April 23, 2007

Both Cyber Bully and Victim

by PG

In response to the tempest over its own unauthorized editing of Anthony Ciolli's author note, YLJ's Pocket Part is turning lemons into lemonade -- i.e., criticism into publishable scholarship: "The Yale Law Journal Pocket Part is soliciting essays and commentaries on the role of law, policy, and extralegal tactics in regulating instances of cyber bullying, including defamatory 'Google bombing.' How, if at all, should regulatory schemes address providers of information who make no endorsement of the information’s content?"

Ciolli himself seems to have a slightly fuzzy idea of what constitutes both "defamation" and a disprovable "statement of fact." [1] He declares, "Defamation has a very clear legal meaning and most (if not all) of the posts in question, while offensive and in bad taste, are not defamatory. 'Stupid B---- to Attend Yale Law,' for instance, is clearly an opinion and not a statement of fact. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the statements that could be construed as statements of fact, like the allegation that the girl in that thread has a 159 LSAT, are actually false." Omitted by Ciolli is the fact that the thread also alleged that the young woman in question had STDs.

But his phrasing of the legal standard for defamation is backwards -- truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim, but (to my knowledge) the plaintiff need not first prove that the statement is false. The plaintiff can sue over the statement she had STDs at the time of the posting, and she need not provide a medical report from the time showing her to be free of genital warts and herpes. If the defendant can prove that the plaintiff did have a 159 LSAT and an STD at the time of the posting, then he is clear and probably could get costs due to the plaintiff's having sued in the knowledge that she had not been defamed. That Ciolli has his standard inverted would be quickly apparent should the Xoxohthian making the defamatory statements be sued, and he fail to show up in court -- having failed to mount any defense, including one of truth, he likely would be found at fault and the plaintiff could win absurd damages, without having proven the Xoxohthian's statements to be false.

Whether AutoAdmit could be a heavily trafficked forum without including a great number of objectionable posts has been dealt with by people like Heidi Bond, so I won't rehash the point except to concede that yes, there's no way to have half a million unique visitors each month and not have someone calling another poster a "f@g."

However, AutoAdmit's owners/ administrators [2] appear to abhor any measure that would lessen their ability to attract the largest audience and greatest number of participants, no matter what the participants are writing or the audience reading. Even in his half-hearted attempts to characterize the Washington Post article as having gotten the facts wrong -- given AutoAdmit's Google power, I'd advise him to post a complete refutation there [3] -- Jarret Cohen never clearly denies that the people who have been named and even had their photos and contact information posted on AutoAdmit initially requested that he edit or delete those threads. Instead, his zeal for privacy [4] is reserved for those in his "community":

Cohen, in a separate interview, said he will not "selectively remove" offensive comments, and that when he has attempted to do so, he was threatened with litigation for "perceived inconsistencies." ...
The two men said that some of the women who complain of being ridiculed on AutoAdmit invite attention by, for example, posting their photographs on other social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace.
Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them."
You read that correctly: Cohen's community should not have to worry that their own voluntary actions will make them Google-findable by employers, but to hell with those who are involuntarily made Googleable by that community and who want to be able to track those harassers down. There is a stated "anti-outing" policy on AutoAdmit that prohibits users from connecting pseudonyms with the people behind them, and Cohen will delete posts in which one person says something like, "Hey, I know who made that comment about one of our classmates, he was sitting in front of me in class and I saw him entering a comment on this site at the time this went up -- it's John Smith." Pity that Cohen stopped keeping identifying information on users right after he used such data to mock Brian Leiter.

I am not among those who advocate for attempting to file some sort of ethics complaint against Ciolli or otherwise obstructing his future career [edited]. His mistakes were mainly those of overconfidence; as a very bright young man who racked up multiple academic degrees (Cornell, Harvard, Queen College) and publications (Penn JILP, MIT's MiT) at an early age, he seems to have underestimated the current counterforces to communities that harbor and enable angry males. Given that Cohen is attracting complaints even from other countries, Ciolli is stepping away just in time and hopefully not too late.

RANDOMLY: Bicoastalcurious accurately assesses the pre-21 PG on the drink, if not the school. Is Columbia the amaretto sour of legal education -- using proper ingredients to make something that tastes like candy?

[1] For example, his article says that "no one reads the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law from cover to cover." It makes this claim as a statement of fact, albeit one with no citations, in the same way one might say the sky is blue. Is this defamatory of the Journal? Given that he doesn't posit a lack of cover-to-cover readership as clearly negative, I don't think it has sufficient potential to harm reputation, but I bet that I could find someone (probably a CLS faculty member or alumnus of the Journal) whose reading of CJGL would falsify Ciolli's statement, thus satisfying that prong of defamation.

[2] Ciolli has been distancing himself incrementally from AutoAdmit since it started catching flak from more significant people than Brian Leiter, and capped it with last month's "resignation" from his former position as Chief Education Director. However, I am not clear on what this move entails. Ciolli's Education Directing produced two working papers, one by himself and one by Aaron Chalfin (who, though his author note describes him as "an unemployed individual with too much time on his hands," and a recent dropout of Georgetown Law, currently is putting his master's in economics to good use at the Urban Institute). If that's all Ciolli ever has done for the site, then Jarret Cohen appears to be using him as the academically prestigious face for the business, and Ciolli has made a mistake by wading into AutoAdmit's public battles when he repeatedly has said that he exercises no control over the site. He's been thoroughly tarred with Cohen's brush, and Cohen's been made to look both stupid and, far more fatally, hypocritical for protecting the anonymity of those who harass yet refusing to help those who are named by the harassers.

[3] The nearest thing I could find on AutoAdmit to a defense of Cohen's actions and inactions was this statement, which focuses almost exclusively on Reputation Defender and claims that RD actually has caused much greater harm to its clients than Cohen's forum ever did. I am a little confused as to how this is true, given that at least one person retaining RD's services has successfully pushed AutoAdmit's intensely negative threads about her to the second Google search page. Cohen never makes explicit what harm has been caused to RD's clients that did not already exist. Indeed, he rather implies that RD's clients have become unfortunate individuals being taken advantage of only now that they are RD's clients. By going on Good Morning America and otherwise publicizing their plight, the clients are being tragically exploited by RD, which is evilly using them for its own ends. No way can these little girls be making their own decisions to stop taking whatever Cohen's community chooses to dish out. But prior to retaining RD's services, they were people who, if they were very polite, might deserve Cohen's help:

2) I will resume removing specific threads for individuals who contact me directly and in a professional manner, without threatening litigation, subject to my discretion as always. I will make more of an effort to check my e-mail and not let people slip through the cracks. This, of course, means I will begin with the individuals at hand.

3) Specifically, I will remove threads on Brittan Heller if she apologizes to me (in private) for hinting that she would resort to litigation in her very first e-mail to me two years ago, and later enlisting Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Texas Law School ... to wage a failed harassment and defamation campaign against me and Anthony Ciolli on her behalf. [According to Prof. Leiter, Ms. Heller did not retain him as counsel.] This is the main reason this has dragged on for two years, Ms. Heller, and I'm sorry that it wasn't resolved before you resorted to working against me by proxy.

In other words, Cohen is pissed off that Ms. Heller dared to a) refer to litigation as an option, b) talk to other people who were annoyed by Cohen, and c) having found her own efforts useless, "resort to working against [him] by proxy." Judging by this attitude of self-righteous indignation in the face of another person's pain, Cohen feels no inherent sense of ethical obligation to respond to people who are upset to find themselves described in the fashion that Ms. Heller has been, especially if those people committed the terrible error of hinting that they could do more than supplicate to him, that they might have their own legal, social or economic power. (Incidentally, have any of the people at whose request Cohen claims to have edited threads come forward to defend him? They needn't fear that doing so will create Google problems, given that the threads supposedly are gone; a simple quote like, Jane Doe, who asked Cohen to take down a thread, says she found him to be helpful in doing so might go a long way to rehabilitating Cohen's current image as an cheerleader for cowardly, anonymous bullies.)

Moreover, note that if the WaPost article is correct, threats of litigation by AutoAdmit posters apparently are reason for Cohen not to take down their threads, but threats of litigation by the subjects of the posts are reason for Cohen not to take down those threads as well. I am not sure why Cohen must stand bravely against the lawyers when it comes to the victims of harassment but not the perpetrators.

No mention is made in Cohen's letter of the posts that remain about other women, and that are very easily found once one begins delving into the controversy. Nor, in his proposal for having harassment victims buy Google Adwords to counter negative Google bombing, or for having such people go through a lengthy process "to attach responses to Google search results for their name [that would] provide explanations for prospective employers, dates, and other interested parties for search results that they believe are damaging to their reputations," does it seem to occur to Cohen that he could do the same for AutoAdmit. If he's found Ms. Heller or any other person to be insufficiently polite and submissive in her request to have a thread edited, why not offer her the option to have a reply posted at the top of the screen on which the thread appears? Why put the burden on Google instead of individual site operators?

Cohen also seems to be a bright young man, but I'm less inclined to cut him slack given his "they asked for it" attitude about the women victimized on his website. Those comments are simply appalling: the bit about women daring to use Facebook and MySpace and thus inviting attention (and lengthen those skirts, ladies, lest you drive the menfolk to rape!); and the policy of definitely not taking down any thread if the woman makes her request in anything other than a purely begging-for-a-favor tone. I'm not going to speculate what's going on in Cohen's head that causes him to say such things; he's 23 and it's mean to apply feminist analysis to someone who started high school the same year I graduated. Let's keep it at the Cosmo level: He's a guy, hanging with his boys on his message board, and hopefully this episode will expose him to perspectives other than those of his most prestigious community.

[4] Invasion of privacy, whether through "false light" or publication of private facts, is another tort claim option for those displeased to have their names, e-mails, photographs, habits and (erroneous) personal information publicized by AutoAdmit users, as long as the wannabe plaintiffs are not designated as "public figures."

FINAL NOTE TACKED ON AT THE END: I started this post meaning to write about how we all can become both bullies and victims once we have an online presence, and originally was going to refer to AutoAdmit only to provide an example of someone's making a semi-defamatory (not quite a statement of fact because phrased as "bet") remark about me, to compare with my own negative comments about another person's website. But the much-noted trainwreck aspect of AutoAdmit drew in me, too.

April 23, 2007 01:21 PM | TrackBack

Thoughtful article, but don't you think it's probably a bit unrealistic to expect thousands and thousands of webmasters to implement a satisfactory "reputation protection" mechanism?

I notice you throw the word "harassment" around in a very loose fashion. Unfortunately, in practice, such terms are always being pushed to its limits. I even get requests from people who, short of being personally identified, are simply offended by what they perceive as vile language or distasteful remarks. I have learned to avoid slippery slopes, which means I have made a policy to avoid moderation as much as possible.

Generally speaking, those who are discussed on the website usually invite attention, whether by posting pictures on MySpace or by being the subject of an article somewhere else on the Internet. Just as I have gotten your attention through my involvement with my website, such people gain the attention of forum posters or bloggers. The Internet is a giant pool of people (often nasty people) voicing their opinions. And often, the simple fact is that opinions that may be ugly are not legally actionable. To attempt to draw the line is where the slippery slope comes into play.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 24, 2007 02:39 PM

Mr. Cohen,

Thanks for your comment. Given that webmasters seem to be moving toward an increasing number of self-identification measures (sex sites voluntarily implement code to be picked up by nanny software; this blog and many others bear a Creative Commons license), I think self-policing and public identification with a particular set of norms isn't as much of a pipe dream as some skeptics believe. I'm not sure it will happen along the lines of the blogger code of conduct some have proposed -- it's always difficult to predict ahead of time whether we'll use VCR or Betamax. Hopefully a widespread norm will come well ahead of any government regulation, so it won't be as infantile as movie, videogame or TV ratings.

So much for the general point; specifically, I think if there's a norm of allowing someone who has been negatively commented upon to have a prioritized reply, the webmasters who are most relevant -- the ones whose sites the complaining individual sees first upon self-Googling -- can adopt the mechanism. For any individual, these won't be thousands of webmasters, but perhaps 5 (assuming multiple websites have negative remarks about one individual -- personally, I've had some level of public exposure in my writing since 2000, and I can think of only two websites with negative comments about me, one of which is a site on which my own writing appears -- and even these are nothing that I'd want taken down because they merely describe me as having bad motives for what I've written). I never have had anyone e-mail me saying that they wanted even a comment on this blog taken down, much less a post, though I've caused a great deal of upset to some people because of how I discussed issues important to them. If you had e-mailed me to say that I had factual errors in my post, I would have noted and corrected them; alternatively, you're now the first comment on a post that's unlikely to get many more (simply because this blog gets few comments).

I don't think my use of the term "harassment" is loose, as long as you understand that "harassment" is not only that which is legally actionable. If I walk down the street and someone follows me for a single block yelling epithets, I hope we all can agree that I have been harassed, and equally can agree that I have no cause of action for that harassment.

As for people who are merely offended, certainly they abound. On the precursor to this blawg, En Banc, one reader e-mailed the site owner to complain about my language and topics of discussion; I had been talking about sex and he said that he no longer would allow his pre-teen daughter to read the site. Even the site owner himself was irked when I repeatedly posted negatively about a client of his future employer (I hadn't realized there was a connection, otherwise I wouldn't have put him in that position). So, sure, tell those who have chosen to read the site and who don't like it to vote with their feet (or rather, their mouse). What I find strange is that you apparently see no difference between what I would call the voluntary participants in your site, and the involuntary ones -- the people who never posted on AutoAdmit and had the site forced upon their attention when a friend said, "Hey, is this true?" or Googled themselves and were horrified to discover what their online image was. If you think this is a slippery slope, between "I participated voluntarily and now I don't like it so either you take it down or I'm leaving" and "I had nothing to do with this and it's hurting me," then perhaps you thought Santorum had it right about there being no discernable difference between same-sex intercourse and bestiality. Merely invoking the slippery slope is not enough; what's the argument for the inability to distinguish between the two categories? And why can you delete comments only if they are legally actionable -- do you restrict what comes out your mouth solely on that basis? Given that you are a businessman, I sincerely doubt that. Of your remarks about what is and isn't legally actionable, I remain most bewildered by the quoted statement in the WaPo article that you *can't* police the site for fear of litigation from people angry that their posts have been deleted. I don't have an AutoAdmit account, but surely your user agreement doesn't state that users have a *right* to have all posts kept on the site -- if nothing else, your policy against "outing" would conflict with that.

I am also confused by your claim that "those who are discussed on the website usually invite attention." To get into specifics again, how did Brittan Heller initially invite attention? From what I can tell, someone who didn't like her has posted about her repeatedly and urged other members of your community to comment and drive up the thread's importance. This someone seemed to know her from offline interaction, given that he linked to no website as having made him aware of her existence. Indeed, in order for people even to be subject to a claim of publication of private facts, they would have to be in a position to obtain facts previously not published. Anything already on an all-viewers MySpace page is published for legal purposes, but a Facebook page available only to one's fellow students is a more difficult case, and cuts against your notion of the harassed person's having actually paraded herself to public notice. For some people, it's clearly enough merely to exist and irk an AutoAdmit community member.

I was reflecting on the idea of a law school community after reading the Concurring Opinions posts that said some people find AutoAdmit useful for advice about applications and so on. From my perspective, this seems like a cheap kind of community. At AutoAdmit, you get a username, you don't push against the community habits of prioritizing rankings and insulting others, you accept insults thrown your way and in return you might get help. After blogging for a year, I had a law student/ practitioner community of people I'd never met in real life who nonetheless were individually identifiable friends to me. Some I've met, a couple I've never met but have critiqued their screenplays or novels, one supposedly is going to marry me. They've helped me decide on law schools, advised me on my resume, assessed the practicality of my pro bono idea for assisting military families... they've been great. In comparison, the community whose anonymity you protect seems paradoxically impoverished by its very size and indiscrimination: "a giant pool of people (often nasty people) voicing their opinions." The "hugs and kisses, hope this helps" of the XOXOHTH name notwithstanding, you don't seem to be promoting a kind or friendly place.

Posted by: PG at April 24, 2007 06:59 PM

I truly appreciate the civility and thoughtfulness of your posts. Truth be told, I would like to promote a friendlier place. My philosophy on moderation may not seem particularly "friendly," but the reason I've stuck to it can hardly be attributed to any anti-social ideals on my part. Rather, I believe in the strict, sometimes harsh justice of consistent law. I've tried to adhere to a consistent, if not warm and fuzzy, policy as much as I've been able.

I do wish to promote a "friendlier" website, but I'd rather not do it through active censorship. I think there's a very negative aspect to such practices that I'm not yet willing to experiment with, even though I've never denied that it can certainly influence the behavior of the community (whether for better or worse). However, I believe that community behavior can also be influenced by enhancing "culture," in other words, by introducing new resources and dimensions of information and interaction that can guide the discourse. In lieu of such guidance, perhaps "culture," whether online or at any moment in human civilization, tends to deteriorate.

As far as developing these enhanced resources, Mr. Ciolli made a great effort toward this goal while we were working together, a fact which has been largely ignored by critics like yourself and mostly everyone else at tremendous personal expense to him. Believe me. His contributions went far beyond organizing two papers, which you seemed to indicate, but in fact, he helped develop summerassociate.com, lawfirmdiscussion.com (which is still being developed), as well as many other resources intended expand the discussion beyond such beloved "bawdy" topics. Nevertheless, I admit both of us have also been deeply involved in other elements of our lives throughout the course of our work on the website. Personally, the website was not previously as much a priority in my life as it has become recently, thanks to all of the controversies surrounding it. If I had some more capital at this point, I might be able to really take the community to the next level.

By the way - mazel tov on your engagement, or your plans at least.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 25, 2007 01:37 AM

I do wish to promote a "friendlier" website, but I'd rather not do it through active censorship.

But isn't the "anti-outing" policy active censorship? It would seem like a logical aspect of the "anti-outing" policy to automatically remove any post which outs anyone, whether member or not, whether voluntary or not. If anonymity is important to permit everyone to have a good time, then it would seem incumbent upon you to remove posts with identifying information about anyone, since the information could potentially be used to identify the poster.

Posted by: K at April 25, 2007 11:43 AM

You bring up a good point, K - another example of the slippery slope introduced by moderation. Perhaps I should do away with that policy altogether.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 25, 2007 12:31 PM

Mr. Cohen,

Thanks for your good wishes (my fiancee says that there is nothing 'supposed' about our plans), and your engagement with De Novo and its readers on these issues.

Some have suggested that you could use the kind of user-rating systems employed on sites like SlashDot, so that AutoAdmit users who don't post useful information over time will automatically have their threads and messages be counted "low," as well as having individual threads and messages that get bad ratings pushed down on the page.

Alternatively, you could enable other people to act as moderators -- not to delete threads, but to mark the code for them so they can't be seen by Google. In this way, you could have all threads that mention people by name (whether members of AutoAdmit who are being "outed," or non-members) still remain on the site without being what pops up on Google if the person's name is searched. Just a thought: moderation doesn't have to entail deletion, but you can make stuff that is problematic less so. That way even if your users are outed, especially if they are done so falsely, that outing can't be found by a search for the name.

You also could combine these, so that the low-rated threads automatically don't get spidered by search engines.

Posted by: PG at April 25, 2007 08:23 PM

A couple of points:
First, I realized when I learned that Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson were in my extended network that my MySpace pics were not limited to my friends and family. Now that MySpace has enabled privacy for the over-15s, people should make their profiles private if they don't want random people viewing their photos and expressing their opinions on them.
Second, why put the burden of censorship on Jarrett Cohen and not Google? The market value of Google is insanely huge, and Google has thousands of employees. Surely they're in a better position to monitor the web for unflattering information than one insurance man. If one exempts Google from the burden of censorship because they cache everything on the web, regardless of content, why not exempt Cohen from the burden of censorship because he preserves every post on his site, regardless of content? Furthermore, Google's Usenet archive puts them in the exact same position as Cohen: because the vast majority of Usenet newsgroups are completely unmoderated, Google likely is preserving a number of unflattering posts. As far as I know Google has no Good Taste squad cleaning up the Usenet archive.

Posted by: oldprposter at April 26, 2007 12:50 PM


Thanks for your comment. I appreciate AutoAdmit's owners and users taking the time to tell me more about the site, as my knowledge is limited. It's certainly more helpful than uninformed claims that I "outed" information about Mr. Ciolli that he has put on his own bio, or that no one brings a defamation claim knowing that the contested statement is true.

1) I don't use MySpace, so I can't speak to what privacy it does or doesn't afford, but I can say that Facebook is fairly private -- except for people who attend your school. When those are the people who abuse Facebook by taking information and images from it to post online in order to harass a classmate, what is your solution? Women who don't want to risk harassment should stay off Facebook and other social networking sites that allows people within their social network -- co-workers, classmates, etc. -- to see their information? Also, can you give specifics, as Mr. Cohen refused to do so -- exactly which of the harassment victims had her information taken off a publicly available MySpace page? Brittan Heller? Heide Iravani?

2) In my comment immediately above yours, I suggest a few different ways Mr. Cohen can change how his site operates that do not involve censorship at all, merely deciding to make some information deprioritized or unavailable to Google while still fully available to AutoAdmit readers. These are methods used by many online fora, including SlashDot.

Moreover, Google is not a content provider or a host; it is a search engine. It makes no claims to being a "community." I would consider Google possibly to have a responsibility for what it hosts (like a certain Xoxohthian's page on googlepages that exists solely to link Ms. Iravani's name to the defamatory AutoAdmit posts), but not for what comes up on its search pages. As for that, however, Google has been forced to take pages from what it searches when threatened with legal action, as when it had to stop returning hits for Paris Hilton's sex tape that were websites infringing copyright.

Posted by: PG at April 26, 2007 09:13 PM

"Also, can you give specifics, as Mr. Cohen refused to do so"

I don't remember "refusing" to do anything, PG.

The simple fact is that when you put your information on the Internet, you run the risk of it being exposed to the public. Even though Facebook pages may be intended for closed audiences, they obviously aren't always viewed by existing friends; otherwise, the entire concept of social networking on the Internet would fail. There is pretty broad agreement that the definition of a "friend" on Facebook is far off from the traditional "real life" perception. Also, note that Facebook profiles can be friends-only, but that photos are not necessarily friends only. So, the bottom line is that you shouldn't post pictures on webpages if you wouldn't be comfortable with an unintended audience getting a hold of them.

"When those are the people who abuse Facebook by taking information and images from it to post online in order to harass a classmate, what is your solution?"

Maybe that's something you should be asking Facebook.

"Moreover, Google is not a content provider or a host; it is a search engine. It makes no claims to being a "community." I would consider Google possibly to have a responsibility for what it hosts"

1) Google caches and republishes content by third-parties on its own domains. When you run a search, you'll find text from third-parties being displayed right there on the search results page. Additionally, if you view a cached page, you will find even more content being hosted and provided by Google that originates from third parties.
2) If I rename the message board a "law school discussion search engine", instead of a community, would that really make a difference in your perception? After all, I offer a search box right there on the front page of my website. In other words, are some websites exempted from responsibilities that are incumbent upon others, simply by virtue of what they call themselves? Google, it could be argued, is an aggregation of the entire collective community of the web.

As I've mentioned in the past, the reason I suggest Google as a possible solution is not at all an attempt to "pass the buck" to someone else. Rather, I recognize that regardless of my behavior as webmaster, there will always be thousands and thousands of other webmasters who are also free to be uncooperative assholes, if they feel like it. I say, make the webmaster irrelevant.

Google does already offer levels of enhancement beyond simple search functionality, which are apparently designed to protect the public from dangerous or unsavory content. This demonstrates a capability not only to actively retrieve and republish content from third-parties, but also to manipulate it in such a fashion that enhances the browsing and searching experience. Specific examples include Google Image Search, which, by default, excludes results that it suspects are sexually suggestive. Another example is that Google's traditional search tends to place warning links under websites on which it detects spyware and viruses. In other words, Google has already demonstrated it has the definite capability and willingness to make these kinds of modifications.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 27, 2007 01:15 AM

Mr. Cohen,

I'm sorry, I should have phrased that as "Mr. Cohen did not do so," rather than implying that the lack of specifics was a conscious omission on your part.

As for the substance of your comment, you keep saying that you're not trying to pass the buck, yet all of your suggestions are things that others -- Facebook, Google, the people who think they can post a picture to be viewable to their classmates without having it reposted as "huge fake tits!" and "felon's daughter!" -- can do. Why should we make the individuals most proximate to the harm (the people who post this stuff, and the webmasters who enable them to do so while protecting their identity) the least accountable for preventing that harm? Even if none of this is legally actionable, it's an old principle of tort law that the person closest to the harm-causer is the most efficient remover of the harm. Instead of assuming that because *some* webmasters will be uncooperative assholes, *no* webmaster should be expected to behave any better than the worst in the group, I'd rather hold the webmasters I encounter to a better standard and hope that others do as well. You seem to want your online community managed top down, when no society really functions that way (except perhaps Tito's Yugoslavia -- longer bread lines, but less ethnic cleansing!). Individuals have to internalize these norms.

At a technical level, I'm confused as to what you want Google to do that would eliminate the most obvious harm: having defamatory/ harassing AutoAdmit posts come up when someone Googles "Heide Iravani." You suggest that Google should institute a policy wherein people who object to their online image can have a "response" link next to the negative hit. But the negative hit is still there. You mention that Google searches can be modified so the user doesn't come across unsavory content. But if I'm inspecting someone for a position of responsibility, why would I be searching in that mode?

1) Google caches disappear. I tried to recreate En Banc when it went offline, but was too late to grab the cache. Meanwhile, AutoAdmit posts from 2004 are still on the site.

2) If you changed AutoAdmit so that instead of hosting messages permanently on its own site, it instead searched all law-related websites for information and showed only what was recently on those sites, I would have an entirely different view of AutoAdmit. Then, for any objectionable thing that I found through searching AutoAdmit, I would go complain to the specific website. Just as unhappy Googlers are complaining to your specific website. (And I hope if you did start a search engine that it would be better than the search box on the front page of AutoAdmit, as that only seems to catch thread titles :-)

I apologize if I sound adversarial, because I really would like to hear what someone who administers a large website thinks about the suggestion that you use some of the same mechanisms employed by other large fora. Am I being unrealistic about whether this is possible to implement on AutoAdmit? I do realize that there are lots of problematic sites out there, but I'm of the hokey belief that non-legal solutions (as opposed to something drastic like overturning Section 203 of the CDA) happen one person at a time. Even if the ultimate fix is through Google or some other massive company, in the meantime individual sites can make changes to keep objectionable content from getting picked up by Google. If you made such changes on your site, perhaps other webmasters would follow your example. "Try to be the change that you wish to see."

Posted by: PG at April 27, 2007 02:03 AM

"Why should we make the individuals most proximate to the harm (the people who post this stuff, and the webmasters who enable them to do so while protecting their identity) the least accountable for preventing that harm? Even if none of this is legally actionable, it's an old principle of tort law that the person closest to the harm-causer is the most efficient remover of the harm."

It's interesting that you should mention this. Actually, I've found that 99% of the people who contact me do so out of their concern that particular posts will appear in Google. Their fear is that employers and others will access the defamatory information using Google. I suspect that most would hardly care what information rests on AutoAdmit, but rather they would only object to the information being propagated by Google for the general public to see. While I'm a huge fan of Google, and I've never suggested that Google is at fault, Google may in fact be the most proximate to the harm.

Now, consider the actors involved on AutoAdmit. As AutoAdmit's administrator, I am a passive actor. I don't proactively do anything, at least before a post is made. When some idiot creates a defamatory or hurtful thread, it's that idiot who is the active actor.

In contrast, Google is an active actor. Google isn't being passive like me, allowing users to manually insert their websites into their search engine. Google proactively indexes as many sites as it can find. In fact, I never invited Google to index AutoAdmit; it just did it.

I would also argue that old principles of tort law may not even apply to these situations in a traditional sense. These concepts all originated back in the days when the printing press was first invented, or even before then, when the rich had more control of what was published and had to exercise editorial discretion. Until very recently, in all of known human history, there was no such thing as an automated process where any lay person can type something in, hit a button, and distribute it to millions of people instantly. Of course, now, with the Internet, there is. So, I wouldn't compare AutoAdmit to a newspaper or a traditional publication.

A better analogy would be a town square. For example, you can't sue New York City if some miscreant gives a defamatory speech about you in Central Park, nor is the city government expected to post any particular signs or warnings instructing people not to defame others, or to provide personnel whose specific job is to intervene when someone attempts to make a defamatory remark. The public is simply expected to observe the law as in any other setting.

As for matters of efficiency, it's not efficient for webmasters to get involved in disputes like the ones involving Iravani and Heller, nor is it really desirable for anyone involved. If one were to file a lawsuit against the person making a remark, they would have to produce evidence to support their allegations. But short of taking such drastic action, it's unlikely to expect that a webmaster would care to sort through evidence and make a judgment, or even to expect that the person making the complaint would necessarily feel comfortable providing this evidence to some webmaster they don't even know. For example, I cannot imagine Heller sending me her LSAC report or her medical records in order to disprove statements she claimed were defamatory. And how is a webmaster to know he isn't just being told something is defamatory because someone just wants damaging, but true, information removed?

Of course, if I made a policy of summarily removing anything anyone wanted me to remove, this wouldn't be an issue. But the bottom line is that I don't want to summarily remove posts, for a number of reasons, and many webmasters feel the same way as me. Now, I've made it pretty well known that if I am contacted in a particular manner, I will at least consider removing certain types of threads. But the bottom line is that there is an innate conflict of interest between webmasters and individuals who write to them requesting they modify or remove their content. Webmasters often don't want to remove content because doing so compromises the autonomy of their operation. This is one reason that suggestions like de-indexing pages or entire sections of websites from Google are not typically realistic. Why would a webmaster want to partially remove himself from the map? Again, I say make him irrelevant. While I have just as much faith as you in the power to do individual good and to set an example for others to follow, I am realistic about the limited number of webmasters who can be expected to adhere to such good will practices. And you know as well as I do that this problem is much further reaching than AutoAdmit.

Slashdot has a nice system, which works for Slashdot, but deciding on functionality improvements and actually implementing them takes time. Remember, it's not this website that I spend 60 hours a week working on, and I don't exactly have a budget to hire anyone else to do the work for me. (Want to volunteer?) I did mention in the "Challenge to Reputation Defender" document that I had been in the process of implementing moderation features prior to our spat, at which point I ceased. I'm still trying to decide how I want to move forward with the site, given everything that's happened over the past month or so.

My Google "response" model is pretty simple, but an effective and comprehensive solution. If someone feels something about them appears in Google that is objectionable, they would be able to verify their identity and their sworn belief that the particular article refers to them. Then, they would be able to post a statement that would be displayed either above or beside the listing in question in a very prominent fashion if, and only if, their particular name is Googled. In addition to this, Google could also list a "credibility" rating next to the listing, which simply counts the total volume of "response" requests received by Google in reference to the particular domain. This could serve to disqualify sites like AutoAdmit from the serious consideration of employers.

Like you, I believe in non-legal solutions to problems like this. But you're flat-out wrong when you suggest that mine is a "top-down" approach. Quite the contrary, I believe in every individual's right to be heard. I believe that neither the discretionary power, nor the benevolence, nor the mercy of the webmaster, who will always be entitled to a certain level of power by virtue of owning the domain, should be relevant at all to this individual's right. To expect the webmasters to make just and satisfactory decisions to benefit the individual, in my opinion, is far more "top-down" than empowering the individual with a platform to supersede them, in order to take control of their own reputations.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 27, 2007 04:57 AM

who the fuck cares about this shit?

Posted by: Joe at April 27, 2007 09:43 AM

O/T: You're getting married? Congratulations (and Mazel Tov)!

Posted by: David Schraub at April 27, 2007 01:07 PM

Mr. Cohen,

I unfortunately lack the tech knowledge to implement a Scoop-style site for AutoAdmit, but if I talked my more technically-capable friends (here's the cue for all those who are yelling at AutoAdmit to put their money/ expertise where their mouths are) and you put up a tipjar on the site with the proceeds going to pay for software and labor, I think we could make this happen. The question is whether you really want it to.

"In fact, I never invited Google to index AutoAdmit; it just did it."

Which is why I suggested that you change your robots.txt file so Google can't spider you anymore. You've seen Orin Kerr's proposal to similar effect, though he would tie it to legal liability and I would not. If you don't want AutoAdmit to be Googled, you can prevent it. But you don't -- "Why would a webmaster want to partially remove himself from the map?" -- so presumably you're not going to act on that suggestion. You see any move to deindex noxious AutoAdmit threads as removing *yourself* from the map, which indicates how personally you identify with such threads, despite disclaiming responsibility for them. Why talk like Google invaded AutoAdmit against your will, if you're quite happy to have AutoAdmit show up on Google and refuse to take the simplest measures to prevent it from doing so?

Your attempt to compare AutoAdmit to Central Park doesn't work. NYC, like many other localities, criminalizes one who "Being masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration, loiters, remains or congregates in a public place with other persons so masked or disguised, or knowingly permits or aids persons so masked or disguised to congregate in a public place [that would be Mr. Cohen]..." New York State Consoldiated Laws, Penal, Offenses Against Public Order, Section 240.35(4). People who stand up to talk in Central Park are identifiable and thus accountable.

You enable Xoxohthians to be anonymous, unaccountable -- and thus irresponsible. You have created an environment that encourages this behavior when you could have created an entirely different type of environment.

"Quite the contrary, I believe in every individual's right to be heard."

And this break from the normal standard of free speech (which is every individual's right to *speak*, not to be *heard*) explains a lot about how you administer AutoAdmit. One doesn't have to own a domain in order to speak; one can start a blog, as millions have, and have it be obscure and read only by 5 people, again as millions have. The XoXo reader on blogspot doesn't own a domain, yet still gets to speak plenty.

You are providing a specific kind of forum in which you guarantee that at least the title of each thread will be seen by thousands of people. You adopt policies that maximize readership, participation and searchability, and minimize accountability for any AutoAdmit administrator or user. These are choices that you made: you have prioritized the creation of content and number of page hits over Xoxohthians' responsibility for the content, and far over privacy for those whom the content may harass or defame.

You claim that you delete threads when someone asks nicely, and on your own initiative you delete "outing" messages. But that actually does take away the "right to speak," inasmuch as now whatever was said in the thread has disappeared. I started blogging because I would be disappointed when I submitted a comment to a website and it failed to show up there -- I decided that if I wanted to control my speech, I should have my own site. And so I have, on Blogger where I haven't paid a penny and I have had people warn me not to write about someone. But I also haven't relied on a pre-existing audience, nor have I dodged responsibility for what I say.

If you simply removed AutoAdmit, or certain threads on AutoAdmit, from being indexed by search engines, the beloved community could keep going, and you'd probably get very few requests for thread deletion except from AutoAdmit users (those who live by the sword...). But you don't want to change the robots.txt because then a) you would lose those Google hits; and b) some of those speakers wouldn't get "heard" outside AutoAdmit. These are much worse consequences, to your mind, than the problems faced by those who are harassed.

Posted by: PG at April 27, 2007 02:58 PM

From an e-mail to me: PG:
I think that you can now stop debating Mr. Cohen. His rather tired analogy to web-fora as public squares is about a decade behind in the "cyberspace as space" debate and invokes just about the oldest and most rejected claims in the book. (Hint, Mr. Cohen: the difference between defamation in a public
square and online is that online defamation--like that in newspapers--is
persistent. [That is, what is said online stays online unless it is deleted; what is said in the public square disappears as soon as the speaker's mouth closes, unless recorded by some medium such as audio or video cassette, transcription by a print journalist, etc.])...
Slashdot's system is not cutting-edge, and many sites use Scoop-style reputation systems. They're pretty much standard best-practice for the kind of thing Mr. Cohen runs. I've worked with the technology. It's not brain surgery, it's not tough, and if Mr. Cohen really doesn't have the resources to administrate something like this, he shouldn't be running it. If Mr. Cohen were really concerned about creating a nicer place, he already have done so.
I used to be a webmaster, like Mr. Cohen, and I started out strongly on his side in this matter. He's his own worst advocate, however, and I'm gradually changing my mind. What he's [calling] far too much to put on his shoulders[,] is the bare minimum of responsibility I would have thought necessary to look at myself in the mirror in the morning. For shame.
It's very simple, Mr. Cohen. Your website is hurting people. It's in your power to stop it. You refuse to do so, blaming everyone but yourself, but you make every move to protect your trolls. This may, indeed, be your right. It is not big, it is not principled, and it's not a sign of good character.

Posted by: PG at April 27, 2007 04:21 PM

regarding the first amendment right to be heard:
“It is now well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas. ‘This freedom [of speech and press] . . . necessarily protects the right to receive . . . .’ Martin v. City of Struthers, 319 U.S. 141, 143 (1943); see Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 482 (1965); Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301, 307 -308 (1965) (BRENNAN, J., concurring); cf. Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925). This right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, see Winters v. New York , 333 U.S. 507, 510 (1948), is fundamental to our free society.”—Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969)

Posted by: oldprposter at April 27, 2007 05:00 PM


That's a right to receive, i.e. a right to HEAR, which is different from a right to BE HEARD. A person who is hearing is the recipient; a person who is being heard is the speaker or giver of information. The former is a right to be free of government obstruction in my effort to receive information from the Communists; the latter would be a right of the Communists to make me sit down and listen to their foolishness, or to have the government provide them the paper on which to publish their pamphlets. Two quite different ideas. If there were a right to be heard, the federal anti-spam laws would be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds (thus far, only state anti-spam laws have been found unconstitutional, and that for interfering with interstate commerce -- once Congress steps in, that's no longer an issue).

Posted by: PG at April 27, 2007 05:26 PM


Like many others, I would be willing to volunteer to help out on an open-source xoxo project. But at the very least, you must display some initiative in fighting the trolls. Most open-source / volunteer projects come about as a result of a webmaster trying -- but not being able to -- control trolls, and enlisting the help of the community to combat the problem. Browsing through your forum right now (even in the vaunted "SCHOOL-RELATED MODE"), it seems that you have haven't made the slightest effort to delete threads that threaten and defame law school students.

I considered XOXO, circa 2004, to be a valuable source of information, and I believe that there is still potential to resurrect the forum from its current state of dereliction. But you can't sit on your hands and point to other actors as being the problem, when you could temporarily fix the problem by editing robots.txt and issuing a simple SQL command to drop the threads attacking the YLS students. Of course, these measures would be only temporary, and we would still need a more permanent fix to the problem. But at least it's a start to fixing the solution, and we would gladly help you if you indicated your interest by taking down the threads in question.

From what I understand, you were interested in providing moderation before the Washington Post article hit the stands. I hope that you can reopen this dialog with the law schools and reach a mutually beneficial solution for everyone involved. Your forum is at its best when it points out the hilarity in everyday life *without* attacking individuals. But right now, the forum is harming people much more than it's helping anyone -- not just the most obvious victims (the ones targeted on your forum) but also both you and your former partner.

At this point, most people would just shut the forum down. But if you're resolved to keep it up, we'll help you out if you take the first step by pulling down the offending threads and steering the forum back into the clear.

Posted by: Henri Ducard at April 27, 2007 05:58 PM

PG, your correspondent seems to have an issue with Section 230 more than anything else. Websites don't hurt people, people hurt people. To say that my "website is hurting people" is to say that someone who is allergic to peanut butter ought to take it up with those nasty legumes, or maybe the peanut butter company. I just don't think it's valid.

He or she also overlooks, in his kind "hint" to me, the fact that the "persistency" factor of online speech is mainly upheld through persistency on Google search results, which Google actively seeks out and places on its website. Once again, I am a passive actor; people manually post their words to my website.

Not to mention, many people derive all sorts of benefits from my website - information, entertainment, social interaction - and a very vocal minority claim to have been hurt.

Short of being able to point at legal violations, your correspondent apparently has an issue with what he or she feels is an ethical failure on my part. Unfortunately, an individual's arbitrary set of ethical expectations for publishers on an open medium, whose present nature does not require licensure or certification for anyone to participate, is probably not a solid foundation to base a solution on. Perhaps it can work for a personal criticism, but not a solution.

We all keep saying how simple the issue is, yet we keep disagreeing about it. Your simple charge is that my website is hurting people. My simple question is, are people like me to be expected, or even bound, to intervene when someone makes proclamations about the size of another's breasts, or says someone is ugly? If not, then an alternate solution is necessary.

Frankly, for such matters, I really don't care enough to get involved. And if I did, I know it would never end.

For violations of law, if a lawsuit were filed and information was subpoenaed, I would cooperate to the fullest extent. Of course, out of all of the tens of millions of victims whose lives have been ruined by my website, none has actually gone to the trouble of actually pursuing such actions. I believe in the law, not in allowing myself to become mired in ethical slippery slopes.

If Congress decided to repeal Section 230, it may reap unintended consequences for the nature of the Internet. But regardless, I would comply with the applicable law. I am undecided as to whether the mandated collection of IPs would reduce the "hurt factor" on the web, because people can be hurt without ever having the slightest claim for defamation. Also, people might be encouraged to go to greater lengths to preserve their anonymity if they know for certain all their digital footprints are being recorded. But again, I would comply with whatever laws Congress sets forth.

As for your own response, PG: First of all, even though you've made some great arguments in this dialogue, I think you're making a mistake by arguing that it is acceptable that people who have established publications like blogs, like you, heard more than individuals who haven't created such platforms. Doesn't leaving the "privilege" to be heard by an appreciable audience to the community of web publishers with significant traffic, i.e., the few, go against your call for a less "top-down" approach to remedying hurtful speech on the web? You should keep in mind that I described the "right to be heard" in reference to my call for protecting the individuals who feel themselves the victims of hurtful remarks. My provision for Google "responses" would give a powerful platform to the individual that is reserved for a privileged few at this point in time.

You know it's unrealistic to expect me to exclude myself from search engines because of what literally amounts to a dozen or so posts out of eight million. And in recognition of this reality, this conflict of interest between webmaster and individual that surely isn't unique to me, I proposed a solution that doesn't rely on the power or the mercy of the webmaster.

As for your point that physical anonymity in a public place is not allowed in NYC (I was honestly unaware of this, and I appreciate your informing me), this comes down to a simple question of Section 230. Is anonymity permissible on the web? If Congress someday decides that anonymity has no place on the web, I will quickly make sure to comply. Also, as I mentioned above, I am on the fence as to whether strictly collecting IPs would reduce hurtful speech. Maybe it would; maybe it's a measure I should take. I am sincere when I tell you that I'd like to come to a set of conclusions as to what measures may or may not be appropriate for each party to take toward solving the greater problem on the web. It just requires a lot of thought and discussion.

Finally, I've noticed that my offer to consider deleting threads when asked and the "anti-outing" policy have recently been used as ammunition to push for broader moderation. This illustrates the slippery slope problem I've expressed and is causing me to rethink whether I should ever have taken such measures at all.


I just read Mr. Ducard's post, and I've realized I've grown tired of the intellectual debates, even though they've been fascinating to me and they've made me think. I'd rather build than argue at this point, and I just want to make the website better. I'll never shut the forum down. I'd really like the opportunity to start over. You are correct, Mr. Ducard, in that I was already implementing moderation capabilities on the website when the proverbial poop hit the fan. But the thing is, I became less inclined to do so after everything that's transpired.

So much damage has been done to Mr. Ciolli; more damage to him than probably all of the official "victims" in this whole mess, and I'm sure no one will care to try to help the poor guy pick up the pieces in his own life; and I've felt just plain indignant about all of this. This whole incident started when I found out that, before I had ever heard of them, Reputation Defender had sabotaged my contract with Google Adsense, leaving me with less incentive to spend any time working on the website. I'm sour - about feminists, opportunists, trolls, law deans, reporters, and armchair activists who, rather than sincerely seeking to mitigate damage, went out for blood against me and (especially) Mr. Ciolli.

I've come to a lot of realizations about the direction I think the Internet ought to take, and the way it could be better. But honestly, even though I think I'm right about some things, I care more about the long-term survival and growth of the website than winning an argument. I'd rather be spending my time developing AutoAdmit.

I think with a little bit of a public "reconciliation" campaign, maybe things can be fixed. I'd like to meet with school officials to discuss my plans, but I've had limited success thus far, even though so many have felt it their place to issue condemnations in regard to the controversies. (When I originally reached out to YLS Dean Koh, I received a cold response from Yale's General Counsel a week later that denied me as much as a simple conversation.) I'm just not even sure where to start yet. Simply deleting the threads and enacting moderation on Googleable threads at this point isn't going to be enough to alter people's perceptions in a significant way. Also, I worry the measures I take will never satisfy a vocal group of people who can't tolerate that some people simply have potty mouths - even if it's all hidden from Google.

I think the idea to include yourself and others in the effort is a good one. So, I appreciate your offer to help. But first, it's important to me to engage in dialogue with school officials, who serve as beacons to the entire law school community. It would give me more motivation to rebuild if I knew I was going to be supported in my efforts.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 27, 2007 08:06 PM

Mr. Ducard, thanks for volunteering, and I hope others do the same and that Mr. Cohen takes y'all up on the offer. Given Mr. Cohen's statement that he'll never take the site down, the choice is between AutoAdmit as it is now and AutoAdmit as it might be remedied by the help of what is hopefully the majority of responsible users.

In my estimation, speaking as a blawgger, I think Mr. Cohen is wrong when he says,
Simply deleting the threads and enacting moderation on Googleable threads at this point isn't going to be enough to alter people's perceptions in a significant way. Also, I worry the measures I take will never satisfy a vocal group of people who can't tolerate that some people simply have potty mouths - even if it's all hidden from Google.

On the contrary, making those changes -- particularly, deleting certain threads or making them unGoogleable, which can be done fairly quickly and easily -- will be seen as a good faith gesture that could get you those conversations. Today, you're being seen by some rather stodgy, damage-control-oriented deans as a recalcitrant promoter of moronic behavior. Demonstrating that you are a responsible webmaster will change that. If you want to talk to the Yale Law dean, delete the threads to which some of his constituents (i.e., Misses Heller and Iravani) object, and he'll feel himself in a much better position to engage you. You might even get further support in changes to the website that make it more useful in its original mission.

Mere potty-mouthedness isn't the problem. You see that on SlashDot and plenty of other places online, and on responsible sites it tends to get pushed into obscurity by the less juvenile group of users. Don't let Prof. Leiter's attack of the vapors fool you into thinking this is the most serious issue with AutoAdmit -- it's not. Note that the Washington Post didn't take an interest until the complaint was about potentially tortious behavior, rather than mere potty-mouthedness (i.e., obscene, racist, (hetero)sexist speech directed only at public figures and fellow anonymous users).

As for the people going after Mr. Ciolli's blood, I stated in my post that I don't support obstructing his career over the level of participation he had in the site -- his own comments always seem to have been reasonable and he has not had the power to change the site, because that rests in your hands. But here's the difference between him and Xoxohthians' victims: he's getting judged far more based on what he's actually said and done, (or rather, neglected doing) than those who thought of themselves as wholly private individuals until the day they found they weren't. Heide Iravani is being tarred for the alleged actions of her father when she was a child, with whom she hardly could choose whether to associate herself; Ciolli is being criticized based on the actions of those with whom he has, as an adult, chosen to associate himself and defend.

To some extent, by blaming everyone else for the damage Mr. Ciolli has suffered, you once again are trying to shift all responsibility from yourself. Mr. Ciolli has said in several places that he has asked you to be a more active moderator, and said on the FirstMovers group blog that he might sign a statement condemning AutoAdmit. You knew that the people complaining to you, whose complaints you deliberately ignored, were going to be his future colleagues, yet apparently you never thought about how this reflected on him. Now you're "just plain indignant" that someone who has been publicly defending a site with a great deal of noxious speech, and who also has defended your inaction in that regard (as in the Volokh post where he advocates for your Google-turned-forum idea), is suffering the ire of his colleagues. My remarks about you and Mr. Ciolli being bright young men sounded patronizing, but the inexperience of youth was the only explanation I could come up with as to how two smart guys could be so oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

Doesn't leaving the "privilege" to be heard by an appreciable audience to the community of web publishers with significant traffic, i.e., the few, go against your call for a less "top-down" approach to remedying hurtful speech on the web?

I don't think so, because like many other *privileges* (in contrast to rights), being heard by an appreciable audience is something one can gain through merit. The user-rated-moderation sites do this by having the community push down comments that they deem useless. Have the writers of such comments had their privilege of being heard by the largest audience potentially available at that site reduced? Surely, but by the judgment of that community, they didn't earn the privilege.

Similarly, inasmuch as fewer than 100 people read this blog regularly, that's the level of audience my writing here merits. Having people start their own sites, whether individually or in cooperation with like-minded individuals, has been made extremely easy by Blogger and other free sites. And they aren't restrictive in what gets posted, as you'd see from parody blogs like "Assprat Pretentia" that mocked non-public figures who blogged at Crescat Sententia. So if you decided that posts about private individuals were not going to be indexed by Google in the future, and this pissed off some of your users, they can always start their own site to harass and defame (as apparently some have, judging by the aforementioned site that is currently the 6th hit when one searches for Heide Iravani). Instead of leeching visibility by using the site you built, they can do their best to get themselves noticed independently, and Ms. Iravani can take up her case with them there. You are not dispensing the *ability* to speak online to AutoAdmit's users; they have plenty of other options. You're merely maximizing the number of people who see the titles of their threads.

Now you want to turn Google's search page into a forum, even though *that's not what it's for*. You want your own behavior to be judged only by whether it is legal (like cooperating with law enforcement on the Hastings incident). I am not talking about the entire internet here: I am talking about AutoAdmit. While waiting for Google to implement your suggestion, you apparently feel no need to make any changes except those that are mandated by law.

There never was a slippery slope in your moderation; your policy consistently has protected and privileged your users, your community, and minimized protection for those outside it, except those who gain your favor by asking sufficiently politely for message or thread deletions. When you and Ciolli can use IP information to mock your enemies or advertise AutoAdmit's fame, you do so; when such info is requested by others, it's not being kept anymore. That's the principle on which you have run the site. I consider this an extremely bad principle because it treats one group of people differently than another, when the difference between the groups is not an ethically relevant one. I would either declare openly that this is a free-for-all in which no one is protected and any user might be outed by another at any time (a dog-eat-dog policy that I suspect might help clean up the site, as users have to fear that their own identities are unsafe -- consider whether the UC Hastings hoax would have occurred in the first place had AutoAdmit been a frequent site of "outings" of users' identities), or keep all private individuals' names out of it regardless of whether they are in the community or out of it.

Posted by: PG at April 29, 2007 02:54 PM

I appreciate your free-for-all suggestion. I mentioned before, as I've noticed any moderation policy on my part is used by people like yourself as an argument for more moderation, that I've already been considering taking this direction. I'm more convinced than ever that a total hands-off policy, which is exactly like Google's, would be the wisest for me to adopt. You've illustrated the slippery slope to a tee.

With a full-time business career and Mr. Ciolli now out of the picture, I don't have enough of a pressing need to take any action at this point. While Yale law students were obviously deeply offended about the fact that some anonymous people on the Internet could make bawdy remarks about a couple of female Yalies and get away with it, these protesters composed a relative few in the law school universe, let alone the real world. Sometimes people make fun of other people. If future lawyers can't take the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

It was telling that at Harvard's panel on Internet speech, the audience was more or less evenly divided when polled as to whether or not I ought to take any action. I don't base decisions on the protests of a vocal minority at Yale, or on the well-meaning posts from people who see it as a simple ethical or technical issue with an easy solution. What you call "inexperience of youth," I call a difference of opinion and, ironically, three years more experience operating this "organism" than you have. You can doubt my sincerity or my ethics, but there are lessons I've learned and reasons for the way I've come to see things.

One thing I did think was interesting about your post was how when I suggested that I thought it might be inadequate (and unrealistic) to force people to create entire blogs and build up their traffic and readership in order to correct the record on the Internet, you wrote:

"I don't think so, because like many other *privileges* (in contrast to rights), being heard by an appreciable audience is something one can gain through merit."

Merit is another subjective word, like ethics, that isn't as easy to agree upon in practice as it might be in the imagination. Unfortunately, Google page rankings are one of the most influential measures of merit on the Internet, so it's sort of a circular argument for you to say that statements lacking merit are showing high up in Google and damaging people's reputations!

Perhaps the solution to this is more speech, as I've always advocated, but forcing people to develop a whole website, as you suggest, in order to correct the record seems awfully burdensome for someone who is the casual subject of a mean webpage. You can say it would turn Google into a forum if they were to implement my alternative suggestion, but I think that's just because you're stuck in this old, fixed way of looking at the concept of the search engine when you say things like "even though *that's not what it's for*."

The direction of the Internet is moving increasingly toward total interaction. Even the fact that I'm able to comment on your article and have this great discussion with you is something that probably wouldn't have been possible a few years ago. I would look for solutions that embrace this trend.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 30, 2007 12:03 AM

Mr. Cohen,

Thanks for continuing to respond. You also could prevent having particular threads picked up by Google by attaching the "nofollow" code to those links. This is code that automatically attaches to every link that appears in De Novo's comments, because while I am happy to have people comment here and pretty much allow a free-for-all up to the point that they are making threats or publishing individuals' contact information, I also don't want De Novo's pagerank to push any of the commenters' links up in Google.

As for Mr. Ciolli's being "out of the picture," to think that an official claim of resignation will suffice seems naive; people following the controversy are well-aware of his continued involvement with AutoAdmit and your related websites. If he has in fact ceased to be involved, you may want to correct the false impression that his own comments at the site have created. Again, making a clear statement at AutoAdmit itself rather than in comments or e-mails to others would be best, so well-meaning bloggers can have an accurate picture from the source of what's going on.

I'm not sure why you continue to take the suggestions I've made for AutoAdmit users (such as starting their own blogs where they can defame and take the blame for it to their hearts' content) and said that they are actually suggestions for people with no desire to speak online, only a desire to be free of others' harassing speech about them. Some people like me choose to enter the arena and take their lumps; others want to be left out of it, and their wish (as long as it is consistent) should be respected.

As for the fantastic merit of AutoAdmit, at its best the URL www.autoadmit.com has PR 4 (autoadmit.com=1, and xoxoth.com=0), and a glance at the sites linking to the URL indicates that the PR bump is fairly recent (circa 2006) when the site became controversial for the Sidarth impersonation and the harassment of female law students. Certainly creating a controversy around oneself is one way to increase visibility, so there's a silver lining for you in the criticism of the site -- people, including me, link while criticizing.

You continue to misunderstand what is the source of the problem. Within the confines of AutoAdmit, people's harassment and defamation is nearly irrelevant. That kitchen, to use your metaphor, can get hot enough to catch fire for all anyone outside the community cares. It is when those statements are publicized to a larger, non-user audience that the trouble begins. I'd be curious to know how that same Harvard audience would have polled had they been presented with the "take the threads off Google" option, which entails no intra-site censorship, instead of Fartik's "delete! delete! delete!" demands.

Altering search engines, so people can attach commentary to the results, degrades the purpose behind such engines, particularly with Google's dominance in this area. The original genius of Google's algorithm was to depend less on what the site said about itself, and more on what other sites said about it. GoogleSearch doesn't respond to Googlebombs by attaching a little note giving Bush's response to the return of whitehouse.gov for "miserable failure"; it fixes its algorithm to deal with the pranking. It's a technical solution, as befits a product intended to give results unbiased by Google's views on what should come back. GoogleSearch takes a similar attitude toward their advertising; a search for the word "Google" pops Sponsored Links with www.fu-c-k-g-oogle.com at the top.

This is not precisely the "hands-off" policy you claim that Google has; rather, it is one where attacks on Google (which has chosen to get into this business) are accepted by the company, and pranks that do nothing to contribute to the usefulness of the product are avoided by the use of technological know-how. I would hope that all webmasters would feel an obligation within their role to implement the technology appropriate to the site they are running (the phrase "attractive nuisance" otherwise comes to mind).

But given that we have been discussing this matter in a civil manner for a week, and not even an AutoAdmit user volunteering his assistance has been able to convince you that you, and not Google, might want to take action here, I thank you again for your willingness to engage in the abstract, and wish you well with your endeavors.

Incidentally, it's been possible for us to have comment section discussion on a MT blog since at least 2002. De Novo is stodgy; most of my technical efforts on it are directed at avoiding spam, though if you or any other reader has a suggestion for how to improve the site technically, please share.

Posted by: PG at April 30, 2007 02:27 PM

Thanks for welcoming my responses.

You wrote:

"... attacks on Google (which has chosen to get into this business) are accepted by the company, and pranks that do nothing to contribute to the usefulness of the product are avoided by the use of technological know-how. I would hope that all webmasters would feel an obligation within their role to implement the technology appropriate to the site they are running"

The kind of technology you describe:

"a technical solution, as befits a product intended to give results unbiased by Google's views on what should come back."

The source of the problem as you describe it:

"It is when those statements are publicized to a larger, non-user audience that the trouble begins."

I agree with all of these points. The mechanism for promoting the statements you question is not AutoAdmit, but rather Google. On AutoAdmit, my technical solution is simple, based on my faith in the marketplace of ideas, and it works pretty well. After posters grow tired of a thread and stop posting in it, as AutoAdmit posters have a notoriously short attention span, the thread quickly sinks to the bottom of the front page and moves further and further back into the archives, fast to be forgotten.

Like Google, I have sought to rely on my technological design to reduce "pranks that do nothing to contribute to the usefulness of the product," rather than my own judgment, "as befits a product intended to give results unbiased by [my] views on what should come back." Just like Google, I want to avoid the ethical slippery slopes and matters of opinion.

But you want me to take on this effort when you don't expect a 100 billion dollar company to do it. You can keep saying "they're a search engine, it's not what they're supposed to do," but the fact of the matter is that neither they create the content, nor do I, but both of us host copies of it on our own domains. There is essentially no difference but the fact that Google displays content that is automatically fetched from third-parties, while AutoAdmit (or any other unmoderated forum) displays content that is manually input by third-parties. It appears to me you're holding unmoderated websites (specifically Web 2.0 websites) to a double standard.

Anyway, none of these parities or double standards change the fact that, regardless of the administrative decisions of individual webmasters, people have repeatedly expressed concern over listings from all over the web showing up _on Google_ when they use it to search for their name. So maybe, Google ought to be devising another creative solution using their technological know-how, too, instead of waiting for every webmaster to start cleaning up their search engine for them.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at April 30, 2007 10:27 PM

PG, you have repeatedly stated that individuals who want to post "bad" content can just create a Blogspot account, but how is Blogspot or any other blog host any different than AutoAdmit? If Jarret is somehow ethically bound to remove posts that allegedly defame people or post private information, shouldn't Blogspot be held to that same standard? Blogspot and AutoAdmit provide the exact same services--it's just that Blogspot is more popular. Why should a site's popularity determine how ethically or morally blameworthy it is for its moderation policies?

I also resent the fact that you're attempting to keep me encumbered with AutoAdmit by denying the validity of my resignation. I publicly announced my resignation on AutoAdmit, and have seen my resignation reported on Concurring Opinions and various other sites, and have confirmed my resignation personally on PrawfsBlawg, First Movers, and now on this blog too. I'm not sure how it's possible for me to do anything else to convince people that I'm no longer Chief Education Director, short of my death or incarceration (though even then I'm sure Brian Leiter would claim I'm running the site from jail or beyond the grave).

Posted by: Anthony Ciolli at April 30, 2007 10:50 PM

Dear Mr. Cohen:

As the resident tech guru of De Novo, I'd like to thank you for your lengthy colloquy with PG. It's managed something unusual in my blogging experience, in that it's changed my opinion over the course of my reading. I started out broadly sympathetic to your position, as I've administered a fair few websites in my time, but as I've read your "principles" and rather transparent justifications for your actions, I've been left utterly unconvinced.

As a technical matter, much of what you say is either untrue or based upon statements far too broad to bear the load you put on them. To take only a few examples:

It appears to me you're holding unmoderated websites (specifically Web 2.0 websites) to a double standard.
In what sense is AutoAdmit a Web 2.0 website? I know that the term has more marketing appeal than descriptive value, but it would be useful to understand what you're driving at here. Discussion boards like AutoAdmit have existed long before the web. The problem of trolling is not at all new.

Indeed, your site seems the very antithesis of Web 2.0. Most social networking sites have adopted user-based moderation as a method of ensuring that relevant information is highlighted and reducing the influence of trolls. Slashdot and Kuro5hin do this elegantly (see, e.g., the Mojo system), but even DailyKos uses some user moderation. Indeed, AutoAdmit's technology (which at least Mr. Ciolli claims uses primitive user-moderation) might be considered "Web 1.0" at best, and to the extent you have a principled stand of benign neglect, it's a very pre-web attitude.

Having criticized PG twice for this, you could at least explain what you mean.

He or she also overlooks, in his kind "hint" to me, the fact that the "persistency" factor of online speech is mainly upheld through persistency on Google search results, which Google actively seeks out and places on its website.

This is simply false. Information persists on Xoxohth simply because you do not take it down. Google may make this information more or less available or easy to find, but the information itself persists and is available to anyone who links to AutoAdmit. Indeed, by your own admission, only one kind of information does not "persist" at AutoAdmit: posts that reveal the identity of your posters.

After posters grow tired of a thread and stop posting in it, as AutoAdmit posters have a notoriously short attention span, the thread quickly sinks to the bottom of the front page and moves further and further back into the archives, fast to be forgotten.

One would think that this utterly refutes your "Web 2.0" claims. One of the key concepts of Web 2.0, to the extent the term is meaningful, is that content is approachable in more than one way. The fact that information disappears from your homepage does not mean that it's "gone."

Now, if you used a Robots.txt file to make sure that any information not on the front page was never indexed--a task that would take about a minute's work, and certainly not an insufferable burden, even for a busy man like you--I'd agree with you that the information on Xoxohth would gradually disappear, or at least become much less available. Not all traffic comes through your homepage, however.

Just like Google, I want to avoid the ethical slippery slopes and matters of opinion.
It's odd, to say the least, that you wrap yourself up in a mantle you claim is Google's here. Certainly its search engine does not allow for any form of "attached commentary." You've never explained--or even made any pretense of explaining--how this would work in practice. How is Google, which for all its size almost certainly has fewer employees per gigabyte of data handled than you do, to ensure that every single request it receives comes from a bona fide complaintant rather than someone trying to manipulate a search result? After all, Google doesn't have a mechanism for registering with the search engine and verifying one's identity.

Nor is it clear why Google should handle AutoAdmit's problem. True, Google caches data, but it doesn't host it: if the online data changes, Google's cache does too. Further, Google does provide a host of easy-to-use tools precisely so that webmasters can limit any content that would be inappropriate. From a societal view, which is easier: Google trying to solve every variation of online harassment for a million different AutoAdmits, coming up with an identity verification system to administer it? Or you simply adding "NOFOLLOW" tags to any off-topic posting linked off your off-topic homepage? You'll excuse me if I can't imagine that the fifteen minutes of coding that should take is an exceptional burden for you.

And of course, where Google does host content, it provides the kind of simple tools that PG has stressed to you above. Google, after all, owns Blogger, and Blogger allows users to flag content for hate speech and other unacceptable uses. Google's particular approach to dealing with abusive content has earned it criticism by some, but it's hard to agree with you that their approach is "hands off" simply because they don't spare you a few hours work by implementing your favored solution.

There is essentially no difference but the fact that Google displays content that is automatically fetched from third-parties, while AutoAdmit (or any other unmoderated forum) displays content that is manually input by third-parties.
Well, yes, but that difference is pretty critical. You seems to start from the premise that AutoAdmit springs fully formed from the ether, and that its present structure is somehow foreordained and a matter with which you have little or no involvement. It's not. You don't create the content, but you do determine how it is displayed and the incentives provided for your users. As it is, trolls get a lot of attention and the protection of maximum anonymity. Other boards--say, Kuro5hin--are actually built to minimize this form of damage. True, you're not a troll. You've merely built a very comfortable troll cave, nurtured and protected your denizens, and now express utter astonishment that they've befouled their nest. Your exasperation at the thoroughly predictable is unbecoming a webmaster.

But if PG should be congratulated for anything, it's getting you to make a statement like this:
I appreciate your free-for-all suggestion. I mentioned before, as I've noticed any moderation policy on my part is used by people like yourself as an argument for more moderation, that I've already been considering taking this direction. I'm more convinced than ever that a total hands-off policy, which is exactly like Google's, would be the wisest for me to adopt. You've illustrated the slippery slope to a tee.
I've already mentioned that your policy is not, in fact, like Google's. Similarly, PG and others have pointed out that you never really followed a principle of non-moderation. Instead, where your "hands off" principle clashed with a threat to your users' anonymity, your practice was to elevate protection of your trolls. Now, having been faced with this inconsistency multiple times, you purport to have reached an epiphany.

I don't buy it, but if PG has truly inspired you to this Damascene conversion, prove it: restore the posts that "outed" your members. After all, if your non-intervention is truly more important to you than protecting your posters, you should be perfectly happy to correct your mistake and set things right, acting upon your guiding principle.

Better yet, I have some advice for when your talk with the law school deans. Why don't you suggest that they check their own server logs to see who's been posting on Xoxohth. Then, in keeping with your principle of "more speech" being better, and your newfound preference for non-moderation, encourage Dean Koh to create his own account. As he feels that these comments have no place in the law school community, it would be fitting if he identified the Yale students who have written repulsive posts on the site that you hose. If you believe in unmoderated speech by anyone who happens to have the slightest thing to say on AutoAdmit, surely you'd not oppose this? Or does Dean Koh not have freedom of speech?

But of course, I'm certain you wouldn't extend such courtesies only to law school deans. It doesn't seem like it would be hard for a dedicated investigator to find out who some of your more vitriolic posters are. Certain of them even seem to be Columbia students. Do I take it that as part of your principle of non-moderation, you wouldn't stop an affronted individual from joining AutoAdmit and posting the real names of a few trolls? They could even go so far as to follow the example your users have set, and forward the names, pseudonyms, and posts on to the firms that they work for.*

As I said, I rather doubt your sincerity when it comes to moderation. If your tenure at AutoAdmit shows anything, it's that the principle that takes actual precedence over all others is the preservation of user anonymity. But I'd be excited if you'd prove me wrong. Just repost those threads you say that you deleted, and announce your new policy to your users.

*I do not, of course, actually have such information myself, but after doing a bit of browsing through AutoAdmit itself, there are one or two trolls who don't seem to have covered their tracks very well at all.

Posted by: A. Rickey at May 1, 2007 02:14 AM

Mr. Ciolli,

Certainly you are no longer Chief Education Director. Loss of title, however, is not sufficient to dissociate you from the site given that, according to Mr. Cohen (who says above that "His contributions went far beyond organizing two papers," i.e. much more than just administering AutoAdmit Studies) and my own eyes, your participation is much larger: you "sticky" posts, perform Cohen-sanctioned moderation, and according to Jill at Feministe are "still affiliated with AutoAdmit and will continue to manage the other sites that he co-owns with Jarret Cohen — the other AutoAdmit head, who has not stepped down."

If we all are getting the facts wrong and you in fact no longer have any ownership of AutoAdmit, nor any privileges not accorded to every person with a user account, then please let me know and I will correct inaccurate information in this post and its comments. I made this offer to you by email last week and you did not respond. I will go a step further and email the various sites that have given misinformation on which I have relied, and ask them to correct it so no one else is getting bad information.

Regarding Blogger, please see A. Rickey's comment above for how Blogger has its users flag inappropriate content. Having started using Blogger several years ago, I didn't realize that they had modified their terms of use, which as of at least a month ago stated, "Member agrees not to transmit through the Service any unlawful, harassing, libelous, abusive, threatening, or harmful material of any kind or nature. Member further agrees not to transmit any material that encourages conduct that could constitute a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability or otherwise violate any applicable local, state, national or international law or regulation. Attempts to gain unauthorized access to other computer systems are prohibited." (And if you Google any portion of that with "Blogger," the link to the Blogger TOS still is the first hit, though you no longer find that statement on the page. It's also in the last Wayback archive of the page.)

And Blogger doesn't get away with failing to enforce those TOS -- it has been heavily criticized when it hides behind Section 230. Sound familiar?

Posted by: PG at May 1, 2007 03:24 PM

PG, I don't think you've answered my question. Yes, I know Blogger has a flagging system. But despite that flagging system, the allegedly defamatory Little Dickie's Diaper Droppings blog discussed in your second link is still up, with Google "hiding behind" Section 230 to justify its non-deletion. Do you believe that Google is ethically or morally bound to delete that blog just because Richard Silverstein complains about it, even though a critical mass of Blogger users do not consider the Little Dickie's Diaper Droppings blog to be worth flagging as inappropriate?

As for AutoAdmit, I'm not sure why you're relying on Feministe of all places for your AutoAdmit news, but let me repeat yet again: I do not own AutoAdmit. I do not manage any part of AutoAdmit. I have no affiliation with AutoAdmit beyond that of a normal poster.

Posted by: Anthony Ciolli at May 1, 2007 05:01 PM

Mr. Rickey,

Since everyone seems to be so gracious for everyone else's responses, I'm likewise obliged to thank you for your lengthy screed. It doesn't really matter to me whether AutoAdmit fits the definition of "Web 2.0" or not. I understand you have a technical background and feel very strongly that AutoAdmit does not belong in this category, but terminology like that isn't sacred to me. It's just an interactive website. It's a forum. Call it a Digital Turd 3.0, if so you feel!

The rest of your post is based around some false premises. You seem to be under the impression that the intention and the effect of the anti-outting policy has been to create a "troll cave." Actually, the only reason I ever implemented an anti-outting policy was to protect good posters, who might give a little too much personal information about their schools, stats, etc., and who were most often the targets of outting attempts. I had to create a policy to encourage good posters to continue to post candid content without fear of being perpetually attacked by trolls. I can't really think of a time when the anti-outting policy has protected a troll. I haven't gone out of my way to do favors for trolls or spammers, and I've banned others.

Unfortunately, the way this little policy is spun by critics like yourselves is always for the negative. That's why I sometimes wonder if I ought to just do away entirely with any form of moderation, just because of the slippery slope that any form of moderation potentially opens up. But I fear that would be for the worst.

I think part of the reason for the gap between my administrative decisions and what you might like for them to be is simply that I've been inwardly focused on AutoAdmit. I haven't been tidying it up for the sake of improving the Google search experience. Nor do I think that's my job. If everyone should be expected to sweep his or her own porch on the web in the way that best suits each website, then larger websites must be held to the same standards as the little ones. I'm generally not going to go out of my way to stop websites like Google from mirroring and manipulating content from my site. As PG said, they chose to get into that business; such headaches and challenges naturally come with the territory. It's their business to figure out solutions to problems involving their website - including, perhaps, getting people like me to use the functions they build into their system that facilitate exclusion of content they don't want displayed.

As for the specific solution I have alluded to, you suggest that identity verification would be an impossibility, but there are plenty of examples of businesses employing various measures to do just that. I won't go into detail about it in this response, but in an essay I'm working on, I most likely will.

For my own website, what comes with the territory is constant criticism from some outspoken people in the law school world, but it means very little to me because I exist outside that box. If anything, dialogue like this is a fun mental exercise and help me develop my own views.

The rest of your post is a reasonable invitation that would be welcomed enthusiastically by the community, but I doubt very much that Dean Koh is going to start posting on AutoAdmit. As for IP logs, I wouldn't be surprised if there have been attempts by school administrations to identify AutoAdmit posters from their own IP records. In this case, that's their business; I can't stop them from accessing their own records. But as they are not a law enforcement agency, it's not my job to assist them in advancing their own philosophies.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 1, 2007 07:21 PM

Thanks for writing about this topic. I'm coming in as a bit of an outsider since I don't know the particular cases you're discussing here & am not a law student or even a lawyer. But my post mentioning Section 230 & Blogger's use of it to excuse it fr. taking action against offensive blogs is linked within a comment just above.

I wanted to let yr readers know about my particular issues w. cyberbullying.

This is a critical issue & one blogging platforms like Blogger & individual bloggers are giving short shrift to. I know because I’m routinely the victim of cyberbullying by people who disagree with my calls for peace bet. Israelis and Arabs.

Currently there is a website at Blogger created in my name using defamatory & infringing material to ridicule me. It’s a horrid, despicable site. In addition, I get harassing e mails fr. these same individuals.

I’ve asked Google/Blogger to take down the fake, offending blog about me & they refuse relying on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Even though the blog violates Blogger’s TOS in countless ways, they hide behind Section 230 as an excuse. The person who has created the fake blog has also created two other Blogger blogs defaming other individuals.

I'd love to consider a legal strategy that might get blogging platforms & other hosts to accept that Section 230 isn't a license to do nothing in the face of defamation, libel, pornography & vulgarity.

I am trying to make lemonade fr. the lemons. If some schmuck wants to drag me through the mud, I'm going to do my best to tell the world about it. If he’s trying to shame me, I'll shame him back. I’ve gotten my story into the NY Times, Seattle Post Intelligencer & Computerworld. I’m still trying to get more coverage. Make them pay if they want to be assholes. Not that they’ll care. But it’ll make you feel a little better telling the world the type of people you’re dealing with.

If anyone out there is interested in discussing with me any legal options I might have, pls. send me a msg. through my blog which is linked to this comment.

Posted by: Richard Silverstein at May 1, 2007 07:26 PM

Mr. Cohen:

Time does not allow me to address your post fully, but a few of your comments invite question.
It doesn't really matter to me whether AutoAdmit fits the definition of "Web 2.0" or not. . . . It's just an interactive website. It's a forum.
Such terminology isn't particularly sacred to me either. Given that you used it, and highlighted that PG's response didn't take into account the "Web 2.0" nature of your site, however, I assumed you meant something more illuminating than "It's a forum."

You seem to be under the impression that the intention and the effect of the anti-outting policy has been to create a "troll cave."
I don't think that the effect of your anti-outing policy is really arguable. AutoAdmit is a particularly virulent nest of trolls, a fact that is encouraged by an anti-outing policy. Many of the trolls seem to rely upon this and say so in posts. Whatever your initial intent, a policy of anonymity is simply an invitation for trolling, and it's pretty predictable that this will run one into problems with Google. If these problems were not actually intended by you, I find it unbelievable that they were not foreseeable.

I haven't been tidying it up for the sake of improving the Google search experience.
Well, a quick glance at AutoAdmit would suggest it's not entirely passive about search engine optimization. Putting the full content of your TITLE tags into URLs is normally done for search engine optimization purposes. Its practical effect will be to make the posts more influential for Google. (Anyone linking to a post directly will use words in the title tags in the link itself.) Was there some other technical reason for you to do so?

I'm generally not going to go out of my way to stop websites like Google from mirroring and manipulating content from my site.
The simple expedient of placing NOFOLLOW tags on any link from your homepage that's flagged "Off-Topic" seems nary a sidestep from your merry way. Certainly no more difficult than optimizing your URLs to ensure Google indexes the entries well.

As for the specific solution I have alluded to, you suggest that identity verification would be an impossibility, but there are plenty of examples of businesses employing various measures to do just that. I won't go into detail about it in this response, but in an essay I'm working on, I most likely will.
I look forward to it, then. So far, your technical arguments have been an absolute delight to read.

The rest of your post is a reasonable invitation that would be welcomed enthusiastically by the community . . . .
Just to be clear: it's now your policy for AutoAdmit that if anyone writes a post identifying a troll, you will not remove that post? I'll admit that I don't read AutoAdmit any more closely than is necessary to write about it. If that is the policy understood by the community, or if you announced this, I missed it and am, indeed, quite mistaken.

Posted by: A. Rickey at May 1, 2007 08:47 PM

I hope no commenter feels obliged to express thanks he does not sincerely feel. I can say that A. Rickey's were true, albeit somewhat ironic; he's rarely convinced by anything he reads at De Novo, so this is uncommon indeed.

I am grateful for people's responses because I am aware that most of what I blog gets few comments; I'm a small player even within law blogs. Mr. Cohen has stated that he doesn't find the law school world relevant and that he's still waiting for Google to be "getting people like [him] to use the functions they build into their system that facilitate exclusion of content they don't want displayed." That he doesn't think any such function has been recommended to him indicates that he's had very little regard for suggestions coming from Prof. Kerr, A. Rickey, Henri Ducard and me, so his lack of concern for what anyone in the legal community thinks is no bluff.

Given that, I suppose I should be flattered that he took the time (quite a lot of it, since it appears nowhere on this site) to figure out the "G" in PG!

Posted by: PG at May 1, 2007 10:02 PM

Mr. Ciolli,

Blogger's flagging system doesn't work to delete blogs, especially now that they've recently revised their policies to remove the above-quoted portion prohibiting "unlawful, harassing, libelous, abusive, threatening, or harmful material." Instead,
The "Flag?" button is a means by which readers of Blog*Spot can help inform us about potentially questionable content, so we can prevent others from encountering such material by setting particular blogs as "unlisted." This means the blog won't be promoted on Blogger.com but will still be available on the web — we prefer to keep in mind that one person's vulgarity is another's poetry.

In other words, this is similar to the options that I have been recommending throughout this discussion: don't delete, but make less visible, remove from searchability, etc. Heck, Blogger even tells tech-phobic users like me how to make their sites less visible voluntarily: You can also paste the following tag into your template's head, to instruct search engine robots to not index your site:

The reason I mentioned Blogger to begin with is that neither you nor Mr. Cohen defends AutoAdmit's policies on the simple ground that y'all are there to maximize pageviews and users, and policies that protect users' identities while allowing them to harass non-users by name do this. Instead, you declare that you are protecting free speech and giving all people the opportunity that they equally deserve -- as though the only place one can speak online is at AutoAdmit. Sending the trolls to Blogger illustrates that there are many places one can speak; AutoAdmit simply privileges certain speech and speakers in a way that other fora do not. (Such that what will get repeatedly bumped up on AutoAdmit -- I saw a months-old thread on a law professor's breasts on the front page today -- would sink to the bottom of SlashDot and other responsibly user-moderated sites, and is unlikely ever to get noticed on one of the millions of Blogspot blogs.)

I originally saw the AutoAdmit sourced remarks about your continued involvement with the site on Concurring Opinions in a comment, and just didn't see the link right away when I glanced at my search history, so I substituted the Feministe link instead. Ciolli gives more details in the same thread. It looks like all he's doing is excusing himself from further responsibility.
As for the board, it's always been [Jarret Cohen's] baby and he has always made the policies, so my resignation really shouldn't have any impact. I'm still going to work on the law firm salary charts and various other things, so I'll still be around. This isn't a retirement, just a resignation.
As far as I can tell, the only real world effects of his resignation are: (1) he types in an end date next to "Chief Education Director" on his resume, and (2) he has given himself another excuse to deflect blame for all of the garbage that goes on the site.
Ciolli doesn't appear to have turned any "duties" over to anyone else, nor has he identified anything he's been doing that he'll stop doing in the future (other than accepting responsibility for the site). This strikes me as a ploy, more than anything else.
Ciolli essentially confirms this elsewhere in the thread:
Date: March 13th, 2007 4:32 AM
Author: Great Teacher Onizuka
Actually it's probably a lot less vulnerable to a shut down now that a law student has no involvement whatsoever.
It's as if Alberto Gonzales kept going to work as usual, kept making the same decisions, kept giving directives to the same subordinates with the expectation they'd be followed....
... but he stopped taking calls from the press and told people to stop calling him the Attorney General.
Posted by: Skeptical at March 14, 2007 11:12 AM If both of these are erroneous -- in particular, if the statements put in AutoAdmit under your name actually were the work of a troll -- I will "strike" my prior claims and will e-mail Dave Hoffman and Jill that they should perform corrective action.

Posted by: PG at May 2, 2007 12:16 AM

A similar case happened over at 4chan--someone posted the family tree, SSN, house, car description, etc. of a white supremacist. The FBI shut them down for a bit, if I'm correct.

I don't see how deleting posts mentioning names/contact information/sightings of members or nonmembers is a "slippery-slope" to censorship. I don't think that the racist/sexist spam is the issue here. It's the harassment and threats, which aren't protected by the first amendment.

Posted by: La Fille Torpille at May 3, 2007 10:02 PM

Publishing someone's social security number, along with bank account or credit card number or an image of signature, also is sufficient to get Google to pull the webpage from its search index, even if, like Mr. Cohen, the site owner has neither modified the content of the page, removed the page from the web, nor blocked it from being indexed. The site also might be pullable from Google's index if it contains "Explicit content which violates Google's guidelines and contains my personal information," but unfortunately the linked Google page is mostly about good, honest web design and does not specify what kind of content violates their guidelines.

So as you can see, GoogleSearch is making no move toward becoming a forum; instead, bad search results just get removed entirely. In contradiction of Mr. Cohen's repeated claim that Google is somehow hosting dubious content, the page says,
"Q: Can you remove my information from Google's search results?

A: We'd like to assist you, but information in our search results is actually located on third-party publicly available webpages. In order to remove your information from our search results, you'll need to contact the webmaster of this third-party site."

Posted by: PG at May 4, 2007 12:30 AM

Cohen should just forget all this stupid debating with law professors and other self-appointed internet police.

Life isn't fair and neither is the internet. Get over it. Jarret should just put that on his front page and refuse to reply or discuss anything but technical issues.

If people can't take a joke, let them sue. If they can't sue, they can go screw themselves.

Posted by: Patrick E.S. Vine at May 4, 2007 01:06 AM

Patrick, you're probably right. I've realized that people generally are fixed in their opinions of most issues in life, whether or not they're right or wrong. Especially the academic crowd.

I refer to Google partly to point out the absurdity of the suggestions that I should be held to a double standard, when Section 230 clearly states that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another tinformation content provider." Section 230 is saying essentially that Google is not the publisher or speaker, nor am I. In other words, the people who originally create the content, i.e. the posters, are ultimately the ones who should be expected to edit it and alter it, if they are so required. It is not relevant that Google says on their FAQ (as if that is somehow the basis of an argument) that my website is the original host of the content, because regardless of the host, they have the ability to block it, just like they block websites from Google China, and I have the ability to block it, but neither of us are required to do so. The relevant portion of Section 230 focuses not on the "interactive computer service", which is a forum, or Google, but on the "information content provider", defined as "any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information." The focus is on who creates the information, not who hosts it. So the question of moderation in this case comes down to an issue of ethics.

Ethically, we all have our biases - I'm against censorship, even though I have gone against strict principles in the past out of compassion, while other people support varying and increased degrees of censorship. PG has herself identified as a "hardcore liberal feminist", so it's understandable she takes the viewpoint she does, citing Feministe as a reference. I respect PG's viewpoint, but I appreciate that it is a viewpoint, just as mine, which makes it harder to prove or disprove than simple law. It's just a good exercise to learn what you can expect the other side to throw at you.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 4, 2007 08:35 AM


One of my friends who is an AutoAdmit user, when I told him about my discussion with Cohen and Ciolli, said, "If I were them, I'd just say, 'In the words of Jay-Z: Money, cash, hos. We make money, to turn into cash, so we can get hos. Anything that's going to slow that down: hell no." I admitted that there certainly wasn't much with which I could argue in that statement, unless I could say that Mr. Cohen's moderation policy would reduce pageviews, which at least so far it hasn't.

Certainly if Mr. Cohen is wholly indifferent to others' opinions, he would be well advised not to waste his time talking to the Washington Post, posting on the Volokh Conspiracy, etc. Your slogan "Life isn't fair and neither is the Internet," however, is sadly lacking in the free speech, anti-censorship rhetoric that Mr. Cohen usually employs (as he has in every comment made on this blog). Saying, "I'll do what I want and you can't stop me without legal action" is rather different from "I am defending free speech from censorship!" For one thing, a standard of doing only what the law requires creates puzzlement as to why Mr. Cohen got so offended by Ms. Heller's referring to the litigation option.

With regard to Google, I'm confused by Mr. Cohen's repeated claim that they are *also* the hosts of AutoAdmit. First of all, Google does not say Mr. Cohen is a host at all, because Google uses technical terms accurately. Mr. Cohen is a webmaster who has created a forum on which people can post almost anything they like -- except for whatever Mr. Cohen compassionately deletes -- and be sure that all of it will get picked up by Google because Mr. Cohen has helpfully optimized his site for that function. Nor will their names be attached to anything they post, because of an anti-outing policy.

Unlike Mr. Cohen's one-note anti-censorship stance, I have multiple moral commitments that come into play. As a feminist, I am concerned about AutoAdmit's tendency to attack women; as a liberal, I am concerned about preventing people from speaking, even if their speech is abhorrent. (This is why I've frequently disagreed with radical feminists who believe that the imperative of avoiding harm to women justifies illiberal laws like pornography bans or "hate speech" prohibitons.)

Therefore it seems to me that the solution that minimizes harm to named individuals, while maximizing speech of the anonymous, is to remove the Off Topic section from search engine's indices, by an easy change in the robots.txt file or the use of "nofollow" tags. In this way, all can speak as much as they like, of whom they like, without creating the danger that this speech will be pushed into a wider public sphere. Even if they get outed on AutoAdmit, a Google search for their names won't pick up the page. To Mr. Cohen, this too is somehow censorship; it is not enough to let people speak freely, you must also make sure that there is as large an audience for the speech as possible.

Posted by: PG at May 5, 2007 12:53 AM

"With regard to Google, I'm confused by Mr. Cohen's repeated claim that they are *also* the hosts of AutoAdmit. First of all, Google does not say Mr. Cohen is a host at all, because Google uses technical terms accurately."

PG, unless you're aware of AA's hosting situation, you can't say Cohen's use of the term innacurate. Most large sites are hosted off colo'd servers owned by the website owner.

Likewise Google also hosts the content on their own servers via their cache (and contrary to Rickey's post above, caching content requires hosting it.)

More to the point, the Google cache allows anyone who puts material on the web the opportunity to put that same material on Google's servers. It is effectively unmoderated (short of illegal material), anonymous (via proxy domain registration, though again only up to the point of legality), and reaches a wide audience. In principle, it is no different from the service Cohen offers his posters.

Likewise most ISPs and many other companies (including Google) host Usenet servers where the bounds of taste and legality are pushed in far more directions and with far more regularity than is found on AA. Many of these services allow for anonymous and minimally censored posting (in my experience, only spammers get blocked.) But the people who run Giganews et al. don't suffer a fraction of the criticism Cohen recieves.

Adding no-follow tags to offtopic threads will probably accomplish nothing, as dedicated trolls can put innappropriate content into ontopic threads (much the way Digg users revolted and began spamming the AACS encryption key everywhere after Digg tried to suppress it). If the idea is to keep stuff out of Google without removing posts or banning people, he'd have to robot.txt the entire site.

Posted by: Cid at May 5, 2007 11:28 AM


My point in referring to Google's using terms accurately, is that a host has very limited control over what appears on the "hosted" site. It is a *webmaster* that makes that decision. I am hosted on HostingMatters and would be furious if they thought their hosting rights allowed them to omit content they disliked from the public view of my site. I would be similarly furious if GoogleCache claimed to be presenting an accurate picture of my site as captured on May 4, but left out a post that was then visible because Google didn't like it. Hosts have only an on/off ability to control what appears. Webmasters, which is the role Mr. Cohen has has AutoAdmit, are the determiners of what gets hosted. This is why Google tells people to ask the webmaster of the problematic site to take down content. That Mr. Cohen obscures the difference between webmasters and hosts by claiming that Google is talking about hosts when it does no such thing, does not change how the internet actually works.

Your "to the point of legality" exceptions to what GoogleCache shows are telling, because they are not exceptions that AutoAdmit includes. If I find material that is defaming or intrusive on GoogleCache, I can look up the original site from which GoogleCache takes its copy, and even if there is a proxy domain registration, can demand that that person turn over the name of the real registrant or be held liable herself. Whenever anyone asks Cohen for information -- unless it's perhaps the FBI, which would be able just to seize the server anyway -- he says he doesn't keep identifying information on his users. He apparently sees no reason to be even as responsible as the proxy domain registrants.

Moreover, the principles of Cohen's site are quite different from that of GoogleCache. If I don't pay for this site's hosting for a single month, it can disappear, and shortly after it's gone from this domain, it will be gone from the Cache as well. The AutoAdmit trolls responsible for various harassments could all drop dead tomorrow, and their content would be perpetuated on Cohen's site. This also makes AutoAdmit different from, say, Blogger, which seems to void accounts that aren't signed into after a certain period. Many AutoAdmit users have suggested letting threads expire after a certain period of time, but it's not a feature of the site. Also, Cohen claims to be running websites about academia that even featured a Chief Education Director, notwithstanding his professed populist contempt for "the academic crowd," whereas GoogleSearch (and the associated Cache function) is there to help people find whatever it is they want that the WWW might offer. That's why Cohen's suggestion that GoogleSearch be turned into a forum bothers me; when something is working well for its designed purpose, why change it? AutoAdmit, in contrast, seems to be getting rather bogged down with content that has no relevance to its original stated purpose and that creates distractions and problems for AutoAdmit's administrators. Google has a stated procedure for getting information de-indexed; Cohen doesn't, operating instead on a case-by-case basis of whether he likes how the person asked for the favor. Seeing even that as too much a concession, he's now speaking about giving no opportunity to have content removed -- no matter what it is -- at all.

If the majority of AutoAdmit users want the site to be useful for its stated purpose of assisting people in academic pursuits, they will flag the trolls' inappropriate messages on the on topic threads as "off topic." Cohen can allow this community moderation actually to have effect, if he doesn't want to go through and make sure that all on topic threads are really on topic. Does this require responsibility within the community? Sure, but I am heartened by the volunteering of Henri Ducard, as well as message I've read at AutoAdmit in the wake of recent unfortunate events, that the majority of AutoAdmit users *do* have goodwill. I think many are willing to give at least a small effort toward making AutoAdmit a place where useful information can be found even by searchers who are not Xoxohthians, and the sort of discussion best kept within a circle of friends is not exposed to unwitting outsiders. If someone has a "schtick" of being racist, he doesn't have to worry even if it's identified with him, as long as it remains within that circle of friends who knows he's not *really* racist (or if he is, are like-minded), instead of its coming up when his name is Googled.

Posted by: PG at May 5, 2007 10:28 PM


An host is simply the owner of the hosting server. If a host's contract or TOS allows them to disable specific content (typically high CPU-load processes or pornographic material, but they can make whatever TOS they want) from their boxes, without touching the rest of your site, then they will do so. The semantic distinction you are making between host and webmaster just isn't very useful when it comes to large forums.

You wrote "Your "to the point of legality" exceptions to what GoogleCache shows are telling, because they are not exceptions that AutoAdmit includes."

I may not have been clear. I say "to the point of legality" because Google is an American company bound by American law, just as Autoadmit is. As such you have legal remedies.

You wrote "even if there is a proxy domain registration, can demand that that person turn over the name of the real registrant or be held liable herself."

I do not think a domain name owner would be liable for illegal content, rather the owner of the server would be. American proxy registrants would have to comply with a subpoena, of course, but if the proxy is in Malaysia, good luck. There are in fact such offshore proxy registrant services and Google does cache content on their domains.

You wrote "Google has a stated procedure for getting information de-indexed; Cohen doesn't," My understanding is that the women went to Google and asked for the content to be removed. Google refused. The women went to Cohen, asked for the content to be removed. Cohen refused. In both cases, legal content stays while illegal content goes, via lawsuit if necessary. Why is Cohen the bad guy and Google not? What good is Google's stated procedure if it doesn't work for these women?

Discussing the "principles" behind Google's services, I'm certain you know it isn't out of altruism that Google expires old content on some of their services (they do not expire old messages on Google Groups/Usenet.) I don't think it can be used to show that Google is morally better than Cohen.

Complicated discussion of moderation systems isn't necessary. Automated system can be abused (e.g. flag every post as offtopic.) If Cohen wanted moderation he could set rules and simply start banning people left and right. It would get the message across quickly enough.

More to the point, community moderation means certain viewpoints are more valued and more seen than others. If that's the road Cohen wants to go down, great. For most businesses and communities, that makes sense from a practical point of view. But I don't see why Cohen should be *morally* obligated to forego the virtual equality on his forum in exchange for that. Yes he may have deleted the occasional post, but I don't think that sullies the ideal he strives for.

Posted by: Cid at May 6, 2007 08:13 AM

I'm appalled by all of this. My son is in law school and informed me of this. There are boys threatening and encouraging others to rape and assult these women. If someone asks to have their thread taken down, why wouldn't you do it on moral reasons alone?

Posted by: PEF at May 7, 2007 04:37 AM


My host, or Google, can refuse to *show* what's on my website, but that doesn't remove what I've created. If Google doesn't show my site, it's still there; if you know the URL, you can go there and see what's to be seen even if Google ignores it. The messages and threads deleted by Messrs. Cohen and Ciolli are gone, not visible by any means.

I'm not sure what you mean by Google's expiring "old" content. As far as I know, it doesn't; posts I wrote in 2002 on my other blog are still picked up by GoogleCache. What I said was that GoogleCache stops showing material within a few weeks if it is taken offline, and within a few months if it's modified so as not to be picked up by search engines.

You wrote "Google has a stated procedure for getting information de-indexed; Cohen doesn't," My understanding is that the women went to Google and asked for the content to be removed. Google refused. The women went to Cohen, asked for the content to be removed. Cohen refused. In both cases, legal content stays while illegal content goes, via lawsuit if necessary. Why is Cohen the bad guy and Google not? What good is Google's stated procedure if it doesn't work for these women?

If you read Google's policy, you'll see that it tells the complainant to contact the webmaster of the site on which the problematic content is posted, in order to have the content either removed entirely or removed from searchability. If the webmaster refuses and the content falls within certain invasions of privacy, Google will delete the individual page from its index, but obviously this is more trouble for Google than having webmasters voluntarily remove content. If you would like to put Mr. Cohen in the position of Google, I'd be delighted to see him recommending that complainants get in touch with the anonymous posters who have offended them -- and giving the complainants the information to be able to do so. If AutoAdmit users all had to put their real names and e-mail addresses next to their messages, I wouldn't be asking Mr. Cohen to do a single thing. Even if he gave such information out to people who complained about a message that names them, again, he would be doing as much as anyone could expect. If Mr. Cohen had a stated procedure like Google's where it was possible to know and reach the content creator, this would be a wholly different discussion. Certainly offshore proxy registrants complicate the situation for the person complaining to Google, but Mr. Cohen has a great deal more access to information about his posters than Google does to information about the content creator of a website that Google indexes. I don't have to go through anything owned by Google in order to create content on De Novo; I do have to go through AutoAdmit to create content on AutoAdmit. You have to go through De Novo to create content on De Novo, and if I had a site that enabled people to take down their comments themselves, someone who complainedabout your comments could just go to the publicly-accessible Sitemeter and work out based on the timing of the comment which IP is yours (or, if they had a good claim for why they wanted the information, could petition me for it). AutoAdmit offers none of that, and its administrators oscillate between talking about all the law firm IPs that visit the site and declaring that they have no such information.

Certainly automated systems can be abused, such that every post is flagged off-topic. Yet you don't seem to see such abuse creating a problem for the community-moderated sites I've already suggested as models for AutoAdmit. If your community is worth a damn, it does good moderation (where "good" of course is reflective of what the overall community wants to see).

I'm not sure what you mean by "certain viewpoints being more valued." Cohen and Ciolli's selective deletion certainly leads to that result, on the basis of what they consider valuable. Community moderation simply moves information around, so that what a majority have found to be useful is more visible to other users. If a poster wants his off-topic, low-rated message to be read, he still can e-mail its URL to friends, etc. -- he simply doesn't get to keep bumping it or his buddy's message onto the front page over and over. Such behavior may be "virtual equality," but I believe only in equality of opportunity, not outcome -- all users should have equal opportunity to have their posts go online, and then on their merits, those posts will be moderated up or down. If Mr. Cohen stands for the "ideal" of equality of outcome regardless of merit, however, you are correct that AutoAdmit certainly fits with that ideal.

Because this post is no longer on the front page, De Novo readers are unlikely to see any new comments, so this is my last comment on the post. Others are more than welcome to continue discussion, however.

Posted by: PG at May 7, 2007 02:12 PM

Sadly, it looks like this deteriorated into a largely semantical argument focusing on frivolous details. Cid gets it. (Though, granted, it's not that hard to "get" if you enter the discussion without a proclaimed "hardcore feminist" agenda.) But PG apparently has to resort to nitpicking about all of AutoAdmit's alleged inconsistencies in order to scrounge for something to be critical about. I didn't see any good response to Cid's points; I only wish that PG could see the forest through the trees.

One thing written by PG that is worth mentioning is this:

"I don't have to go through anything owned by Google in order to create content on De Novo; I do have to go through AutoAdmit to create content on AutoAdmit."

As I've found myself asking this question throughout this dialogue: What's your point, PG? AutoAdmit displays content that other people create. Google displays content that other people create. Both have the ability to block content from being displayed, but choose not to. There are legal precedents, like Section 230, that establish that it is not the host or the website (or whatever you want to call it, PG) but the original "publisher or speaker of any information", the "information content provider", who is "responsible ... for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet." The fact that words are being housed on one server or another server is treated more or less as irrelevant. I look at it from a practical standpoint: people are increasingly concerned about their listings in Google. I've chosen not to respond the the recent complainants, and there is no regulatory mandate that says I need do so. Google is also free not to respond, but since they are a for-profit company and more predominant than my little message board (which was created as a side hobby), they might want to explore it.

Anyway, I enjoyed the discussion. Thank you everyone.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 7, 2007 05:24 PM

My review of the discussion indicates that it kept getting moved off the topic of AutoAdmit, as the site's supporters keep saying, in effect, "But so-and-so does it, therefore it's OK and you should leave AutoAdmit alone!" My suggestions for alternatives to the way AutoAdmit currently is run rarely got a response about whether they could be implemented, even after an AutoAdmit user came here to volunteer his help.

Nope, Mr. Cohen needs Dean Koh on the phone before he lets people do free labor for him. He needs to comment on the various blog posts about AutoAdmit and check on them (sometimes multiple times in a day) but doesn't have the time to make AutoAdmit better.
I probably could do a lot of things to make De Novo better, but at least when people criticize how the site is run, I don't claim that I lack the time -- if I have time to write comments, I have time to fix the site. I'm just choosing not to do so, with no excuses, no fingers pointed at so-and-so whose site is run just like mine, etc.

Social groups are functional when they can indicate disapproval for bad behavior and make less important those who behave in such a way. AutoAdmit, in contrast, is currently dysfunctional -- leaving a comment on someone's nasty thread to tell him he's a jerk just bumps it back to the top of the list. Those who disapprove can do nothing to show it without making the object of their disapproval get exactly what he wants: more attention. This isn't helpful to the alleged goal of discussing academic and career goals, and it works to incentivize silence from the majority of decent people on AutoAdmit.

Mr. Cohen, if you look at the (dead) trees occasionally, you might see the difference that the adjective "liberal" makes when put before the noun "feminist," or the pro-legalized porn joke embedded in the "hardcore." But why do that when you can dismiss disagreements as an indication that I have an agenda in the discussion (while the person running the site in question doesn't... ?).

I've tried to explain that I'm looking for a balance between the freedom-maximizing demand of classical liberalism, and the subtler recognition that the particular harms done to women restrict their freedom. You and Mr. Ciolli say that women who don't want to be treated as they are on AutoAdmit should keep any trace of their identities off the internet -- no Facebook, no MySpace, not even a reference to their father's name. You are consistent about this -- you ignore the victims of AutoAdmit and focus on the male ego at Reputation Defender. That way, it's a fight between the menfolk and the women are invisible. You decry their resort to Reputation Defender, yet you ignored their requests -- according to Ciolli, you don't even reply to emails if you aren't going to take action. Apparently women do have to get someone like Fertik to be their representative for you to react.

In the society described by you and Mr. Ciolli, if I don't want my breasts being assayed as fake or real, I had better never let my firm put up a picture of me that goes below the neck. If I don't want people to threaten to rape me, I had damn well better never protest anything that does get said about me. And oh hell, *what* was I thinking when I wrote a column for my college paper where I gave personal details and where the editor insisted on having a photo of all columnists accompany their writing each week? I must have been mad to think that decent people would discourage their less inherently decent brethren from harassing, defaming and threatening me -- all for a laugh, of course.

A friend who is a frequent AutoAdmit reader warned me that I should be cautious about criticizing you or the site, because if I got the trolls' attention I would get the same treatment I was critiquing. Maybe one of my classmates would put up my picture, home address and phone number -- all available on Columbia Law's site, because the school is dumb enough to think that we're all going to be decent to each other.

Certainly this balance between liberalism and feminism requires thinking in terms of details that strike a person who is all one thing ("No Censorship!) or all the other ("Anything that harms women should be banned!") as "frivolous." I've had radical feminists attack me for being a male apologist because I'm sympathetic to transfolk and in those feminists' minds, ever having lived as a male = never welcome as a female. No details are important.

Those women usually have the excuse of having had some very bad things happen in their lives that caused their radicalization and inability to see how others feel. I don't know what could have happened to you that you feel the need to keep AutoAdmit in its current form, regardless of who it hurts or how easily it could be better without censoring anyone (unless censorship now includes the judgment that something lacks merit, in which case this site is being censored and I demand that I be more prominently featured on Google).

Posted by: PG at May 7, 2007 07:44 PM


In all fairness, most of your post didn't say anything that you haven't said before, but the last part touched me. It strikes me as a genuine, human appeal to my sensibilities that I wasn't expecting. So I just had to respond.

The AutoAdmit community, from its inception, was much like it is today, except the posting body was generally younger. I think there is the impression that much of the distasteful content on the website is a new phenomenon, but no. The kind of nasty crap that exists on it has existed since the beginning. Most don't realize it, but this is why very early on Brian Leiter picked on the website, and why he received the... err, enthusiastic... response from the community. Not to mention, this type of content and behavior is the same reason why I had to create the off-topic section in the first place - I only thought that this would generally be enough to hide it from the public eyes. I've always loved the community, though, because aside from the bad stuff, there is a lot of wit, humor, and intelligence that, while often approaching the bounds of the risque, hands down provides for some of the best laughs I've ever had in front of a computer screen.

I don't carry personal baggage, as you correctly acknowledge many people with agendas, like "radical feminists", do. I respect and appreciate the fact that you made this point. But in fact, I don't feel the need to keep AutoAdmit any particular way for the sake of personal stubbornness, but rather my concern is to make it flourish more than ever in a way that preserves that edginess (which no doubt stems from a lack of censorship) while broadening the audience and perhaps minimizing the collateral damage.

I've been enjoying an abstract debate with you, but debates create polarized sides that exist in theory and don't always reflect the personal viewpoints of the participants. I'm not as cold as my critics think. How I proceed from this point will be a true reflection of my viewpoint on how to achieve the goals I've outlined. But I'm not going to rush to make any improvements without carefully considering the possible consequences. In another respect, how I move forward will be a reflection of my pragmatic, organizational, and executive abilities. The current state of the website is a reflection of the viewpoint on which I founded the website, which was simple and fundamental, before I ever could have predicted it would get as big as it did.

One last thing you might find interesting is the concept of "memes." I bring this up only because it deals with the propagation of information through culture and the difficulty of suppressing it. I'm not asking to debate this. You might just want to look it up; it's interesting.

Once again, thank you for this most interesting dialogue.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 7, 2007 09:11 PM

Mr. Cohen:

One final question. Given your penchant for anonymity, and your insistence that it should be respected at your site, why do you not respect it here?

Posted by: A. Rickey at May 7, 2007 11:57 PM

A. Rickey: LOL. I'm hardly the only person who's made the connection - a quick Google search will show that. How was I to know this was a big secret?

Is PG, an obviously prolific blogger whose name can already be found all over Google and on similar blogs, entitled to anonymity for some particular reason, while I am not?

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 8, 2007 03:12 PM

"many many"

when I googled a search on pg's name and de novo, the link jarret posts is the only one that connects the two. I saw the name on a few other sites, but never connected to dn, only to ex post. I guess jarret has a lot of free time to hunt this stuff down.

even if there's no secret, some people might think it's polite to refer to someone by the name she uses for herself online instaed of acting like he knows her irl. but i guess we've seen what jarret thinks of online etiquete. hey pg, just be glad he didn't call you by your ss # -- that's probably online somewhere too.

Posted by: emily post at May 8, 2007 03:52 PM

emily, you're ridiculous. Do you think I had the option to be referred to as "rachmiel" (which is what I call myself on AutoAdmit) instead of "Jarret Cohen" on this blog? PG made a choice to write all about me by my personal name, and you're complaining when I politely refer to her by her real name, which is already in the public domain to the extent that someone who never reads her writings is aware of it?

Pretty odd set of standards for "online etiquete [sic]", if you ask me.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 8, 2007 04:20 PM

Mr. Cohen:

You are simply wrong. First of all, if you wished to be called "rachmiel," I'm certain no one would have minded, and if you'd left that as your name when you commented, I doubt anyone would have switched. To the best of my knowledge, you've never used that pseudonym on any of the blogs on which you've commented (e.g. Volokh). Nor have I ever seen any indication that, beyond the bounds of AutoAdmit, that's what you wish to be named. It would seem sort of odd to call you this, given that most of our readers probably aren't AutoAdmit users, and referring to you as "Rach" or "Rachmiel" would tie your real name to your pseudonym, a sort of reverse outing. But if that's what--contrary to every bit of evidence I have found--you truly preferred, the request would have been honored. Indeed, had you left a post asking to strike Henri Ducard's use of "rachmiel," I doubt anyone would have been bothered had I made the strike. I have no idea what you're "entitled" to, but as a matter of simple decency, the folks around here tend to respect such things. Let's be clear: did you want to be called rachmiel, and, for what it's worth, would you like me to ask the folks here to let me change your sign-ons here?

On the other hand, PG gave no indication that she ever wished to be addressed on any other manner. In three years on De Novo, this is the first time a guest has ever been so impolite as to refer to a quasi-anonymous poster by their real name. That's after 3,200 comments, not including spam. You may find it an odd standard, but you are the only person who has ever run afoul of it.

Posted by: A. Rickey at May 8, 2007 06:37 PM

A. Rickey:

It's almost amusing that you put that kind of thought into a response that does so well to look past the blatantly obvious. PG wrote an article about me (and Ciolli). She not only wrote all about me, but she linked to webpages that she found apparently through Googling my name, like Soflow. It is only fair that I am allowed to respond to her by her name, especially when I obtained that information through the same tool that she used to learn more about me. You can choose to delete my comments if that's the way you want to administer your website, but you can only do that here, not on AutoAdmit or anywhere else on the web that publishes her name.

Like PG, now I must say I'm out. Enjoy your final word if you can't resist.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 8, 2007 07:43 PM

Mr. Cohen:

Given your invitation, I'll accept the final word, if only because it's unusual that I get to point out something so bloody stupid.

A) PG may have linked to articles about you and Ciolli by Googling your name. It's unlikely, however, that she found your name by Googling it, or that she went searching for your name in Google. She was responding to a Washington Post article that mentioned you by name, not pseudonym.

B) More importantly, there's nothing to suggest that, at the time PG wrote this post, she even knew your pseudonym. I certainly didn't know it until Henri Ducard used it. Now, I realize you think very highly of PG, but it's a bit silly to suggest that, as a matter of politeness, she should have referred to you by a term she may very well not have known existed. I can't see how you find that in the slightest impolite, and I can't believe that anyone else does, either.

Nice job, however, ending on a none too subtle threat. It really does put paid to your protestations of ethics.

Posted by: A. Rickey at May 8, 2007 08:02 PM


Thank you for your vote of confidence. As you succinctly summarized, I think that we would all prefer a world with a friendlier AutoAdmit versus a world with a Autoadmit-as-it-stands. I have been busy wrapping up my law school exams, and I see that the topic has expanded far beyond its original scope. So I have several things to add below.

First, I should probably clarify my salutation to "rachmiel" above; I addressed my earlier comment to "rachmiel" because I wanted to signal that I was engaging JC in a discussion from the perspective of a (former) AutoAdmit user. I certainly didn't intend to "out" him in any way; indeed, it is my habit, both as a former AutoAdmit user and others, to maintain separation between real life and internet life. As I look through AR's comments above, I see that this is also the prevailing custom here too. Although this presents a slightly asymmetric disadvantage, from rachmiel's point of view, I would urge him to consider that this is one reason why AutoAdmit's current configuration is so problematic: individuals who are attacked by completely anonymous posters are unable to confront their "accuser," because the system has been designed specifically to allow them to get away with this. Certainly this is not a Constitutional right with respect to internet forums. But as you've seen on this forum, and as you've observed with respect to the BCB fellow ("people tend not to behave like idiots when you're talking to them by name [paraphrased]"), there is something to the idea of confronting someone by their real-life identity when they're attacking some facet of your real-life identity.

In fact, this is only the beginning of the problem. In arguing against moderation above, Cid notes above that moderation creates an disparity between different viewpoints in how they are heard. But in practice, my experience with Autoadmit -- a (mostly) unmoderated forum -- has shown me that these forums can also foster a particularly virulent brand of "group-think." As a practical matter, helpful posters reveal more information about themselves rather than trolls. This means that they are more easily targeted when they dissent, because their real-life identity is easily revealed. What I've seen so far is a rapid slide from a healthy mix of dissenting viewpoints, to a state where helpful posters are driven off of the forum until the only posters remaining are the ones who support the idea of attacking innocent third parties -- and google-bombing everyone who disagrees to hell. This hardly seems like parity to me.

Indeed, the recent incident involving the YLS girls has created an exodus of regular posters from AutoAdmit. I don't mean the "exodus" that follows from any event involving that forum, which have -- in the past -- been temporary in nature. I mean that there is a prevailing notion that rachmiel will take the sides of the trolls over those of the well-meaning posters. Is this true or false? I am not sure, and I wish that rachmiel would step up and say something about the trolls in the same way that he's said a word about shouting "fire" in the theater in response to the Hastings threat. It is not in rachmiel's nature to comment on Autoadmit -- in fact, he's probably written more on this single De Novo thread than he has in the last two years on Autoadmit combined -- but I wish that Autoadmit users had some idea of the forum's direction.

So, rachmiel, if you're out there, let us know! And please let us know your stance on the entire YLS incident. If things are going to improve on Autoadmit, I'd love to hear it, because I would like to continue to fight to bring control over the forum back from the trolls, to the more helpful law school students and law firm associates of yesteryear. But if not, then I would prefer not to be morally complicit in promoting a forum that attacks third parties without any shred of conscience.

Second, reading the posts above, I see much discussion about Google vs. Autoadmit vs. USENET. While I blame Google for indexing the threads, it is perfectly reasonable to also blame Autoadmit for keeping them up. Two reasons come to mind. The first, articulated by PG above, is that intuitions of justice correlate heavily with proximate cause. Besides the posters themselves, Autoadmit is the closest to the cause of harm -- and by enabling the posters to post anonymously without any IP logs, Autoadmit brings itself even closer to causing the harm. Second, policies aside (i.e. why should Google have to attend to your mess?) Autoadmit is not an institution that justifies the same expansive degree of latitude that we give to Google and USENET. Although it may be debatable whether a defense lawyer ought to withhold knowledge about the location of his client's victim as a matter of role morality, there is no question whether you or I (who are presumably not criminal lawyers) should withhold the same information from the police, since we are not part of an institution that justifies an otherwise immoral action. Likewise, Google exercises a much more important role in our lives than Autoadmit does, and is thus entitled to more latitude in the few cases that do go wrong. The same goes for USENET -- and perhaps even doubly so, for other unrelated reasons (I'd wager that most employers have never even heard of USENET, let alone searched it to dig up information about prospective hires).

I throw these ideas out there for consideration, not only as a law student who has heard much about the forum, but also as a former active participant who has seen better days on the forum when attacking innocent third parties would have been met with scorn.

However, I am a pragmatist at heart. I believe that it is still possible to bring about a new beginning for XOXO. But, as I mentioned above, we need some light to illuminate the way. I say, we put the past behind us, and look to what we can do in the future -- and I think that a few words from rachmiel could tell us which way he plans to steer the forum. I also urge PG and AR -- who have participated in an excellent civil discussion -- to help brainstorm ideas on how Autoadmit's problems might be solved without impinging too much on its unmoderated philosophy. Although there is more than enough blame to go around with respect to the YLS incident, spending our time dwelling on the past probably isn't going to help us improve things in the future.

I look forward to checking back on this corner of the internet, and I extend an invitation on behalf of the Autoadmit community-in-exile to join us in our quest to reinstate law and order over the chaotic villains that have taken over our forum. In closing, I adopt the role of my username: what chance does digital Gotham (a.k.a. Autoadmit) have if the good people of the internet do nothing?

Posted by: Henri Ducard at May 9, 2007 12:33 AM

Please e-mail me, Henri.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 9, 2007 10:54 AM

jcohen at autoadmit.com

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at May 9, 2007 10:57 AM

so now it's bad for pg to do research when writing ABOUT somebody and his public actions? a new twist on journalistic standards! or is jarret saying that his comments were ABOUT pg and her public actions, rather than jsut a repsonse to what she'd said about him? mr. cohen has left the building, so the world will never know why he felt the need to figure out who this pg was and then to post his findings here (and apparently going to do the same on autoadmit or maybe his loyal followers will do that for him so jarret/ rachmiel / whatever won't have to be associated with the dirty work?). i guess pg was right in the explanation of her semi-anonymity (really jarret how many people do you think are cls 3Ls and also '02 uva grads? that sounds like the kind of thing you'd helpfully delete off autoadmit if anyone revealed so much about himself) that some people can't just respond to the arguments -- they have to find out who the arguer is and try to cut them down that way instead.

Posted by: emily post at May 9, 2007 06:54 PM


Take a look at the above article. I guess Google has bought into my general vision of delivering the perspectives of all relevant parties.

I must say, I am very pleased. I can only hope the Internet continues to develop in this overall direction of participation and the enhancement, rather than the suppression, of information.

Posted by: Jarret Cohen at August 13, 2007 12:58 AM
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