There's a major controversy that's been brewing at the law school forums at AutoAdmit (also known as Xoxoth). One of the forum posters involved in this scandal is AK-47, who used profane language to describe the intimate lives of women who were attending the top law schools in America in 2007. Some of these posts were so vile that they caused a national debate over the anonymity that people usually have while online.
Here's a sample of the language used by AutoAdmit forum poster AK-47: “Women named Jill and Hillary should be raped.”
Now these two female law student-lawyers from Yale Law School have discovered AK-47's true identity along with the names of other AutoAdmit.com forum posters. These posters now face the possibility of their names being published in court records which could spell the downfall of their law careers long before they ever start.
This coming out of the true identities of the forum posters is a rare mark in a world where being anonymous is the name of the game. Yet over a year since the lawsuit was filed nothing much else has been resolved, and the controversies surrounding the case have only increased. The original women that filed the suit have since gone silent, with two also being sued themselves. Experts are now wondering if there is any point to continuing with the case.
“You have good lawyers putting their time in on the case, and in a policy sense, they are achieving something.” Said Ann Bartow, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. “But in a victim sense — assuming you think of the women as victims — it's not clear what this is going to achieve.”
Behind the Scenes of the AutoAdmit Controversy
The controversy surrounding AutoAdmit began even before one of the women started classes in late 2005. She was told in the summer that a thread existed on AutoAdmit that was titled “Stupid Bitch to Attend Law School.” The thread also included posts stating “I think I will sodomize her repeatedly” and a reply post claiming “she has herpes.” The second woman was attacked in a similar fashion beginning in January of 2007.
Before the incident became public both women contacted the admin of AutoAdmit to remove the offending threads, but then the story hit the front page of The Washington Post and became very public. Soon after, both students with the help of Stanford and Yale professors filed a lawsuit in June 2007 seeking restitution in the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Both plaintiffs contend that the thread made about them ended up on the first page of search engines sullying their names which cost them prestigious jobs and affected their relationships and social lives.
“We have never had such a way to lie and distort facts about people — to spread lies and distortions in a way that is attached to them,” says Bartow. “And you can game it to come up on the front page of Google.”
Your Online Reputation: Is It at Risk?
Ms. Bartow believes that the problem lies in the fact that technology has outstripped the law. Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University has been thinking about the issue long enough to have written a book entitled “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet“.
“The internet isn't a radical-free zone where you can hurt people. But on the other hand, we can't have everyone rushing to the court, because the court is a blunt tool,” states Solove. “We need something to help shape norms — there needs to be some kind of push back against the notion that the internet is a place where you can say what you want and screw the consequences. That's not what free speech is about.”
Since libel lawsuits are usually about someone clearing their name, Mr. Solove laments the lost art of the duel, which is described by him to be an elaborate nonjudicial way of people settling disputes that most of the time never got to the shooting phase.
“We don't have any middle-ground dispute resolution processes in society anymore, and courts aren't a good way to vindicate these non-monetary harms,” Solove says. “I think we need something else.”
An idea that has been gaining a lot of support lately would be DMCA-like legislation enabling victims of slander to issue a take-down notice with the site owner, or hosting company. If the served complies with such an order they would then be immune to any resulting legal action.
But there are flaws with that system as well, as false DMCA notices have been used by numerous people and entities, such as the Pentagon, in order to remove content from YouTube.
The acting director of the Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley, Jason Schultz, states that it would be a gross mistake to use such acts to limit controversial speech online.
“I think you run the risk of too much take-down,” Schultz says. “I think you need procedural hurdles in place since we are talking about a constitutional right.”
Even relying on current liability law, the AutoAdmit case has trod on dangerous ground.
The AutoAdmit Forum Administrator Anthony Ciolli: What's the Future?
Lawyers of the two women originally named one of the administrators of AutoAdmit.com, Anthony Ciolli, who was at the time a third-year law student, as a defendant — even though Congress has intentionally covered electronic service providers from being responsible for what their users post online.
Mr. Ciolli's former lawyer, Marc Randazza, says that Ciolli never participated in any of the offending threads, and was only ever named in order to gain leverage in an effort to change how vile material was handled at AutoAdmit.
“As an attorney, I found it really offensive that Ciolli was being held hostage to these people's demands on a third party,” says Randazza.
Mr. Solove is not so sympathetic.
“Part of reason people were so upset with Anthony Ciolli was that they believe he stuck to his guns and defended things on free speech grounds,” Solove says. “People want to see some sort of contriteness.”
After a number of months the two women who originally filed the lawsuit dropped Anthony Ciolli from the suit. That act did not completely satisfy Ciolli though, who in return filed his own lawsuit in March of 2008 claiming that the women and their lawyers improperly listed him in the lawsuit.
In January a federal judge ruled that the attorneys would be able to serve subpoenas to the ISPs and webmail providers. Now using that power the lawyers have discovered the identities of some, but not all of the offending posters.
They are now asking the judge to give them some additional time to try and ascertain the identities of the rest of the defendants who are currently being sued under the handles they used for posting on AutoAdmit.com, including PaulieWalnuts, Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey, The Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rollah, Patrick Bateman and HitlerHitlerHitler.