Criminal Justice

Gamergate shows that Web harassment by 'faceless multitude' is beyond reach of the law, WaPo says

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When a former relationship ended in an allegedly harassing online diatribe, Zoe Quinn got a restraining order against Eron Gjoni.

But then a bigger problem began, the Washington Post (reg. req.) reports in a lengthy story.

A group of anonymous individuals involved in an online attack known as Gamergate targeted the independent game developer (other women also experienced similar harassment attributed to the group when they attempted to defend Quinn). The attackers posted Quinn’s address and nude photos, hacked her website and some even made rape and death threats, as Quinn meticulously documented on zip drives, the newspaper reports. Fearing for her safety, she also moved out of her home in Boston.

Due to the number of individuals involved, there is no effective way for law enforcement to deal with the situation, experts say. Quinn herself agrees. So, in an attempt to defuse the situation, she has vacated the 2014 restraining order against Gjoni and, in a blog post, she said she doesn’t intend to participate further in attempts to hold him legally accountable, according to the Post and the New York Daily News.

A Feb. 24 arraignment had been scheduled in a criminal harassment case over multiple claimed violations by Gjoni of the restraining order. However, because of the free-speech implications, he had garnered significant financial and legal support, and Quinn decided last week not to pursue the case because it likely would have led to a further online onslaught by third parties, the Post reports.

Gjoni told the Daily News that he believes Quinn is backing away from the case to avoid the “really bad PR” of losing it.

“The legal process bent backwards to accommodate her every step of the way until it could bend no further without collapsing entirely,” he said.

Experts say there are multiple reasons for the lack of available legal means to curtail online harassment by a group of people. Among the problems are laws that are targeted to hold an individual culprit accountable, rather than what the Post refers to as “a faceless multitude, who together were profoundly more frightening and disruptive than Gjoni’s blog post ever was.” Plus, there is a perception by law enforcement and legislators that those targeted online, as long as they are not physically harmed, have not suffered a severe injury.

“It’s very clearly not a priority,” said Katherine Clark, a Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts whose district was impacted by Gamergate. “Their feeling is that it doesn’t cause bodily harm, but that misses the point. What’s so corrosive is that it has the effect of silencing people, of disrupting their personal and professional lives. We see more of a reaction if someone’s purse is stolen.”

At the same time, however, holding a large number of individuals accountable for mass action is a hugely time-consuming task, law professor Danielle Citron of the University of Maryland told the Post.

“Do we expect Massachusetts police to go after all of them?” she said. “At some point, it becomes too much for the system to bear. You can’t nail down criminal liability in a case like Zoe’s, where there’s such a huge number of actors.”

Related coverage:

Washington Post (reg. req.): “The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read”

National Post: “‘If Eron goes to jail, I will hunt Zoe Quinn down’: In the battle of Internet mobs vs. the law, the mobs have won”

See also: “Teenager whose prank calls sent armed SWAT teams to dozens of US homes got 16 months” “Courthouse shooter’s relatives convicted of cyberstalking, face possible life prison terms”

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