Tuesday, March 27, 2007

'Blog death threats spark debate'

Helen, one of the blog readers has kindly sent me a link to this BBC story about a respected female blogger who has been the victim of death threats. ( Death threats against bloggers are not protected speech)'. The blogger in question is Kathy Sierra, of the tech-blog ' Creating Passionate Users'. Many of the threats and abuse she recieved are too explicit for me to want to reprint them here, since my mother reads this blog, but they included:

'f**k off you boring slut... i hope someone slits your throat and c*ms down your gob'.

And worse.

A few bloggers in the US have remarked that this furore and re-opening of the 'blogging code of conduct' discussion is 'not good for free speech', well, no, it isn't, but this is not 'free speech'. Free speech, famously, does not extend to shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre. Free speech does not include threatening, defaming, libelling, stalking, bullying, and abusing other people, any more than 'freedom of expression' extends to slapping someone's face, or 'free love' extends to drugging and raping someone because you fancy them.

Helen says: 'Free speech? Well, when we talk about 'freedom' we have to be careful to be clear about whether we mean 'freedom from' or 'freedom to', but in this case it seems fairly plain that someone simply airing their views on a public blog (and isn't she American, freedom of speech, etc) should not have to suffer death threats. If what she says is litigious, then use the damn law. If not, and you don't like it, start your own blog. But violence - and/or the threat of - is not acceptable, full stop'. Quite.

I agree that people can publish what they like - as long as it is lawful - but I've also said that as a blogger I don't have any obligation to host nasty comments on my personal blog. And there is a line which can be crossed where cyber-communication and free speech can become abuse and harassment, and quickly run foul of the law.

Just because it is the internet, doesn't mean it's not 'malicious communications' or harrassment - hate email and threatening anonymous comments are no different in law to posted hatemail and anonymous threatening phone calls.

As in... I have a letter box in the front door of my flat. I am able, and happy to recieve mail sent to my address. But simply having a working letter box does not mean I consent to having dog poo posted through my mail box, or a stream of poison pen letters plopping onto my door mat on a daily basis. Anyone does that to you, you go to the police a.s.a.p.

Similarly, I am all for people freely expressing themselves, but if someone decided to go about my town posting up flyers that falsely and publicly claimed I was a malicious criminal, a sick liar, an abuser and in dire need of urgent psychiatric assistance, I would first ask them to stop, and if they did not stop, report it, and take legal action.

If someone went to the police and made a malicious false complaint about me, I would contact the police immediately to explain and prove why it was false and make a complaint myself. And so on.

And if I got the sort of death threats and threats of sexual violence that Kathy Sierra has been getting I, too, would be afraid to leave my house and would cancel public speaking engagements.
If the abuse was published or distributed or sent electronically, it would make no damn difference at all. It would still be abuse. And there are laws to protect people from this sort of thing. Happily, the US police have launched an investigation into Kathy Sierra's case, and many bloggers are coming out in support.

But it still makes me sigh. I have touched on this issue before, in a post about bullying and blogging, and have recently temporarily turned off the anonymous comment facility to stop trolling, since there seems to be something about having anonymity that encourages stupid abuse to spew forth from some troubled souls. This latest tale is particularly grim though, and what is really creepy is the misogynistic and extreme nature of the violent threats. Kathy Sierra is highly successful as a technology writer in what's traditionally a 'man's world' - and jealousy is often at the heart of such attacks. The abuse here is clearly sent by men - or boys - and is graphically, violently sexual. It's had a horrible impact on her life - she has cancelled her appearance at a conference and writes that she is 'afraid to leave her yard'. However, despite this, she says

'I would never be for censoring speech--these people can say all the misogynistic, vile, tasteless things they like-but we must preserve that line where words and images become threats of violence. Freedom of speech--however distasteful and rude the speech may be, is crucial. But when those words contain threats of harm or death, they can destroy a life.'

There was something about this on the Guardian's Comment is Free site, though I can't find it anymore, about why women writers seem to get torrents of vile hatemail. CIF is less of a zoo these days, though flame wars still break out. (However, more and more CIF site users now seem to 'get' that disagreement is more powerful when expressed via a smart riposte than a personal insult. I've hit keyboards in anger, I guess all of us have, but the level of vitriol displayed a by a few on the internet can be truly frightening, especially when a personality disorder meets a broadband connection.)

Indigo Jo picked up on the subject a while back and quoted Maureen Dowd of The New York Times discussing reactions to female opinion in her column last year.

"While a man writing a column taking on the powerful may be seen as authoritative, a woman doing the same thing may be seen as castrating." She went on to say she called Alan Dundes, a renowned folklorist, to ask about it. "Women are supposed to take it, not dish it out," Dundes told her.

See also 'Female pundits could use help with hate mail'.

'I believe women can take the heat of opinion journalism as well as any man; the problem is that the heat we take and the reasons why are very different.'

And that comment, in the twenty first century, when words can be freely published and ideas move across continents at the speed of thought, when we can write without boundaries or borders (or genders), and publish and share the sum of human knowledge and experience for the sheer interest and pleasure of it on this marvellous medium of the world wide web - is very sad indeed.

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Blogger Sir Francis Walsingham said...

All very true.

Antonia Frasers book on women rulers noted the way in which powerful women were described by their opponents - shrill, aggressive, mad etc....

Have to dig out my copy again - what was it called?

March 27, 2007 9:25 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Probably something like'Monstrous Regiment', I'd guess.

March 28, 2007 11:48 am  
Blogger kris said...

it's the explicit misogyny in the 21st century that amazes me.

I am happy to have someone said I'm talking bollocks- and accuse others of it as well- but you can't help but notice wannabe bullies target women by going right to it with some of the stuff Ms Sierra has had hurled at her.

I think repeated publishing of this crap just gives these idiots the oxygen they crave.

March 28, 2007 12:30 pm  
Blogger silver_flight said...

It's ironic, really, that people who defend this kind of crap cite 'free speech', since more often than not the main purpose of threats and abuse are aimed at preventing someone expressing their point of view... Or am I missing something here?

March 30, 2007 11:16 am  

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