SXSW Debate 2012 Take Away: We Need Data

At the South By Southwest Interactive conference last weekend, I debated Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on the question of whether social websites should allow for anonymous users. Declan McCullagh of CNET moderated, Cindy argued for full anonymity at social sites, and I argued that social sites are best served by not permitting 100% anonymous users.

CNET's Elinor Mills reported the debate, and a few bloggers have picked up the thread to bat the issue of online anonymity around. The audience posed thoughtful and important questions -- some from the viewpoint of intermediaries struggling with how best to handle the burdens of data, managing communities, and considering victims' rights. Inspiring debate and discussion about the complex issue of anonymity, pseudonymity, and accountability was one of the early reasons Erica and I had for starting Without My Consent, so we are especially pleased to see these discussions take place in a respectful and open manner.

One important take away from the debate for me is a renewed call for the importance of gaining more and better data around the incidents of online harassment, stalking, and trolling, including data around who is typically harmed by such conduct. In preparing, I was struck by the anecdotal evidence with which we are so familiar: the attack on a prominent female computer programmer, online attacks on law students in the AutoAdmit discussion board, and others. But when people in the blogosphere or elsewhere (but, notably, not Cindy during our debate) argue to me that these sorts of online attacks are one-off events, I am frustrated to no end. A concrete example is criticized for being a "one-off" circumstance. But the truth is that everyone who engages in online activities knows the harassment, stalking, and trolling happens with alarming frequency. The question is, how often?

After the debate, Maryland Law Professor Danielle Citron, an expert in cyber gender harassment (and also one of our advisors), pointed me to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study from 2006, a component of which covered online and off line stalking. As Professor Citron blogged yesterday:

Stalking and harassment via networked technologies is not a one-off problem. Thousands upon thousands of cyber harassment and cyber stalking incidents occur annually. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 850,000 people in 2006 experienced stalking with a significant online component, such as threats over e-mail and text, attack sites devoted to victims, and/or harassment in chat rooms and blogs.[i] A special 2009 report by the Department of Justice revealed that approximately 26,000 persons are victims of GPS stalking annually, including by cellphone. There's evidence that harassment via networked technologies are increasing. College students encounter more sexually harassing speech in online interactions than in face-to-face ones.[ii] Researchers predict that thirty percent of Internet users will face some form of cyber harassment in their lives.[iii]

These existing studies make clear that online harassment is not a "one-off" event. (Professor Citron's articles -- Cyber Civil Rights and Law's Expressive Value in Combatting Cyber Gender Harassment -- and her many other writings, provide further excellent research on these issues.

Despite these studies, the concern of good and reliable data remains. We'd love to get our hands on more concrete studies of this problem. Do they exist? What can we learn from them? Are there predictable causes of harassment? Can we learn techniques to empower victims or -- better -- help people avoid being harassed int he first place? If you know of any studies, or are researching in this area yourself, please get in touch with Erica or me (email us at: founders at withoutmyconsent dot org). We'd love to learn more and highlight the available data to the Without My Consent community.