Have you ever heard of AutoAdmit? It’s the next level in the institutionalization of online slander.
I wrote last year about something I called asymmetric cultural warfare, to wit:
In the old days, cranks and complainers and scandalmongers of this ilk used to peddle such wares via stolen reams of photocopy paper or purple mimeograph printouts. Mailed anonymously or pinned up on storefronts they were easily enough recognized as the rantings of marginal people; once pulled down and crumpled up, they were gone forever, and usually rightfully so.
Now we know not to believe everything we read in a blog, of course. No one thinks any more that if it’s on the Internet, “there must be something to it.” But slander has a way of sticking, especially when it is directed to those whose stations or dignity do not make response appropriate or practical. And the virtual eternity of anonymous defamation makes it more insidious than anything that preceded it. Potential employers, spouses or in-laws, business partners — anyone who can work Google can forever gain access to and read the rankest falsehood on the Internet.
The cost to the anonymous hit-blogger, or commenter: Free. The effect on people, institutions, communities: Unfathomable.
They say that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I have argued that this is true of libertarianism, as well, which I consider the animating political spirit of the Internet. Traditional economists argue for government or collectivist intervention in economies where “externalities” — costs borne by others not a direct party to economic decision-making — are not “properly” incorporated into cost decisions made by the market. Libertarians reject this by insisting on a proper allocation of property rights and responsibilities.
How do you do this in the new world of asymmetrical cultural or information warfare? How can property rights and penalties for their violation be properly allocated and enforced in a world of anonymity and where there are zero costs to instantly uttering thoughts, accusations and claims that can be consumed by millions, capable of destroying lives? And is there no value to the virtues of civilized discourse, of accountability for what one says in all the senses of the word?
This (AutoAdmit and its ilk) is the problem I described in action, affecting real lives. Not in a good way. What are we going to do about it? I suggest we roll back the law of defamation so that it is once again a viable cause of action*, and perhaps reconsider the application of the American rule to defamation litigation (which would discourage meritless claims). It will not solve the problem of anonymity, but it will at least place some cost on wrongdoers.
* Uh, don’t mention that I suggested this to anyone at Overlawyered. They always take these ideas the wrong way.
UPDATE: The latest.