Free Expression on the Internet

BY JARRET COHEN

Like many of you, I enjoyed debating the limits of free speech in my middle school civics class. Unfortunately, academic discussions could not prepare me for the realities of dealing with free speech issues on a day by day basis as owner of a popular internet message board. Every day for the past three years, I have been confronted by people who are angry about opinions expressed by certain users on AutoAdmit.com. Sometimes these people have legitimate grievances; other times they do not. No matter what the specific facts, one thing is always true: once I receive a complaint, someone is going to accuse me of selective moderation no matter what I do.

Let me first be clear: I do not agree with many of the comments law students make on AutoAdmit. However, I have always felt that the diversity of opinions – even unpopular opinions – on the site is a good thing. I also believe that people should have the right to comment on controversial subjects without fear of being persecuted, just as on mundane subjects. Furthermore, I have learned over a period of years that attempting to sterilize the thoughts of a community is a counterproductive endeavor, which will only backfire in greater proportions.

As I have said before, I do not believe that character assassination or harassment of private individuals has a place on my website. Malice has never been part of my vision for free expression or the “marketplace of ideas” that I wanted to foster on AutoAdmit, which I originally described in a letter to law professor Eugene Volokh years ago. My letter endorsed the freedom to discuss controversial topics, but it was clearly not an endorsement of intrusion into people’s private lives.

I expect some to accuse me of inconsistency at this point. As some of you may know, I am not a law student. However, as the son of a lawyer, I appreciate the inherent value in formulating clear rules and maintaining consistent policies, and I have always strived for consistency in my approach to moderating AutoAdmit. But much of what some label “inconsistency” or “selective moderation” can be explained away merely as honest disagreement.

For instance, when I asked the AutoAdmit community for input on a revised anti-outing policy in late February, the community could not reach a consensus as to where to draw the line between private individuals and those who have invited public attention. Similarly, many people will disagree as to whether a particular statement actually constitutes character assassination or malice. Two people reaching different conclusions on an issue is not evidence of inconsistency -it’s just evidence that people interpret these concepts differently.

That said, there is a real problem here: some employers do use the internet to dig up potential dirt on their prospective hires during the interview process. I disagree with this practice, and I do not engage in it when I interview employees at my insurance brokerage. Unfortunately, recent research indicates that I am among the minority of employers in that regard. What I see is a social problem emerging that extends far beyond the scope of AutoAdmit.

The solution to this problem, however, is not to bully individual web service providers at every level with cease and desist letters when someone publishes something one finds objectionable. Although I have removed content numerous times when people have asked nicely, I have never, under any circumstances, removed content after being threatened. At some point, many web operators will simply refuse to cooperate with bullies, just like I have done. Most often, there is little recourse for individuals beyond this, because such complaints are usually in regard to content that may be hurtful but not legally actionable. And if web operators were required to summarily comply with such demands, the entire nature of the web would be altered in a very bad way. It’s an irreconcilable slippery slope, and I believe it will become an increasingly unmanageable approach as time goes on.

I have heard the opinion expressed that people ought to grow a tougher skin and just learn to accept the fact that we live in a world full of mudslinging and vitriol. I think this is good advice for anyone going through life, but there is no way around the fact that sometimes, words and ideas can be damaging, no matter how tough one is. The question is how to minimize the effect of hurtful speech without compromising the Internet’s virtue of free expression.

Now, consider the fact that virtually all of the complaints and concerns about content on AutoAdmit revolve around the ramifications in Google searches.

One possible solution to this problem is in lobbying Google to allow individuals to attach responses to Google search results for their name. This would allow for private citizens, upon verifying their identities and perhaps signing an affidavit, to appeal to Google in a streamlined fashion and provide explanations for prospective employers, dates, and other interested parties for search results that they believe are damaging to their reputations.

In fact one company, Naymz.com, provides a similar service that gives individuals the opportunity to purchase free Google AdWords ads with their own name as a keyword, ensuring that at least one “good” link will appear on the first page of Google results. By responding to bad speech with more speech, one circumvents the clash of egos and the legitimate slippery slope concern that would worry any conscientious web operator. Michael Fertik’s “letter-writing campaign” becomes largely unnecessary. The private individual, then, is empowered to deal directly with the mechanism that they believe is giving employers and others in their lives a negative impression.

I understand that some will accuse me of trying to “pass the buck” to Google. I concede that my role is not terribly different than Google’s in the respect that I maintain a system that does not publish but, more accurately, republishes third-party content on its own domain. And by no means am I suggesting that Google has done anything wrong. But unlike AutoAdmit, I believe Google possesses the resources, the web search hegemony, the social influence, and the relatively uncontested objectivity that would enable it to more successfully manage such a system.

Of course then, I suppose, nobody would need ReputationDefender anymore.

Jarret Cohen is the owner and administrator of AutoAdmit.com.

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