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EFF lays out plan to end online harassment

Matt Weinberger | Jan. 12, 2015
Caution: This won't be easy.

Moreover, the private sector often relies on a community-led approach to taking down offensive content: It's up to individual users to flag something as problematic for review by the publisher (Facebook, Twitter, the webmaster at hand), and an overworked content-policing team is just as likely to take down an inoffensive page as one that offends. (That's if they respond at all.) And given that doing the right thing is not necessarily a profit center for any business, social networks are hardly incentivized to change that. 

"Companies' primary focus is on revenue and legal safety. Many would be happy to sacrifice free expression if it became too expensive," the EFF warned.

That's a tall stack of problems. How do you stop harassment without stepping on  rights, without censoring users who really are just expressing an opinion, and without forcing Facebook and others to spend more money? 

"We think that the best solutions to harassment do not lie with creating new laws, or expecting corporations to police in the best interests of the harassed. Instead, we think the best course of action will be rooted in the core ideals underpinning the Internet: decentralization, creativity, community, and user empowerment," the EFF said.

The EFF's primary answer -- in addition to better, more specific and more fairly-enforced laws -- is to give users more control. The nonprofit group's advice ranges from helping communities to better police their own social streams, collectively, rather than let each individual monitor their own, all the way up to opening more APIs for citizen developers to build their own anti-harassment tools.

For a good example of what this could look like in practice, check out Randi Harper's Good Game Auto Blocker, which maintains a centralized list of known Twitter harassers (started in the midst of the aforementioned #GamerGate) and lets any user run it and automatically block the lot of them. 

The EFF also calls for simpler tools to see what information about yourself is available on the public net -- the better to guard from doxxing -- and easier tools to cloak yourself in the mask of anonymity without special technical know-how. Another noteworthy measure suggested by the EFF: tools that help users capture actual harassment. 

And finally, the EFF suggested that people who see harassment just say something -- especially if they're not likely to become victims of harassment themselves. Solidarity is key. 

The EFF suggestions are just that -- suggestions. But the group has a long history of speaking out, if nothing else, and it's a good indicator that after a disastrous 2014, the tide is turning and 2015 may well be the year the tech industry gets serious about building better communities. 


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