Nia Chung, MJLST Staff
Cyberbullying comes in varying forms. Online outlets with user identification features such as Facebook and MySpace give third party attackers a platform to target individuals but remain identifiable to the victim. The transparency of identification provided on these websites allows victims the ability of possible redress without involving the Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
In February 2014, Bryan Morben published an article on cyberbullying in volume 15.1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology. In that article Mr. Morben wrote that Minnesota’s new anti-cyberbullying statute, the “Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act” H.F. 826 would “reconstruct the Minnesota bullying statute and would provide much more guidance and instruction to local schools that want to create a safer learning environment for all.” Mr. Morben’s article analyzes the culture of cyberbullying and the importance of finding a solution to such actions.
Another form of cyberbullying has been emerging, however, and state initiatives such as the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act may prompt Congress to revisit current, outdated, federal law. This form of cyberbullying occurs on websites that provide third parties the ability to hide behind the cloak of anonymity to escape liability for improper actions, like 4chan and AOL.
On September 22, 2014, British actress Emma Watson delivered a powerful U.N. speech about women’s rights. Less than 24 hours later, a webpage titled “Emma You Are Next” appeared, displaying the actress’s face next to a countdown, suggesting that Ms. Watson would be targeted this Friday. The webpage was stamped with the 4chan logo, the same entity that is said to have recently leaked celebrity photos of actresses including Jennifer Lawrence, this past summer. On the same website, one anonymous member responded to Ms. Watson’s speech by stating “[s]he makes stupid feminist speeches at UN, and now her nudes will be online.” Problematically, the law provides no incentive for such ISPs to remove such defamatory content because they are barred from liability by a federal statute. The Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230, provides, “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Essentially, this provision provides ISPs immunity from tort liability for content or information generated on a user-generated website. Codified in 1996, initially to regulate pornographic material, the statute added sweeping protection for ISPs. However, 20 years ago, the internet was relatively untouched and had yet to realize its full potential.
Courts historically have applied Section 230 broadly and have prevented ISPs from being held liable for cyberbullying actions brought from victims of cyberbullying on its forum. For example, the Ninth Circuit upheld CDA immunity for an ISP for distributing an email to a listserv who posted an allegedly defamatory email authored by a third party. The Fourth Circuit immunized ISPs even when they acknowledged that the content was tortious. The Third Circuit upheld immunity for AOL against allegations of negligence because punishing the ISP for its third party’s role would be “actions quintessentially related to a publisher’s role.” Understandably, the First Amendment provides the right to free exchange of information and ideas, which gives private individuals the right to anonymous speech. We must ask, however, where the line must be drawn when anonymity serves not as a tool to communicate with others in a public forum but merely as a tool to bring harm to individuals, their reputations and their images.
In early April of this year, the “Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act was approved and officially went into effect. Currently, http://www.cyberbullying.us/Bullying_and_Cyberbullying_Laws.pdf have anti-cyberbullying statutes in place, demonstrating positive reform in keeping our users safe in a rapidly changing and hostile online environment. Opinions from both critics and advocates of the bill were voiced through the course of the bill’s passing, and how effectively Minnesota will apply its cyberbullying statute remains to be seen. A closer look at the culture of cyberbullying, as is discussed in Mr. Morben’s article, and the increasing numbers of anti-cyberbullying state statutes, however, may prompt Congress to revisit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to at least modestly reform ISP immunity and give cyber-attacks victims some form of meaningful redress.