Think you're anonymous? Watch out.

An update on the lawsuit filed by two female law students for online anonymous attacks about their looks, their smarts, and graphic comments about what the harassers would like to do to them.


Catherine Price
November 10, 2007 5:43AM (UTC)

Back in March we wrote about an online discussion forum called AutoAdmit that advertises itself as "the most prestigious college discussion board in the world." According to the Washington Post, this "prestigious" discussion board also included threatening, sexist, racist and homophobic comments -- including strings of online attacks against two female law students who found out from friends that AutoAdmit users, often writing anonymously, had posted messages that included photographs gleaned from social networking sites, comments about the students' physical appearances, slurs about their supposed sexual promiscuity, and rape threats. The students, one of whom is a Yale Law student who graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa, were not only personally distressed by these anonymous attacks but also worried that the postings were harming their professional reputation and making it harder to get jobs.

Anyway, in June two of the women attacked on the site filed a lawsuit against the commenters -- along with Anthony Ciolli, a former administrator of the site (AutoAdmit's administrators refused the women's requests to have the offensive posts taken down). According to this blog post from the Wall Street Journal, many legal experts were surprised that Ciolli was named in the suit to begin with, since "the law was clear on protecting site administrators from lawsuits over content posted by a site's users." That's probably why, as the Journal reports, Ciolli's name was dropped from the complaint. (But, as the Journal points out, his absence was made up for by the addition of 11 new pseudonyms -- which now total 39, and include monikers like "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey" and "hitlerhitlerhitler.")

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I bring this up for two reasons: First, the Post article from March doesn't really make clear how horrible the comments on the AutoAdmit threads were. If you read the actual complaint (posted here by the Journal) you'll see that the women -- named DOE I and DOE II in an attempt to protect them from further harassment -- were subjected to statements like "Clearly she deserves to be raped so that her little fantasy world can be shattered by real life" and "I would like to hate-fuck [DOE I] but since people say she has herpes this might be a bad idea" (that second one was posted to a thread called "Which female YLS students would you sodomize?").

Please note that neither plaintiff knows who these commenters were; nor did they participate actively in AutoAdmit's community -- they found out about these postings from friends.

I continue to find it horrifying how many people seem to view the anonymity of the Web as an invitation to let loose with their vilest, most hate-filled selves. It makes me question people's inner nature -- sure, that guy at the gym seemed nice, but when he goes home, does he write things like "I wish to rape [DOE I] and [DOE II] in the ass"?

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Reading over the lawsuit also left me with a practical question: Now that Ciolli's name has been dropped, who exactly can the lawyers go after? It's a question that extends beyond this case -- I mean, having defendants with names like "Ugly Women" and "pauliewalnuts" is ridiculous enough, but it also presents the obvious challenge of how you're supposed to prosecute them. Someone who identifies him- or herself simply as "Spanky" isn't likely to provide a home address.

But I have good news for anyone wondering the same thing. I called up Keker & Van Nest, the law firm representing the two women, and spoke to one of the attorneys involved. He declined to comment specifically on this case, since he doesn't like to comment on pending litigation (and besides, why let these trolls know about how you can find them?). But when I asked him whether it was possible to track someone down purely from a pseudonym, he assured me that yes, yes it was. I asked him to keep me updated on the status of this case, so look for more updates in the future, but for the moment, let's just put it this way: Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey should be worried.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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