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"Women named Jill and Hillary should be raped."
Those are the words of "AK-47" -- a poster to the college-admissions web forum AutoAdmit.com. AK-47 was one of a handful of students heaping misogynist scorn on women attending the nations' top law schools in 2007, in posts so vile they spurred a national debate on the limits of online anonymity, and an unprecedented federal lawsuit aimed at unmasking and punishing the posters.
Now lawyers for two female Yale Law School students have ascertained AK-47's real identity, along with the identities of other AutoAdmit posters, who all now face the likely publication of their names in court records -- potentially marking a death sentence for the comment trolls' budding legal careers even before the case has gone to trial.
The unmasking of the posters marks a milestone in a rare legal challenge to the norms of online commenting, where arguments live on for years in search-engine results and where reputations can be sullied nearly irreparably by anyone with a grudge, a laptop and a WiFi connection. Yet a year after the lawsuit was filed, little else has been resolved -- and legal controversies have multiplied. The women themselves have gone silent, and their lawyers -- two of whom are now themselves being sued -- are not talking to the press. Legal experts are beginning to wonder aloud if there's any point in pressing the messy lawsuit.
"You have good lawyers putting their time in on the case, and in a policy sense, they are achieving something, says Ann Bartow, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. "But in a victim sense -- assuming you think of the women as victims -- it's not clear what this is going to achieve."
The AutoAdmit controversy began even before one of the women, identified in court documents as "Jane Doe I," started classes in the fall of 2005, the lawsuit alleges. Doe I was alerted in the summer to an AutoAdmit comment thread entitled "Stupid Bitch to Attend Law School." The thread included messages such as, "I think I will sodomize her. Repeatedly" and a reply claiming "she has herpes." The second woman, Jane Doe II, was similarly attacked beginning in January 2007.
Both women tried in vain to persuade the administrators of the AutoAdmit.com site to remove the threads, according to the lawsuit. But then the story of the cyber-harassment hit the front page of The Washington Post, and the law school trolls became fodder for cable news shows. Soon after, the female law students, with help from Stanford and Yale law professors, filed the federal lawsuit in June 2007 seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
The Jane Doe plaintiffs contend that the postings about them became etched into the first page of search engine results on their names, costing them prestigious jobs, infecting their relationships with friends and family, and even forcing one to stop going to the gym for fear of stalkers.
"We have never had such a way to lie and distort facts about people -- to spread lies and distortions in a way that is attached to them," says Bartow. "And you can game it to come up on the front page of Google."
Bartow believes the problem lies in technology outstripping the law and our cultural responses. George Washington University Law Professor Daniel Solove, who's been thinking about the issue long enough to have written a book called The Future of Reputation, agrees. He says the law needs to change.
"The internet isn't a radical-free zone where you can hurt people. But on the other hand, we can't have everyone rushing to the court, because the court is a blunt tool," Solove says. "We need something to help shape norms -- there needs to be some kind of push back against the notion that the internet is a place where you can say what you want and screw the consequences. That's not what free speech is about."
Since libel lawsuits are mostly about clearing one's name, Solove finds himself lamenting the lost ritual of duels, which he describes as an elaborate nonjudicial way of settling disputes that rarely actually got to the shooting phase.
"We don't have any middle-ground dispute resolution processes in society anymore, and courts aren't a good way to vindicate these non-monetary harms," Solove says. "I think we need something else."
One idea gaining traction among legal thinkers would be DMCA-like legislation permitting victims of defamation to issue take-down notices, asking ISPs and websites to remove false and damaging user posts. If the service complies, it would be immune to any legal action.
But that regime hasn't worked entirely well with copyright -- false DMCA notices have been used by everyone from the Pentagon to the psychic Uri Geller to remove content from YouTube.
Jason Schultz, the acting director of the Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley, says it would be a mistake to bring that regime to bear on controversial speech online.
"I think you run the risk of too much take-down," Schultz says. The hurdles and expenses of a court fight act as useful checks on those who would suppress speech, he adds. "I think you need procedural hurdles in place since we are talking about a constitutional right."
Even relying on current liability law, the AutoAdmit case has trod on dangerous ground.
The lawyers for the two women originally named one of AutoAdmit's administrators, Anthony Ciolli, then a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania, as a defendant -- even though Congress intentionally shielded electronic service providers from responsibility for what their users post online.
Ciolli's former lawyer, Marc Randazza, says Ciolli never wrote anything defamatory, and was named in the lawsuit simply for leverage, in an effort to get the site owner to change how disturbing material was handled on AutoAdmit.
"As an attorney, I found it really offensive that Ciolli was being held hostage to these people's demands on a third party," says Randazza.
Solove is not nearly as sympathetic.
"Part of reason people were so upset with Anthony Ciolli was that they believe he stuck to his guns and defended things on free speech grounds," Solove says. "People want to see some sort of contriteness."
After months, the Jane Does finally dropped Ciolli from the lawsuit, but that did not satisfy Ciolli, who filed his own lawsuit in March 2008, accusing the women and their lawyers of improperly listing him among those who made the rude comments.
The women's lawyers -- Yale's David Rosen and Stanford's Mark Lemley -- declined repeated requests for comment.
A federal judge ruled in January that the attorneys could serve subpoenas on ISPs and webmail providers. Using that power, the lawyers have unmasked some -- though not all -- of the AutoAdmit posters.
Now they're asking the judge to give them additional time to try and determine the identities of the remaining defendants, who are currently being sued under their AutoAdmit handles: among others, PaulieWalnuts, Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey, The Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rollah, Patrick Bateman and HitlerHitlerHitler.