Aug 27

The headlines are filled with news of Google’s court-ordered exposure of a blogger’s identity after the blogger allegedly wrote defamatory remarks on her website, “Skanks in NYC.” For some reason the blogger, Rosemary Port, thought she was entitled to write anything without consequences because of the First Amendment right to free speech and anonymity.

She was wrong.

The incident has been referred to as cyberbullying, cyberstalking, internet defamation, online harassment, and cyberterrorism by citizen journalists and bloggers who either don’t know the difference between the terms or don’t care. Because internet law is defining itself before our eyes, it’s easy to get confused. Some recent court cases, though are making the differences between these online offenses clear.

On September 19, 2006, Sue Scheff was awarded $11.3 million after a person repeatedly posted statements about Scheff on public forums and internet sites which attacked her personal character and business practices. This was a case of internet defamation or internet libel because the defendant’s statements were published, because they accused Scheff of illegal, immoral or unethical conduct, and because they caused damage to Scheff’s personal and professional reputation. At the time, this was a landmark decision and the largest settlement ever awarded for internet defamation.

On August 21, 2009 Keeley Houghton pleaded guilty and was sentenced to spend three months in a young offender institution after verbally attacking another teen on Facebook for four years, and posting a death threat. This was a cyberbullying case because it involved threats, harassment, humiliation, and embarrassment, and because both people involved were minors.

In November 2007, Tracy Adams was convicted of 10 counts of computer trespass after he repeatedly hacked into his ex-girlfriend’s computer to retrieve personal information and use it to cause chaos in her life. In July, 2009, 18 year-old Bryce Dixon pleaded no contest to first degree cyberstalking after forwarding photos of his ex-girlfriend’s breasts to others. Dixon could have been sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison in this case, but was sentenced to probation and anger management classes instead.

Both of these cases are being referred to as cyberstalking, because they involve the use of technology to maliciously harass, threaten or intimidate out of anger, revenge or desire to control. Cyberstalking is a term that is used liberally, but which is associated mostly with cases involving some sort of sexual communication between an adult and a minor, and cases which involve ongoing harassment, usually by an ex-spouse or romantic partner.

On August 6, 2009, a “distributed denial of service” attack (DDos), was launched against Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LiveJournal, and Blogger, which overloaded their servers, crashing their websites for hours and days. The same type of DDoS attack had been launched against several U.S. government websites In July, 2009, including the Treasury Department, FTC, Pentagon, and Homeland Security Department. These incidents are being labeled as cyberterrorism, although that term is generally reserved for incidents that cause physical harm, extreme financial harm, or death.

While boundaries of behavior on the internet are in the process of being defined, the legal rulings so far are basically sending the message that the behaviors that are against the law in the real world are equally criminal in cyberspace.

For some reason there seems to be an assumption among many web users that the only rule on the internet is that there are no rules. But freedom of speech has always had legal limits, with defamation legal proceedings dating back to the 1700’s.

There has never been complete absolution granted by the First Amendment. Some internet writers, however, seem to be operating under the belief that absolution is possible if they hide behind cyberspace anonymity when they attack, harass, or harm others with words.

That belief is wrong.

That was the message that the court was sending with the surprisingly high amount of money that was awarded to Sue Scheff, which included $5 million in punitive damages. The judgment sent the clear message that free internet access does not mean the freedom to say or do anything without consequences.

In Scheff’s case, the judgment was against a woman who had posted negative comments, insults, and false statements in forums and on websites – hundreds of them in just six months. Some of the negative posts were published under anonymous pseudonyms and some comments were posted as if they were written by Scheff herself, although she hadn’t engaged in the conversation.

Because of the frequency of the posts and constant reference to her name, a Google search of “Sue Scheff” returned pages of results that were linked to these online accusations, insults and misrepresentations. In the eyes of those who believe everything they read on the internet, Sue’s personal and professional reputation was destroyed. Sue had become the victim of a “Google bomb.”

“A public shaming has to be one of the worst things anyone can experience, whether it takes place in a small community or on the larger stage of media coverage,” Scheff says in her book about the case. “I wasn’t able to sleep. I was starting to cry a lot in private. The smile that had been so quick before had become strained and forced when I attended meetings or public events. I wasn’t hard-pressed to force too many smiles since my invitations were drying up.”

Scheff co-authored her book, “Google Bomb,” with the lawyer who helped her secure the landmark judgment, John W. Dozier, Jr. In the book Dozier provides legal insight about internet defamation, and also provides some proactive advice about steps that can be taken to protect your reputation even before you are attacked.

“The monsters of the web are thieves in the worst way” Dozier wrote in the book. “They steal your name and your reputation, strip from your grasp the opportunities our America offers, convert your pride to embarrassment and your honor to shame.”

At the heart of internet defamation, which seems to have grown to pandemic proportions, is the issue of anonymity. Blogger Rosemary Port has announced her intention to sue Google for revealing her identity as the owner of the Blogger “Skanks” site on which objectionable remarks about a New York model were posted. Port believes that Google has violated her right to privacy by revealing her identity, and consequently, making her accountable for her words.

“I would think that a multi-billion dollar conglomerate would protect the rights of all its users,” Port was quoted as saying by the New York Daily News.

This issue of internet anonymity is addressed in “Google Bomb” by Dozier, who has watched the concept get challenged in a number of court proceedings. “There is no absolute right to online anonymity,” Dozier says in the book. “The courts have long recognized the need to unmask those who hide behind false identities on the Internet. Those who defame, those who spam, those who hack, and in some circumstances those who use wrongful commercial speech… their anonymity is rarely protected.“

It is this anonymity which makes the internet a breeding ground for defamation. “They are scared to disclose their identity because they don’t have the courage to stand up to their convictions,” Dozier says in “Google Bomb.” He adds, “They are scared to get caught. Free anonymous speech is their virtual ski mask as they threaten and rob families and businesses of their livelihoods and good names.”

The media attention given to the “skanks” case, and the court-ordered accountability that Port faced has left the blogosphere buzzing and the Twittersphere tweeting with questions about accountability and limits. There is a heightened awareness about both the motivation and the effect that written words have, especially when they are accessible to billions of people.

It is not the right to express yourself freely in a public forum that the court is reining in with these recent decisions. Rather, the limits are being placed on the right to cause harm to others because you have the ability to anonymously access a public forum. For the victims, it’s about regaining the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which internet defamation, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking steal.

“I think you have to walk a mile in those shoes to completely grasp the intensity of desertion and despair that those of us who have lived it feel,” says Scheff.

Google Bomb,” written by Sue Scheff and John W. Dozier, Jr. is scheduled for release on September 1, 2009.

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Aug 24

Jane Velez-Mitchell proves seven nights a week that she is not afraid of confronting the tough issues or expressing the unpopular opinion during her HLN news talk show, “Issues.” In her new book, however, Jane may be expressing her most unpopular opinion of all. According to Velez-Mitchell, Americans are addicted to consuming.

What leads Velez-Mitchell to say this, and what gives her the authority to label the consuming habits of most Americans as addictive, is Jane’s own consumption addiction, which, she admits, gave her a high while she was shopping, and a hangover after she had made the purchase. “To improve my standing on the totem pole I, like others, have jockeyed for position. One way to do that is by engaging in competitive consumption,” Jane says in her book.

Jane admits that competitive consumption gave her “the high of the buy.” But like any addiction, the buzz wears off eventually, and the cycle of addiction is self-perpetuating. “I would often feel guilty, remorseful, and anxiety ridden after making a purchase,” Jane says. “Within an hour or so I began to sober up to the reality of an unnecessary and self-indulgent purchase.” But, as with any addiction, the “hangover” is usually not enough to curtail the impulsive behavior the next time. Even though she was successfully recovering from her alcoholism, Jane was still an addict.

Even though “consumption addiction” is a new idea, the concept of addiction is very familiar in the United States. A recent survey conducted by Lake Research Partners reveals that a 76% of U.S. adults know someone who has been addicted to alcohol or drugs. As staggering as that figure is, it only addresses a portion of the things that Americans are addicted to. According to many different authorities, addictive behavior in the U.S. is the norm, not the exception. Recent research studies have reveals that American society now includes:

- 72 million obese, and therefore addicted to consuming more calories than their bodies need to function
- 30 million addicted to the internet
- 25 million addicted to nicotine
- 23 million addicted to alcohol and drugs
- 21 million addicted to caffeine
- 18 million alcoholics
- 16 million addicted to sex
- 7 million addicted to pain pills
- 6 million cocaine addicts
- 3 million addicted to gambling
- 3 million addicted to video games
- 400,000 addicted to meth
- 213,000 addicted to heroin

This does not include the number of people who are addicted to marijuana or television, which are not very hip and therefore not studied very much any more. No one can even estimate the number of Americans who are addicted to work and money, since it’s very difficult to find a healthy benchmark for those behaviors in the U.S.

There is also no scientific data yet for Addictions 2.0, although it seems fairly obvious when you spend time in any public venue that there are millions of Americans who can’t stop texting, twittering, and talking on cellphones, no matter where they are or what else they’re supposed to be doing. Of course, behind every social media addiction is the newest high tech gadget that makes the virtual socializing accessible at all times.

Velez-Mitchell admits that she was addicted to gadgets. “I had gadget lust,” Jane says in her book. “The guys at my local electronics franchise knew me by name and would swarm toward me with big grins on their faces when I walked in the store,” Jane says. “When they nicknamed me ‘Gadget Girl,’ I realized they thought I was an easy mark.”

Even though Jane has become clear about her own consumption addiction, what makes her think everyone else shares her in this particular dysfunction? The economic events that she’s been studying and reporting in the past two years is one thing that makes it clear to Jane that her assessment is correct. “If there’s a silver lining to the current economic crisis, it’s that Americans are finally being forced to distinguish between what we merely lust after and what we genuinely need,” Jane says.

Statistics provide evidence that Americans have created an addicted culture of consumerism for themselves. The average amount of disposable income that Americans have saved since 1929 is just 7%. Consumption per capita, in contrast has climbed 25% in the past 20 years. Americans have been on a two-decade spending binge, which finally ended with a crash and has left us all with an economic hangover and spending withdrawal.

Consumerism escalated at such a fast pace that now more than 60% of the U.S. GDP depends on Americans purchasing more stuff. This has created the greatest conundrum of the recession for Americans. We can’t afford to spend like we used to, but our economy won’t improve until we start spending like we used to. It’s a cycle of insanity that is familiar to anyone who has broken free from their own personal addiction cycle.

Since Americans consume more than they create these days, getting to the first step of the addiction where we admit that we have a problem is going to be particularly difficult. When a major story in Time magazine in January, 2009 advised people to get sad about the recession because sadness motivates spending, it revealed the dysfunctionality of our thought processes. When former president Bush told Americans that one of the best ways they could respond to 9/11 was to go to the mall and shop, it revealed the insanity of the whole U.S. economic system from the top down.

Velez-Mitchell says in her book that consumption addiction has caused American society to devolve instead of evolve.

Now a recovering consumption addict, Jane also explains in her book what it’s going to take for Americans to break free from the consuming habits that drive them. “My frst step was to surrender to the fact that no material product would ever fundamentally alter my inner emotional state,” Jane said. She finally realized that she couldn’t express her individuality with products, which is what most Americans have been hypnotized into thinking. “What’s unique about me lies within me, not on my shelf, in my cupboard or in my driveway,” Jane wrote.

With the economic crash, frugality has become the new black, and many Americans have spontaneously freed themselves from the overconsumption spell. But with both industry and government pushing for American consuming to resume (ala sales tax holidays), it will be difficult not to get lured into the addictive cycle again.

Like any addiction, Jane takes her consumption addiction one day at a time. “When I am able to let go of my hunger for more, I can relax and say to myself, I have enough. From there it’s easy to deduce, I do enough. Ultimately, that leads me to the realization, I am enough. It’s a wonderful mantra that has helped me when I start feeling cravings for stuff I don’t need: I have enough, I do enough, I am enough.” And she no longer needs stuff to prove that to anyone, least of all to herself.

Jane Velez-Mitchell’s book, “iWant, My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life” is scheduled for release September 1, 2009.

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Aug 21

A federal lawsuit has been filed in Pittsburgh which alleges that an 11 year-old girl was bullied so much by her classmates that it caused her to become anorexic. The lawsuit further alleges that the principle and other employees at the girl’s middle school knew about the bullying and didn’t do enough to stop it.

The girl, “B.G.,” was allegedly taunted about her weight and harassed daily during lunch periods about what she was eating. Eventually “B.G.” discarded her lunch instead of eating it in an attempt to stop the harassment. She dropped down to 96 pounds, was hospitalized, and had to finish her seventh grade year from home.

Hannah Friedman knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of this kind of adolescent bullying. One of the nicknames given to her by her classmates in middle school was “Flat Monkey-Girl Freak.” She was teased mercilessly about her hair and her clothes by the girls in her class who came from families with higher social and economic status. Hannah even had carrot sticks thrown at her daily in the lunchroom.

Like “B.G.,” Hannah developed an eating disorder because she thought it would help her to fit in, be accepted, and change her enemies into friends. In what Hannah calls her “quest for cool,” she traded public school for a private prep school, straightened her hair, started wearing designer clothes, got straight A’s, became bulimic, developed a cocaine habit, started smoking and ended up slicing her arm with a razor blade when all of her extreme attempts to fit in pushed her to the brink of insanity.

Hannah chronicles her extreme high school experiences in her new book, “Everything Sucks, Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest for Cool” because she made a promise to “the Universe” that if she could get some help figuring things out, she would spread the word in any way that she could.

“This is all the stuff I wish I had been able to hear from a big-sister type figure when I was going through all that stuff,” she said recently in an interview with LoHud.com. After being the target of bullies, Hannah concluded that who she was obviously wasn’t good enough, and that she needed to be more like the people who taunted her. They were obviously acceptable and she wasn’t.

“When you’re trying to be someone else, that really colors every facet of your life, so everything does suck as a result,” Hannah told LoHud. “Because your entire existence is dedicated to keeping up the façade, and making sure you appear a certain way. And that really comes at a cost.”

The price that is paid for teenage bullying these days is higher than most adults are willing to imagine. Some teens, like Hannah, are able to deal with the abuse of their peers and survive their own path of teenage self-destruction without adult intervention. Others do not have the same internal fortitude or physical strength.

In March, another federal lawsuit was filed alleging that bullying was the cause of 17 year-old Eric Mohat’s suicide in Mentor, Ohio. According to the suit, Eric was bullied not because he was fat, like “B.G.”, but because he was too skinny. His spindly physical appearance, and his participation in theater and music were used as evidence by some of his classmates that he was gay. Besides nicknaming him “Twiggy,” bullies allegedly openly called Eric “fag,” “queer,” and “homo,” and shoved and hit him regularly. Reportedly these abuses took place in front of teachers, and reportedly, school officials didn’t do anything about it.

Nine weeks before the end of the school year, Eric shot himself in the head with his father’s revolver. Three of Eric’s classmates also committed suicide that same year, and it is suspected that bullying played a significant part in those deaths as well. The lawsuit filed by Eric’s parents seeks no financial compensation, but instead seeks acknowledgement from the school district that these deaths were “bullicides.” The Mohats also want effective anti-bullying programs and policies to be put into place throughout the school district.

It’s not like it was in the 1950’s when one really big kid was the schoolyard bully, or one small group of kids was the “bad crowd.” These days it is estimated that nearly 30% of the children in America are either bullying, or being bullied at school, according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that today – and every day – 160,000 children will either go home early or stay home from school completely because they are afraid to be bullied. The Yale School of Medicine has also found that children who are bullied may be nine times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Yale, by the way, is the college that Hannah Friedman was able to attend as a result of her neurotic overachievement in prep school. She was published in Newsweek magazine while still in that prep school, and she won both the Yale Playwrights Festival and the New York Television Festival before she graduated college.

Friedman’s accomplishments at such a young age definitely do not help her to fit in with her peers. The candid and shocking truths that she shares in her book probably won’t make her the most popular person at the high school reunions either.

Come to find out, though, not fitting in is not always such a bad thing. Because when you’re a 22 year-old published author who’s found your voice, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life on the quest for cool. You’ve already found it.

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