Creating Responsible Netizens

Section 230 for Dummies November 30, 2011

Filed under: jessica — jessica @ 8:54 pm

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is truly an instrument piece of legislation about the Internet. Most importantly, it provides immunity for site owners from the content users may publish on their sites. The exceptions are cases involving intellectual property, federal crimes, and privacy.

Three reasons to be thank Congress for Section 230:

  1. Without it, sites with only user-generated content like Youtube and Wikipedia would not exist. A world without Charlie Bit My Finger?! Blasphemy, I say!
  2. Without it, there would not be “comment” sections at the bottom of news articles. By golly, where would I get my daily dose of vitriolic speech?
  3. Without it, social networking as we know it would not exist. Seriously, a universe without Facebook?! How did we manage to survive the 90s?

However, for all its perks, Section 230 does cause its share of headaches, particularly in the realm of online speech. The excessive leeway Section 230 grants to services providers makes online speech, particularly harassment and libel, extremely difficult to regulate. In essence, the courts have consistently upheld the immunity of Internet service providers in dealing with defamation or false information on websites.

John Palfrey, a Harvard Law professor, has extensively discussed this polemic topic, stating that the current law needs to be revised carefully to protect Netizens, particularly young people. He proposes a plan that requires that log files be kept to assist law enforcement, a take-down notice procedure (much like the DMCA’s protocol for copyright infringement), and the removal of immunity for service providers when young people are threatened by harmful speech. Unfortunately, this raises even more questions regarding what “child safety” really entails and how much the law can really protect against bullying. The very idea of adjusting this act is daunting because of the high possibility that good-intentioned policymakers may reverse any positive effects of the law in hopes of greater protection. Thus, the solution to may actually not lie in legislation or virtual roadblocks, but rather in education.  Anti-bullying programs through schools may better prepare future Internet users on proper “netiquette” and foster a more compassionate online community. However, this might just be me thinking a little too idealistically.

By Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993



Filed under: jessica — jessica @ 8:08 pm

Whenever I hear that word, I imagine creepy dolls with spiky colored hair. Perhaps those aren’t the people responsible for wrecking havoc online, but they instill the same sense of disgust within me.

I never really knew how bad trolls could be to me personally. Sure, I see people being nasty in online forum or leaving ugly comments under articles. However, I never felt personally attacked or offended by their comments. With the Web bringing everyone closer, I have learned that trolls are closer to us than we think.

Imagine for a moment, you are a third year law student, ready to score a great job at a leading law firm. You have a perfect GPA, an awesome resume, a sparkling personality, and an appearance worthy of People’s Most Beautiful list. Shouldn’t be too difficult for you to find a job, right? Yet, imagine going from interview to interview (nailing all of them, I might add) yet never actually getting a job. Smelling something fishy going on, you step into the $1000 Italian shoes of your prospective employer. Upon Googling your own name, you discover that the top 10 hits are all incredibly nasty blog posts and forums. Click, click, click. Random strangers (see: trolls) are all hating on you, calling you atrocious names, questioning your character, and even digging up old photos and articles about you.

Let me introduce you to AutoAdmit, “the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world.” This is the stinkhole where anonymous trolls come to bash their peers, identifying them by name and other personal information. Though you may not be concerned what a couple angry, hateful people hidden behind a computer screen are typing, their words (and their lies) all show up whenever someone conducts a Google search on your name. The above scenario is very similar to what happened to two female law students — perfectly normal individuals plucked out of obscurity to be skewered by trolls.

After reading about these current events, I decided to conduct a quick Google search on my own name (my name is actually quite common, so most of the items I found did not pertain to me). I found some old archived news articles from my school district about myself – innocent stuff. I looked a bit harder, and lo and behold, I found myself on AutoAdmit. Granted, it wasn’t the first hit to pop up on Google, but seeing what the trolls wrote really stung. Therefore, I do advise all of you to run a quick Google search of yourself, check the images, check who else shares an alias with you, and make sure you are targeted by sites like AutoAdmit. I sincerely hope that one day people will know to read Google Search results with a grain of salt and that trolls will find a healthier pastime, but until then tread carefully.

If you do want to give yourself a reputation make-over online, here are some quick tips on how to outsmart the trolls. Make sure to join reputable social-networking sites, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Profile. By joining these communities, you can add positive information about yourself to the mix, moving the rubbish to later pages. If worst comes to worst, there are sites that provide more in-depth assistance, like Most importantly, know that trolls exist, monitor what you post online, and be proactive about maintaining an untarnished online reputation.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite movies of 2010, The Social Network: “The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.”


It’s Fabulous, but It’s Evil

Filed under: jessica — jessica @ 7:59 pm

Every time you sign up for something online, you’ll get asked a few standard questions. Name? Password? Age?

I remember back when I was setting up my first email account, I was encouraged to fudge my date of birth. COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) was instated in 1998, with the good intentions of Congress trying to shield our nation’s youth. The act requires sites to obtain parental consent before they can utilize information of children under 13. It makes sense, of course, for lawmakers to be legitimately concerned about marketers obtaining an innocent child’s data or predators finding personal information from unsuspecting juveniles. However, to cope with the conundrum surrounding this law, many websites bar children under thirteen, notably Facebook. Recent research shows that an increasing number of parents are encouraging children to lie about their age to gain access to websites for social networking and email. Because of the instrumental role of these web-based resources in one’s day-to-day life, it is totally understandable for parents to want children to gain early access to these sites.

If you’re curious to see the details of the research, click

There was a time when I, being a complacent adolescent, wondered why such laws were necessary. After all, didn’t only “dumb” people get duped online? Although anyone can be a victim to cyberbullying, younger web users are particularly susceptible.

The newsworthy story surrounding MySpace and Megan Meier’s suicide is a clear example of the horrible consequences of internet usage by bad people. One of Meier’s neighbors, Lori Drew, created a MySpace account of a teenage boy and began online correspondence with Megan via MySpace. After gaining her trust, “Josh” began sending her a series of insulting and disparaging messages. Meier’s suicide was a brutal wake-up call for lawmakers and Netizens alike. Authorities attempted to bring Lori Drew to justice, using a law against hacking (since Drew violated the MySpace terms of service) to unsuccessfully prosecute her. Legislators across the country, especially in Missouri, attempted to create legislation to prevent cyberbullying. However, how much can authorities really control cyberbullying, both logistically and legally? One cyberlaw expert proposed a plan that requires that log files be kept to assist law enforcement, a take-down notice procedure (much like the DMCA’s protocol for copyright infringement), and the removal of immunity for service providers when young people are threatened by harmful speech. Unfortunately, this raises even more questions regarding what “child safety” really entails and how much the law can really protect against bullying. The key solution to cyberbullying may actually not lie in legislation or virtual roadblocks, but rather in education.  Anti-bullying programs through schools may better prepare future Internet users on proper “netiquette” and foster a more compassionate online community.

Wading through the murkiness of the Web may seem like trekking through a jungle. It is understandable that children to easily become ensnared by the Web, and it is understandable for lawmakers to want to look after our children. However, even with the present restrictions, young Netizens are still very vulnerable. The best way, in my opinion, is to build an online community for yourself that will keep everything in perspective. Make sure to surround yourself with positive friends online, and if people are making threatening or offensive remarks, defriend them, block them, and/or report them. Of course, the old adage is true: don’t talk to strangers! The Internet is truly a great tool for connecting with other, but keep in mind that for all its benefits it does have a darker side.


U MAD BRO? November 26, 2011

Filed under: jessica — jessica @ 5:41 pm


School got you down? Really peeved with your teachers? Had enough of the stress of academics and want to take it out on the Man?

Be mindful before you blog!

In my last post, I commented on the precedents that paved the way to current school speech legislation. In this post, I will briefly explain two recent court cases that tie in the idea of school speech with cyberlaw. Personally, I find these court cases very enthralling because there were many times when I or one of my friends wanted to create similar online profiles.

Firstly, let’s break down Layshock v. Hermitage School District. Justin Layshock, pretty much your average teenager, decided to create a fake MySpace page for his principal from his grandmother’s computer. In this profile, Layshock made several outrageous claims, (e.g. “big hard a**”) so much to the point that it was not plausible that the profile was actually created by Principal Trosch. Consequently, Layshock was suspended, forced into an “Alternative Education Program,” and barred from attending his graduation. The District Court ruled that the school’s punishment violated Layshock’s First Amendment rights, the school’s policies and rules were vague and overboard,and the school’s punishment violated his parents’ Fourteenth Amendment right to raise him in a manner they saw fit.

Secondly, a second, more recent case about online school speech is Blue Mountain School District v. J.S. Two students created a fake MySpace profile about their principal, using a picture they copied from the school website to identify the principal. On this profile, they claimed that the principal was a “pedophile” among other profane and offensive comments about Principal McGonigle and his family. Saying that the students violated school discipline code and computer use code, the administrators suspended the students for ten days. After the student sued the school for violating her First Amendment rights, the court ruled that the suspension was not a violating of her free speech rights. The court said that schools can regulate vulgar off-campus speech even if it did not meet the “substantial disruption” test stated by Tinker.

When I first read about these two cases, I thought to myself, “Aren’t these pretty much the same thing? Why are the court decision so different?” Even without the added dimension of being online, controlling school speech is a very convoluted subject. However, given the results in these different District Courts, interpretation of school speech rights indeed remains quite hazy.

Furthermore, these two cases resulted in a very extreme punishment: suspension. However, keep in mind that suspension is not the only weapon in schools’ arsenals. Schools can pretty much do anything they want with regards to student participation in extracurricular activities. Case in point, the “Douchebag” case, where the school disqualified a student from running for class secretary because of a her blog posts. Though extracurriculars are immensely important to a high schooler’s education (and their college application, for that matter), participation in these activities are not seen as a “right”  to courts.

The Internet makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between in-school and out-of-school speech. Perhaps your best bet is to not blog publicly about school, but if you must, refrain from using obscenities. Americans have a tendency to be flippant towards the words they say, thinking, “Whatever! I have Freedom of Speech…” Although the Founding Fathers did bequeath us the power to say what is on our mind, we are not totally immune to the consequences. Thus, my stance is simple. As a fellow adolescent, I understand the urge to “rant” after a bad day at school; however, there are many different (safer) ways to release your anger other than posting something vicious and angry online.  Hate to break it to Layshock, but calling your principal “big” will not make him a better principal, nor will it make you a better student. If you really want to impact change at your school, instead of hiding behind a MySpace alias, actually communicate with the administrators who have done you wrong.


Google’s advice on security

Filed under: dean — dean @ 5:23 pm

Yesterday I was on Google and I noticed that they had added a link to the bottom of the homepage. It directed to where Google shared some tips on safety and privacy, both in terms of the general realm of the internet and on how Google handles privacy/data collection.

From the perspective a young, internet-savvy generation, most of the tips that Google suggests seem to be common sense (run Windows Update/Apple Software Update, don’t click on weird links that you get in your email, signing out of accounts when you use public computers). However, I did like the article on choosing a secure password. I’ll be the first to admit that I use essentially the same password for all of my activity online – instead of remembering different passwords to different accounts, I can just remember one “master” password and use that extra brainpower to cram for my psychology and math midterms.

Unfortunately, it’s that great of an idea – it means that if one account is compromised, maybe from a site with not that strong of security, all of your accounts could potentially be at risk. I learned this the hard way back in middle school; I let a stranger online use one of my smaller accounts for a MMOFPS and he ended up stealing items from my primary account since I used the same password for all my accounts.

I also liked the tip on using a password from a song, film, or play. For example, “To be or not to be, that is the question” can be simplified into password form as “2bon2btitq” is a seemingly random, near un-guessable password at a first glance, but easy to remember.

That being said, choosing a secure password is, while important, a small worry compared to some breaches of privacy perpetrated by large online companies (even Google, whose motto is “don’t be evil”). I’ll discuss this in further detail the next time I post!


School Speech, The Prequel November 25, 2011

Filed under: jessica — jessica @ 5:47 pm

Many people, particularly students, use blogs and social networking as platforms for ranting. Though the First Amendment does protect “free speech,” it is important to note the limits of its protections. With regards to school speech, there are four court cases that have paved the way for current rulings: Tinker, Fraser, Hazelwood, and Morse.

A brief synopsis of the “Big Four” school speech cases:

  1. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969): Teenage students wore black armbands to protest Vietnam War. (Understand that this staged during a very tense and political time) The court ruling basically stated that students do not lose their rights upon entering the schoolhouse gates but did include a caveat that it is plausible for students to have rights stripped if they caused “substantial disruption.” Nonetheless, general fears were not enough to justify the stifling of student speech, so for this specific case the armbands were NOT substantial disruption.
  2. Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) : This case was concerning inappropriate speech at school assembly. Fraser had made a sexually suggestive speech during a school assembly, which resulted in disciplinary action.  So the question arose, if speech is lewd, vulgar, obscene but does not cause disruption, can schools still control said speech? (Of course, defining obscenity is a whole other can of worms.) The Supreme Court sided with the school, agreeing with Fraser’s suspension, saying that a school’s mission is to teach civics and foster good citizens; Fraser’s inappropriate speech clearly conflicted with this mission, thus establishing a boundary to the scope of Tinker.
  3. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) : A student wrote a school newspaper article about teen pregnancy, and the article was yanked from school-sponsored paper. Does this qualify as political speech and can the school act as a censor? The court ruled that as it was a school-sponsored paper, the school did have editorial control. Whatever was printed in the paper reflected the ideals the school promoted and if the articles conflicted with the schools pedagogical mission, the administrators had free rein to censor.
  4. Morse v. Frederick (2007): If you are thinking about hoisting a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner across the street from school during a school event, better think twice. High school student, Frederick, was suspended for this action. The Court ruled that suspension did not violate Frederick’s First Amendment rights because the speech occurred at a school-sponsored event and the speech promoted illicit drug use, which contradicted the school’s mission.  However, if this was not during a school event, say if he was at a marijuana legalization rally, this would not have been punishable.

    Illustration by Doug Potter

In most contexts, the law protects such political speech in school. However, recent court cases (in other words, the major cases post-Tinker) have attempted to curtail the free speech rights of students. Of course, this leads to a very legitimate debate regarding the role of schools in regulating society’s morals. Do we really want schools condoning the use of foul language? Do we really want our children to enter an institution that sponsors sex, drugs, and debauchery? Or do we want students to figure out their views completely on their own? Do we want students to have the ability to say whatever they themselves deem fit?

You might be scratching your head, wasn’t this blog called CYBERitas? Where does the Internet come into play? Don’t worry I’ll get there in my next post — stay tuned!


From Veritas to Cyberitas, Take 2

Filed under: dean — dean @ 3:18 am

Like Jessica, I had my first foray into the tech world at a young age (“back in the day…”), and with each passing year and generation, that starting age is plummeting.  (I’d like to point out that the age at which I wrote a post on Xanga was younger than Jessica’s, since I’m obviously way cooler than her.)

While navigating the labyrinth that we call the web, I was plagued with a variety of pressing questions. Was there anyone tracking my browser history, and if so, who was it? What did they want with my information? Was downloading that image and then reposting it on my Xanga legal? Should I have talked crap about that classmate on MySpace and Facebook? Are we truly anonymous online? What is the meaning of life? These were the questions that kept me awake at night as I was in the sixth grade.

As you may or may not have been able to tell, the last paragraph is a complete lie. Unfortunately, I, like the vast majority of young internet users, did not care for and did not care to understand some of the issues that ‘netizens’ face on a daily basis. However, I became more and more conscious about these issues during the last few years of high school as I started reading Engadget and TechCrunch.

I’m also a freshman at Harvard College, and am currently enrolled in the same freshman seminar – Cyberspace in Court – as Jessica. Together, we’re here to share some information we wish we had known when we started out navigating through the jungle of the internet.


From Veritas to Cyberitas November 24, 2011

Filed under: jessica — jessica @ 5:31 pm

Welcome to Cyberitas! 

I remember the first time I got an email account (You Got Mail! Thanks, AOL), downloaded music onto an iPod (2nd generation nano, in case you were wondering), wrote a post on xanga (hello, middle school blogging), and video chatted someone (skyping before it was a verb). Growing up in the technology evolution was an exciting, albeit confusing, time. With all the fast-paced changes it is truly difficult to keep track. Just think, how many times has Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s layout and settings since you started using it?

Navigating the web has truly become an art form. However, you do not need to be part of Geek Squad or speak HTML to be tech savvy. There are several legal issues surrounding cyberspace that young people are ignorant of, yet need to know. And this is where Cyberitas come in!

We don’t want to be like school administrators preaching down at you, nor do we want to be like talkboxes reiterating current events. We would like to be your peers, sharing our knowledge of cyberlaw with you and opening up a forum for discussion.

Now a little about me, I am a freshman at Harvard University. In my free time I love roaming the web, spending the majority of my time between Facebook and Youtube. This term I was enrolled in a freshman seminar called Cyberspace in Court, an amazing and eye-opening class that allowed me to delve into the legal issues we will be discussing in this blog.

So I thank you for joining us on this journey and hope you will find some this blog enlightening!