Thursday, March 08, 2007

Trouble with jurisdiction

While listening to the excellent podcast Digital Planet from the BBC, I heard a horror story about the problems of regulating cyberspace. While just a couple of days ago I sounded rather optimistic about the prospects of regulating online environments, this story lays bare some of the real problems of enforcing some specific practices conducted online.

The story commented on the case of an anonymous worker from a company that is peripherally related to animal testing. His personal details were posted in an American activist website, and since then he has been the subject of constant harassment, abuse, vandalism and death threats. With the UK government's clamp-down on animal protesters in full force, many illegal activities have moved abroad, particularly online activism. Sites like Bite Back, based in the USA, provide propaganda for the activities of the Animal Liberation Front and other organisations. Some of those sites have been posting the personal address and personal details of all sorts of people. The problem for the targets is the lack of regulation with regards to personal privacy in the United States.

Imagine you were the target of such an attack. What would you do? The answer is: not much. While posting personal details on a website would definitely contravene Data Protection in the UK (and Europe in general), this is not the case in the U.S., where most of these sites are protected by the First Amendment. If there is a criminal offence being committed in the UK, then the Crown Prosecution Service could seek extradition, but I wonder if the American judiciary would be willing to enforce such a request as the opposing values are privacy vs freedom of speech.

Funnily enough (in a perverse way), if we were talking about copyright infringement, the site would remain open only as long as you can say DMCA.


Jordan said...

As a technique, I recall hearing a radio programme (NPR maybe -- couldn't find it there) about the use of posting people's names and addresses to the internet as a means of intimidation. The story traced its use by neo-nazis and from them it spread to the religious right (over abortion). Hadn't heard about it being used by animal rights activists, though it is interesting that they are using the same tactics as these other groups.

Beyond jurisdiction is the question of even if you get jurisdiction , can you actually get the information removed. I think not, as all these groups have to do is use other tools rather than static pages to display the information - freenet and other 'darknet' apps spring to mind. Even with vanilla webpages, all that one has to do is open another free email address and sign up for a free host (blogger?) and start posting until it gets noticed, and then move on to the other one -- which is the crux of net regulation to begin with!

Rebecca said...

I think it's very unfortunate that you've chosen to illustrate your point on animal rights extremism with a photograph of a Peta protester. In doing so there is a risk that you may imply that Peta engage in hate campaigns similar to those you are discussing, which isn't something they do. Jordan's reference to 'animal rights activists' encourages a similar conflation of any group that supports animal rights.

Quite aside from these more moral issues, aware of the dangers of such groupings, Peta takes a very pro-active stance when it comes to litigation. So, perhaps not the best picture you could use.

Andres Guadamuz said...


I must admit that I actually thought about that after I had posted it. I had some pictures of ALF graffiti to illustrate the post, but I decided not to use them and to use the PETA girls keeping with the blog's "light" theme.

I believe I will remove the image as I agree that there is potential for confusing both movements.