ISPs Should Lead in Curbing Internet Defamation

By  |  Friday, April 10, 2009 at 1:27 pm

writingA friend once said to me, “the internet is good for two things: slander and porn.” For those who have been the target of electronic harassment and bullying, that sentiment could not ring truer.

Too often, individuals and groups on the Internet abuse the free flow of thoughts that is the promise of the Web to turn around and attack or demean others. Oftentimes, those affected can do little to protect themselves, and find themselves on the short end of the stick.

Why does this occur? Simply put, the US has made it easy for ISPs to skirt any responsibility when it comes to what is posted on their servers. Thus some providers will turn a blind eye when a victim comes a-complaining.

It’s a shame. Take for example Google: they will only remove information when it contains personal or copyrighted data, but it is quite difficult to get them to act otherwise. While I can understand Google’s position not to get involved, in the same token most times its pretty easy to discern a malicious site from a legitimate one.

These sites will often abuse Google’s ranking algorithms to gain higher prominence in results — such as the good ‘ol Googlebomb — which is hit or miss as whether the search giant will deal with it.

Other ISPs will provide lip service to the fact that they’ll deal with this type of content, then dance around the fact when you contact them. I’ve had slanderous content written about me, and I’ve contacted the ISP whose servers hosted the content in an attempt to hold them to their policies.

What I found was a “pass the buck” mentality. This particular ISP said that since they were only leasing an IP from them, their terms of use did not apply. Strange: the traffic is still passing through you, so why would you not enforce your own policies?

Kind of like saying, “oh, this website that uses one of our IPs is a piracy site which we specifically prohibit, but we’ll let them go since they aren’t on one of our servers.” Yeah, I think the RIAA or MPAA would buy that one!

In the end, why are we so powerless against defamation in many cases? It’s all thanks to Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act, basically. That reads:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Essentially, ISPs don’t have to do anything, thanks to this clause. In our effort to protect the rights of everyone, we’re indirectly protecting hurtful speech as well. That’s just great.

Other countries have begun to clamp down on online defamation. For example, in Canada, the courts are now increasingly more apt to compel websites to reveal the identities of anonymous posters when defamation is involved.

These same countries are also beginning to force ISPs to identify who’s behind websites that are defamatory.  While I am a strong supporter of staying anonymous in most cases (journalism depends heavily on those types of sources), when its for malicious purposes, you shouldn’t be getting any protection.

While I am not saying the ISP should tell the defamed who’s writing about them without the courts, the threat of disclosure may stop many from writing purposely hurtful missives about their victims.

Neither am I coming at this solely because this has happened to me. I’ve always been kind of disturbed by the fact that a lot of speech that people couldn’t get away with in real life seems to be free game on the Web. It doesn’t make sense.

It is a First Amendment right to be able to say what you want. So I can understand some people’s wariness of control over what people say.  But can’t those of us who are subject to the malicious words of others get some relief?

What’s so wrong with dealing with stuff like this out of a court room, that’s what I want to know?



13 Comments For This Post

  1. ted Says:

    Dumb idea. ISPs are in the business to make money, not be the internet’s nanny. They will do what they did when a couple of newsgroups were used for child porn … shut it all down. The costs of trying to stay ahead of litigation will be too high to do anything else.

  2. Ed Oswald Says:

    True, and I agree. But at the same time, should they turn a blind eye to those who use their services for malicious purposes? I don’t think it is such a big problem that they could not deal with it.

  3. corberlaw Says:

    Should the telephone company be held liable if you defame someone in a phone call? Should the USPS be held liable if you defame someone in a letter sent by snail mail? The first amendment isn’t there just to protect nice speech. Do you want the free flow of ideas or don’t you? If you do this is one of the prices you pay for free speech. Otherwise, burn the constitution and stop the charade.

  4. Vox Says:

    Never mind it being a dumb idea because the ISPs are into it for the money and not to be nannys….it’s a dumb idea because if we can censor hate speech, we can censor any kind of speech at all…and censorship is not only immoral, it’s also stupid…just like the Prohibition, all it’ll do is generate a harder us v. them mentality that’ll end up in bad things, the really bad things, like we’ve seen in every single dictatorship in history.

    So…F censorship.

  5. Ed Oswald Says:

    Corber: I am not saying hold the ISP/host liable. But if their services are being used for malicious purposes, then dont you think they should be proactive and put a stop to it.

    I am as big a defender of free speech as anybody else. But at the same time, people shouldn’t be free to bully others or post personal or untrue information in an attempt to hurt someone.

    The US is actually one of the few countries that don’t put pressure on ISPs to keep obscene/defamous/suspicious content off their servers…

  6. Vox Says:

    Speech is either free or it is controlled…there’s no middle ground…you are either pregnant or not.

    I believe in free speech.

  7. Brock Says:


    No, you’re not as big a defender of free speech as anyone. I’m sorry that you’ve been attacked or defamed, but free speech is free speech. The courts provide the proper mechanism by which the very limited exceptions to free speech can be prosecuted. I hate “slippery slope” arguments, but there’s not much of a slope when it comes to free speech — it’s a very sharp cliff. Once ISPs start to regulate speech using their own disparate standards, you get to exactly what’s going on in Europe — your pointing to that situation is the best piece of evidence one can give against your own argument.

    Note that I am not saying that ISPs are legally required to allow free speech, which some people who have no understanding of constitutional law attempt to incorrectly argue. I’m simply saying that if it happens (once it happens?), the Internet will decrease exponentially in value in one fell swoop. It will no longer be a free and open Internet. It will be fatally flawed forevermore.

  8. Ed Oswald Says:

    But where does free speech begin and end? Is there a different standard for offline speech as there is for online speech? There definitely appears to be. Would you disagree that a much lower standard exists for what people can’t say online?

  9. Brock Says:

    Why would there be a different standard? What makes you think that there definitely appears to be? The legal standard for libel on non-public persons is actually quite low. The internet certainly makes libel easier to publish, but it doesn’t make it more difficult to prosecute…

  10. Ed Oswald Says:

    I agree with just about everything you are saying except the last statement. Current laws make it rather hard for Internet defamation to prosecute. ISPs are not mandated to identify the source of anonymous postings to anyone, including lawyers.

    This is why at first it was so difficult to prosecute P2P, because the laws prevented it. It took court action to eventually get the judges to cave and start compelling ISPs to release identifiable information.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    It’s unrealistic to expect ISPs to be more proactive in taking down defamation. For one thing, defamation is a nebulous term. The ISPs can’t be expected to know where to draw the line. It’s best left to the courts to decide what is and isn’t defamation. To require the ISP to take down content every time someone cries defamation is to cater to the lowest common denominator and make the ISP the judge, jury, and executioner. As the person that handles this kind of stuff for an ISP, that’s not a role I want. I know from experience that people will cry defamation for anything and everything.

  12. Victim Says:

    What SHOULD be done is to make it EASIER for people to file a suit against someone who defames them online – WITHOUT A LAWYER (most people do NOT have that sort of money). Like a Small Claim. Then they have to appear with HARD PROOFS before a judge. Not their “word” – proof! If it’s a lie – it comes down with a legal order – and the defamer has to pay restitution – even if it includes THERAPEUTIC COUNSELING as well as post a FULL RETRACTION and WHY THEY DID IT. If it is very bad – it can be referred to a higher court for jail time, etc. or the FBI if it is outright threats.

    If defamers knew they’d be forced to BACK UP their slander & smear and possibly pay a price or do time? They’d think twice about it. Right now they figure he/she doesn’t have the money for a lawyer and I feel anonymous behind a computer so who cares.

    Accountability. The IPs can’t police the net. The courts however, can.

  13. Prince K Says:

    It’s too expensive to sue, and the courts are incompetent with the internet. Most judges don’t know about computers. A googlebomb is not free speech. A googlebomb was invented by terrorists to manipulate algorithms and exert control on search engine results. Manipulating algorithms is not free speech.It is just doing math, not free speech. If search engine manipulation and googlebombing became a punishable offense if it was made to defame someone with negative postings or destroy a competitor with unfair practices such as search engine manipulation with defamatory, negative comments in order to make the business lose income, then when people start doing jail time for this and paying fines, things will improve in this lousy economy. Our lousy economy is directly connected to the fact that one elite group of ISP’s like Bill Gates, the EFF, and AOL and Wikipedia get to collect big donations, jet set around the world living the high life and not be held accountable for what goes on while they just collect the money at everyone else’s expense because they are “immune from liability for postings created by others.” We have a Congress that made and passed that law. So they could have modified it to say only porn and they are immune, but that would have been too easy. They passed the law so that they could make a group of haves and have nots. It has nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with manipulating search engines. If the defamatory stuff was at the way back end of the search, no one would care. The Congress made the law so that the defamatory stuff would appear at the front end and so that the Congressmen and their wives get the 750,000 and 250,000 per year pensions while the rest of the poor slobs who elected them get to live off social security and be abused, humiliated and even threatened or killed on the internet. The judge should let Megan Meier’s mom decide how long to sentence Lori Drew. After all, Megan’s mom has a LIFE SENTENCE without her daughter. If it were made a crime to create a fake person to defame or harass or humiliate somebody, it would lose its attraction to the weirdos,sicko, fatsos, ugly,stupid jerkoffs who spend their time writing defamatory articles on the internet, sometimes for pay.