How internet abuse works: she displeases him and he tries to punish her. He posts doctored photos of her to the web. In one, a noose is near her head. In another, her children appear to be performing sex acts. He emails graphic threats about violating her with a chainsaw. He sneers that she is too fat to be loved, and then — missing the irony — calls her a slut. He distributes her Social Security number online. He posts lies about a prostitution bust. Posing as her, he solicits sex in online ads and includes her home address so men knock on her door at all hours. Maybe he’s anonymous but often he doesn’t bother hiding his identity. Why worry? He knows that in his corner of the web, women who complain about harassment are the enemy.
Kathy Sierra complained. She was one of those who called for help.
In 2007, Sierra was one of the most visible women in tech. She taught the Java programming language at Sun Microsystems. Her books on software design were top sellers on Amazon. Her blog was on Technorati’s top 100, a list that included other blogging pioneers, such as Robert Scoble, Michael Arrington, and Om Malik. Her writing focused on design and coding and included very little that could be considered controversial. So, why would anyone wish her dead?
In March of that year, some visitors to Sierra’s blog called "open season" on the now 57-year-old. Hundreds of commenters on her blog made rape and death threats. "I hope someone slits your throat," wrote one person. People posted photoshopped images of her with a pair of panties choking her, or a noose near her head. She had enraged scores of men for supporting a call to moderate reader comments, which is of course common practice now. Sierra went public about the threats, writing on her blog, "It’s better to talk about it than to just disappear."
"I thought things would get better. Mostly, it's just gotten worse."
But disappear is exactly what she did next. Andrew "weev" Auernheimer, a well-known provocateur, hacker, and anti-Semite, circulated her home address and Social Security number online. He also made false statements about her being a battered wife and a former prostitute. Not only did Sierra find herself a target for identity theft, but all the people who had threatened to brutally rape and kill her now knew where she lived. So, she logged off and didn’t return to the web until two months ago. She gave up the book deals, speaking engagements, and even fled her home. An anonymous internet group had chased her off the web and out of tech, and it finally managed to hijack her offline life.
Despite everything, Sierra says she’s lucky. She told The Verge, in her first interview since 2007, that she knows things could have been far worse. "What happened to me pales in comparison to what’s happening to women online today," Sierra said. "I thought things would get better. Mostly, it’s just gotten worse."
It’s not hard to find support to back that statement. In July, Caroline Criado-Perez — a British journalist who led a successful campaign to get the image of author Jane Austen on one of the UK’s banknotes — received thousands of threats on Twitter. "Women that talk too much need to get raped," wrote someone using the handle Rapey1 in a tweet to Criado-Perez. Another user called Catch-me-if-you-can wrote: "Shut your whore mouth now, or I’ll shut it for you, and choke you with my dick." The threatening tweets were then directed at male journalists who were critical of the attacks. Paul Mason writing for The Guardian said his Twitter timeline became full of threats, and some demanded he "respect free speech." As he explained, "I’ve been treated to graphic descriptions of child rape, outrageous accusations designed to evoke disgust, plus numerous other commentaries on my appearance, professionalism, life."
Twitter threats are just one example of online harassment. In July The Washington Post published a story about men who post phony ads to make it appear as if their ex-wives or girlfriends are soliciting sex. One man, Michael Johnson II of Hyattsville, Maryland, published an ad titled "Rape Me and My Daughters" and included his ex-wife’s home address. More than 50 men showed up to the victim’s house. One man tried to break in and another tried to undress her daughter. Johnson was sentenced to 85 years in prison. His victim was physically unharmed but these ads can be lethal. In December 2009, a Wyoming woman was raped with a knife sharpener in her home after an ex-boyfriend assumed her identity and posted a Craigslist ad that read, "Need an aggressive man with no concern or regard for women." Her ex and the man who raped her are both serving long prison sentences.
The consequences of a free web?
We wanted an internet free from oversight, an environment where ideas could be exchanged freely. In many important ways, the web has achieved that idyllic vision. Individuals have the ability to communicate with large audiences, a power that in the past belonged only to media tycoons and governments. A lack of gatekeepers means frictionless communication, but it also means the quality of that communication can’t be controlled. And too often on the internet today, no consequence means no class. The internet experience is being degraded by those bent on settling scores, intimidating enemies, or simply silencing those with whom they disagree. The social networks say they’re powerless to stop it. Police say they’re overwhelmed. For these reasons, many people find the web a hostile and dangerous environment.
Online harassment can take many forms. Consider the message sent to African-Americans by "Trayvoning." That’s the meme that caught on after the death of Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was stalked and killed in Florida last year. People recreated scenes of Martin's death and posted photos to the web. Some of the pics show teenage boys and girls lying on a floor wearing hoodies and holding bags of Skittles — the confection Martin carried at the time of his death. Some even wore blackface. In 2010, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers student, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York City after his roommate used a webcam to secretly record him kissing another man. Clementi’s roommate then wrote about the scene on Twitter. While minorities and homosexuals are often targeted, experts say no group is more abused online than women.
Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, lays out some of the numbers in her upcoming book, Hatred 3.0. Citron writes that the US National Violence Against Women Survey reports 60 percent of cyberstalking victims are women. A group called Working to Halt Online Abuse studied 3,787 cases of cyberharassment, and found that 72.5 percent were female, 22.5 percent were male and 5 percent unknown. A study of Internet Relay Chat showed male users receive only four abusive or threatening messages for every 100 received by women.
"Things are getting worse because these technologies are going with us wherever we go," Citron said. "They’re ubiquitous. We take our cellphones and tablets to work out, to restaurants, while we’re out in the country. It’s getting worse because [online harassment] is a simple, easy, and effective way to hurt someone."
And what people want today is "to hurt one another" and "get back at the people that hurt them," Hunter Moore, the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, told Rolling Stone last October. Moore ought to know. He’s one of the pioneers of revenge porn, the practice of posting nude photos to the web of a former lover in an attempt to embarrass, defame, and terrorize. Moore has sold his site but scores of wannabes are cropping up. A check of these sites shows that victims are almost always women.
Experts say no group is more abused online than women
At Myex.com over 1,000 nude photos and new pictures are added nearly every day. Each post typically includes the name of the person photographed, their age, and the city they live in. The posts come with titles like, "Manipulative Bitch," "Cheater," "Has genital warts," "Drunk," "Meth User," "This girl slept with so many other guys," and "Filthy Pig."
Skeptics question the authenticity of the photos. They claim operators of revenge-porn sites use actresses or that those photographed are seeking attention. The Verge contacted several women found on some of these sites, including Myex.com. While all of them declined to be interviewed, they did acknowledge that the photos were posted without permission by an ex-boyfriend or lover. One woman said that she was trying to get the pictures pulled down and had successfully removed them from other sites because she was not yet 18 years old when they were taken (if her claim is accurate it would make the snapshots child pornography). She pleaded that we not use her name and asked that we not contact her again.
Social networks say they're powerless to stop it
If the woman was upset and afraid, she has a right to be, says Holly Jacobs, 30, who has started a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending revenge porn and supporting its victims. Jacobs knows firsthand that these sites are killers of reputations and relationships. Three years ago, Jacobs was studying for her PhD in industrial organizational psychology and working as a consultant at a university when a former boyfriend began posting nude photos of her online. The embarrassment and terror was just the beginning. Jacobs’ ex sent copies of the photos to her boss and suggested she was sexually preying on students. Jacobs’ employers, fearing bad press, asked her to prove she didn’t upload the photos herself. She finally felt compelled to change her name (Jacobs is the new name). The low point came at her parent’s house, when Jacobs’ mother told her she had seen the pictures. She called them "disgusting." Seething, she asked her daughter if she intended to become a porn star.
Jacobs asked herself: "Where was the justice?" In high school, she was an honors student and captain of the swim team. She played the piano, spoke fluent French, was never in trouble at school or with the law. Now, society was telling her that she had committed the unpardonable crime of being a sexual woman, that sex is still only acceptable for men. "The discussion with my mom was the first time in my life I had suicidal thoughts," Jacobs said. "I was losing everything that I had built: my relationships, my good standing at the university, my education that I worked my butt off for … We all do these things when we’re young, but it shouldn’t ruin our lives."
Change comes slowly
Jacobs understood that the photos could indeed ruin her life if she didn’t get them off the web. She quickly realized, however, that she was on her own. Many site operators refused to remove them. At Myex.com, for example, management’s message to those who want photos pulled down is "tough luck." The site has a no removal policy, but it did recently begin offering victims the ability to remove their photos for a fee of $500.
When Jacobs went to the police, they found many reasons not to help her. They said she gave the pictures to her ex so they were his property; he could do what he wanted with them. Other law enforcement agencies said it was out of their jurisdiction and that she should go try the feds. According to Jacobs, FBI agents told her that this was probably a violation of some kind, but since it didn’t involve national security they wouldn’t pursue it. That was a few years ago. As far as revenge porn goes, things might be improving. More states are looking for ways to outlaw the practice. California’s state assembly is considering whether to pass a law that would mean anyone who posted photos of nude or partially nude people who had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" would face a sentence of six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. New Jersey is the only state with a similar law already on its books.
When it comes to combating internet harassment in general, the country still has a long way to go. Police didn’t arrest anyone six years ago when Sierra went to the police about the death threats she received. In Criado-Perez’s case, the journalist received hundreds of threats, and UK police made a single arrest.
Twitter and Facebook aren’t much help either, say women’s advocates. Valerie Aurora, the co-founder of the Ada Initiative, a group that tries to make the internet and tech sectors more welcoming to women, said Twitter makes it difficult for harassment victims to get help. "Twitter makes it near impossible to deal with an attack from a lot of trolls [similar to what happened to Sierra and Criado-Perez]," Aurora said. "The only person who can report the abuse is the target. Sometimes Twitter takes months to respond. It’s a total joke."
That could change. The social networks are under more pressure to combat harassment. In the wake of the Criado-Perez threats, Yvette Cooper, a high-ranking member of Britain’s Parliament, called Twitter’s response to the attacks "disgraceful, appalling, and unacceptable."
Twitter issued a press release vowing to improve safeguards but they offered very little in the way of specifics. Robert Scoble, the blogger and tech evangelist, has been a supporter of strong anti-harassment efforts. Still, he says that blaming Twitter isn’t the answer. "There’s 500 million tweets a day on Twitter," Scoble said. "Most of them are great. They bring the world’s news to me, let me talk to my friends. But it also means that you’re in touch with people who don’t have your best interests in mind. I don’t know how you get all the good without enabling people to be assholes."
Criado-Perez doesn’t buy that for a second. She said last week in a speech before the Women’s Aid conference that she doesn’t think police and Twitter have done all they can do. For instance, she asked why harassers can continue to stalk a victim’s timeline even after they’ve been reported. She did concede, however, that the causes of the problem are deeply rooted in society. "Ultimately, all these actions would be treating the symptoms and not the cause," Criado-Perez told the audience. "Social media doesn’t cause misogyny; the police can’t cure it. What we really need to do is sit down as a society and take a long hard look at ourselves, in order to answer the question: "Why are we producing so many people who just seem to hate women?"
Aurora and other women’s advocates aren’t expecting much change in the current tech environment. They note most websites are operated by men and since few men experience harassment, there isn’t much empathy for this issue. There is also the likelihood that some in tech sympathize more with the abusers. A few victims of online harassment argue that a large section of the tech industry showed where its priorities were by embracing the Free Weev movement.
Even before publicizing Sierra’s home address and Social Security number, Auernheimer was a hero to many in the hacking community. He made a name for himself through the clever methods he used to punish enemies and for wreaking general havoc. In 2009, he claimed to have hacked into Amazon’s system and reclassified books about homosexuality as porn, although Amazon denied he was the cause. That same year, he posted several anti-Semitic rants on YouTube. In one, he blames Jews for porn and accuses them of dominating the country’s banking system.
"The Jews are winning," Auernheimer says at one point in the video. "I think we should hold the people producing it responsible … We take all these vile pornographers, and all these fucking bankers that fund pornography, we line them up in the street and we crucify them, just like they crucified Christ. And that would be change I could fucking believe in … blood in the streets."
Auernheimer is in jail now. In March, he was sentenced to spend 41 months in prison for releasing the email addresses of 114,000 AT&T customers. He says that all he did was expose a security flaw and that forced the company to secure its systems. According to him, he was doing society a favor. The FBI saw it differently. They called it "identity fraud and conspiracy to access a computer without authorization."
Immediately, there was a call in the tech sector to rally around Auernheimer. Tech pundits predicted that his prosecution would prevent security analysts from exposing vulnerabilities. Lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the group that advocates for internet users and tech companies, jumped in to help with his defense.
"I have this beef with a lot of organizations, including EFF," Aurora said. "This is another case where they’re saying, ‘The cases we care about are the ones white men are interested in. We’re less interested in protecting women on the web.’"
In March weev was sentenced to 41 months in prison
Tor Ekeland, Auernheimer’s attorney, says that the government’s attempt to turn Auernheimer’s act of simply alerting people to a security flaw justifies the attention his case has received. He says that government prosecutors overreached and pressed so hard to throw him in jail because they plainly don’t like Auernheimer’s views. "If his past behavior hadn’t been so reprehensible, he wouldn’t be in this trouble," Ekeland said. "I don’t think there’s any question he would not have been prosecuted if he wasn’t this infamous internet troll. He has a big mouth, says outrageous things. I don’t espouse or support his beliefs. But it’s not illegal to be an asshole. If it were, half the country would be behind bars."
There were plenty of techies who criticized Auernheimer and said he was getting his due. But the debate over his case was larger than anything that has ever occurred regarding internet harassment. That wasn’t lost on the women who have been threatened with rape and death while online. What it came down to for them was that a man who threatens women can generate more concern within the tech industry than female victims of abuse.
"His rise as a folk hero is a sign of how desensitized to the abuse of women online people have become," Sierra said. "I get so angry at the tech press, the way they try to spin him as a trickster, a prankster. It’s like they feel they have to at least say he’s a jerk. Openly admitting you enjoy ‘ruining lives for lulz’ is way past being a ‘jerk’. And it wasn’t just my life. He included my kids in his work. I think he does belong in prison for crimes he has committed, but what he’s in for now is not one of those crimes. I hate supporting the Free Weev movement, but I do."
"But it’s not illegal to be an asshole."
Perhaps Auernheimer has more empathy for Sierra now, considering he knows a little more about what he put her through. Remember, Auernheimer said he published her social security number and lied about her being a prostitute because he wanted to punish her for speaking out, for seeking assistance. One of the ironies about this is that since his arrest, Auernheimer has repeatedly asked for help. He also complained that the government robbed him of his right to free speech, though by making Sierra a target for identity theft and physical attacks, he intimidated her into silence. Auernheimer complains that the government wrongly used its considerable resources and power against him. That has to be the biggest irony of all.
Paul Fishman, the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, who handled Auernheimer’s case, wrote this: "[His] entire adult life has been dedicated to taking advantage of others, using his computer expertise to violate others’ privacy, to embarrass others, to build his reputation on the backs of those less skilled than he."
Throughout the case, Auernheimer has tried to play the role of free-speech advocate and persecuted freedom fighter. While he and his supporters may be right that the law that put him behind bars is harmful and unfair, he’s probably not the guy to argue against it on moral grounds. Auernheimer is part of an internet subculture where might makes right, where the only moral code is for the superior to enforce their will on the inferior. Looking at events through that prism, how can Auernheimer or his supporters complain, when one might say that all the government did was troll weev?
Tim Carmody contributed to this report