Brittan Heller is a technology & human rights fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University where she is investigating the intersection of technology & policy when it comes to online harassment & hate speech within virtual worlds. Heller was one of the Jane Doe plaintiffs in the very first cyber harassment lawsuits in 2007, and she describes her experience and reasons for settling the case before it went on to create potentially bad law that could make the problem of online harassment even worse than it already had been.
Heller sees harassment and hate speech as a sociological and cultural issue where trying to solve it purely through a technologically-mediated or legal framework would only be addressing the symptom of the problem, and not the deeper causes. She talks about her experiences as an international human rights lawyer, and what type of technological interventions are justified in trying to curtail hate speech through automated, machine learning detection of some of the linguistic hallmarks of dangerous speech, including how dehumanizing language can incite groups into violence. She also says that there’s a responsibility for community members to establish social norms by actively engaging in direct dialogue to enforce the code of conduct standards, and that there does need to be mechanisms to deal with the 3-10% of sociopathic trolls who are dedicated to social disruption, but that technological solutions shouldn’t be designed centered around these edge cases.
We also talk about how the line between the virtual and the real is still not very well defined, and that there are differences between how experiences in virtual world are treated differently than experiences in face-to-face reality. There are behaviors that would be classified as either sexual harassment or sexual assault in real reality that regularly occur in virtual worlds, but there’s not a physical transgression of boundaries in physical spaces that doesn’t carry the same legal implications — even if anecdotally survivors of sexual assault and harassment report that they still experience intrusive thoughts from these experiences of virtual harassment. Heller also mentions that there is some domestic abuse law that currently focuses solely on physical threats to violence while online interactions do not carry the same weight despite it being a continuation of abuse and harassment.
Heller also talks about how the First Amendment rights to free speech are not absolute, as there are limits for inciting violence. There’s also actually a fighting words doctrine that’s designed to prevent physical violence while in the same co-located physical location, but doesn’t address whether this translates to online spaces. The fighting words are defined by a number of court cases and includes a number of definitions such as “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” represent a clear and present danger in physical reality, create an incitement to riot, or result in “a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs.” But all of these definitions of fighting words are limited by the type of violence that happens in physical reality, and not what happens mediated through technology online or in virtual spaces.
Heller is taking a proactive approach to looking at the intersection of where existing laws might overlap into the types of virtual spaces that will start to form, and she’s actively collaborating with technology companies and policy makers in helping to define the balance that’s needed in order to cultivate safe online spaces while also maximizing the amount of freedom of expression that’s possible, within the limits of the types of dangerous speech that incites violence. Virtual harassment, hate speech, and online extremism are complicated issues, and she’s on the front lines of trying figure out how to integrate and balance technological solutions, cultural practices, and a legal framework that helps to balance the freedom of expression with the terms of service and codes of conduct that can cultivate safe spaces online and in the metaverse.
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