Trusting women, trusting bloggers

Why do so many people think they know how tech blogger Kathy Sierra should have responded to online death threats?

In every discussion of the Kathy Sierra death threats, someone will confidently opine that Kathy shouldn't take graphic threats and ghoulish pictures seriously because they were published on the internet.

The fact is, most threats are idle. The whole point of a threat is scare the victim into compliance. On the other hand, there's no reason to assume that a threat is benign just because it was issued online.

The appropriate response to a threat depends on the specifics of the exchange: Is it just one person writing one angry email, or is it a prolonged campaign? Are we talking vague insinuations of ill-will, or detailed threats of violence? Are the hostile communications escalating in frequency or severity? Is there any evidence that those who are doing the threatening know where the target lives, or live nearby?

As Markos notes, the internet makes it easy for cranks to dash off idle threats to public figures. On the other hand, the same technology lets the same cranks pinpoint a stranger's home address in minutes. For example, Kathy Sierra's home address was published online.

Markos notes that a lot of bloggers get abusive email. I know I do. Several times a year, I emails from people who say they hope I die, or express other similarly vague pro-attitudes towards my demise.

Legally, those are threats. I forward those to the FBI and the ISP of the sender. I'm not the least bit scared, but man, do those threats make me angry. These shmucks are trying to intimidate me! Of course, it doesn't work and I take great satisfaction in creating a paper trail.

It's just as illegal to threaten someone by email or online as it is to call them or send them hateful snail mail. If we chide victims for taking email and website threats seriously, we're coddling their abusers. Threats should have consequences, regardless of the medium.

I've only gotten one specific threat of deadly violence in the years I've been blogging. Just before the 2006 mid-term election someone anonymous creep emailed me to say that they were going to be watching me through the sight of a high-powered rifle, blah, blah...

I wasn't scared. I was furious. So, I did a little digging and found out that the sender lived in San Antonio. After forwarding copies of the email to the FBI and the sender's internet service provider, I wrote back to the sender informing them that it was a crime to utter a death threat, and that if I ever got another threat from them, I'd call the San Antonio Police Department. I never had a problem with them again.

I'm so tired of hearing the "every blogger gets threats" canard. Empirically, it's all too true. But that logic cuts both ways. Kathy Sierra is a veteran blogger. As a high-profile female tech blogger, it's safe to assume that she's gotten her share of low-grade abusive email over the years.

If Sierra says that she finds this latest round of threats especially credible, chances are that she perceives a qualitative difference between run-of-the-mill angry letters and the sexual humiliation campaign being waged against her by a handful of highly committed sickos.

In general the person who is best-situated to appraise the threat is the target, in consultation with police and other authorities. That's what Kathy Sierra did, and she got vilified for her trouble.


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Frank, I gave you some starting points for educating yourself; this thread is getting too stale for me to put forth the effort and do it myself. I'm sure you're not really this obtuse. Read the Wikipedia entry on "cyberstalking"; read about "vengeful stalkers" at Talk to any person who works professionally with victims of stalking: they'll tell you that Kathy Sierra was entirely correct in taking these threats seriously. And if you're still "not entirely convinced on this point", keep in mind that this is not necessarily of interest to anyone. There are people in my state who've convinced themselves the sun revolves around the earth.

Just a small note to everybody:

this thread starts to get linked by several relatively big blogs. So be aware that not only we have unresolved KS case but we also have potential brawl on progressive blogs. Several are watching this thread.

1. keep it cool. this might be a chance to find a way to actually reduce tension. Remember there has been one disasterous flame, and one developing. Don't repeat the pattern. (I seriously doubt this can be solved, but the very least, we can learn how event that lead into gigantic intrblog spat unfold for future reference.)

2. Use link tracker of your choice to gouge develpment across the blog scene. (technorati is easy to use)

Cosmic: no surprise that this has become a big dustup, because it comes down to the tension between two key issues for people on the internet: the freedom to say what you please, vs. the right to do so without the fear of something horrible happening to you.

Thing is, the means by which you achieve both (if you can, or otherwise the balance between them) has changed dramatically over the last ten years or so. Around ten years ago, it's very unlikely that this sort of thing would ever have come up: Kathy might still get those threats, but the attitude towards speech, even nasty hateful speech, was one hell of a lot more laissez faire than it is now. It could be nasty and hurtful and cruel, but "flaming" was part of the game, and it was pretty much understood to be entirely empty- just a way of emphasizing points in the endless argument that was the Internet.

(Especially, say, Usenet. Hoo boy. "Go die in a fire" was a friendly greeting.)

Still, there were concerns, and the way around it was to do the same thing that I'm doing now, and a lot of other people have done over the entire life of the Internet: pseudonymity. Provided you're a little careful, it doesn't really matter what they say to you, because tracking you down would be extraordinarily difficult without the aid of a search warrant and a complicit ISP. It was and is a bit of an annoyance, but it was the prophylactic that protected you from the host of nasty things that could occur to someone who wasn't cagey with their identity.

(Yes, IPs are readily available, but they often don't reveal much more than the city someone lives in. Nobody did manage to figure out who Atrios was until he chose to announce it.)

Nowadays, things are somewhat different. You have far more people like Lindsay, who blog under their own name.. and people like Carolyn, who seemingly insist that others do the same. I violently (hah!) disagree with the latter assertion, because it's a betrayal of the very ideals that underpin the creation of this medium... but it's here. And as long as people are writing under their real name, and insisting that others do so, and consider the Internet a mere extension of their real-life identity instead of a place of its own, they're going to insist on the same kinds of protections that they enjoy in real life, and have pretty much no tolerance or respect for the ideals of absolute freedom of speech and shared pseudonymity/anonymity that used to exist, but doesn't jive well with the extensive bridges that now exists between "cyberspace" and "meatspace".

So, and this gets back to Lindsay, you end up with people being reported to the FBI for the same crap that they'd probably see shrugged off beforehand, and still would in those online communities where the old rules still apply.

And this is where I have to disagree with Lindsay's attitude of "a threat is a threat, turn it all over to the FBI". I can understand the desire, and the fear or it turning into something more. The problem is that it really can have an effect on discourse, and there really is a difference between an annoyed online wag saying "oh, fuck off and die" vs. a real and legitimate threat.

There always was a point to the maximalist view of freedom of speech online: that society does benefit from having somewhere where that exists. In an age where, more and more, we find ourselves checking everything we say for fear of the "blowback", how much festers just under the surface, influencing behavior but never, ever spoken aloud? Not even nasty racist, sexist stuff, but things like alternative sexualities in communities where such things are shunned, radical political positions, buried interpersonal issues and the like?

Say what you will about the Old Order of anything-goes discourse and pseudonymity/anonymity, but it did exist for a reason, and I'd be sad to see it go.

(My apologies for the lengthy post, Lindsay)

A very good site that offers reverse phone searches and other lookups is

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