Can we control "cyber-cesspools"?

Blogs, chatrooms and comment pages are the perfect locations in cyberspace for those who wish to demean, harrass, and humiliate individuals. Hate speech has always been a problem for defenders of extensive liberty of expression, but the Internet provides open platforms, the cloak of anonymity, and Google-enhanced discoverability: a heady mix for any would-be vilifier.

Where once the foul thoughts of non-entities would fester in the obscurity of private diaries and ephemeral hand-printed flyers, today they can climb the Google rankings aided by the hidden hand of its impersonal algorithms. What floats to the surface via a search isn’t necessarily pleasant, and individuals are often powerless to take action against the taint of personal abuse.

The philosopher Brian Leiter has coined the term “cyber-cesspools” to describe these repositories of abuse. He argues in his contribution to The Offensive Internet (eds. Saul Levmore and Martha D Nussbaum) that US Constitutional law recognises limits to “low-value” speech, and penalises defamation in other contexts, yet fear of over-zealous self-censorship by website owners has discouraged extension of legal prohibitions into the virtual world.

What is special about Internet cyber-speech, he points out, is that it tends to be permanent, divorced from context, and available to anyone. The harms this can cause are real. His solution is to require Google to set up a panel of neutral arbitrators to investigate the claims of private individuals that they are being harmed by the search returns, and then to delist, offer the abused a right to reply, or require the site’s proprietor to offer evidence that neither course of action is merited.

Leiter’s identification of the problem is important, and his analysis of causes sound, but any solution should provide a better situation than the status quo. In many real cases the difficulty of sifting through vile abuse and counter-abuse, would make mucking out the Augean stables an attractive alternative. Who in their right minds would ever take on such a role? And as Leiter himself discovered, attempts to control cyber-cess often generate new and larger pools of abuse. Internet pollution won’t be going away soon, I fear. Perhaps our best hope is to develop greater tolerance.