Lack of Internet oversight leads to pressing concerns, book contends

In 1890, future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and legal scholar Samuel D. Warren found themselves worrying about the invasiveness of a new technology in people’s private lives—the creation of a compact, portable Kodak camera—compelling them to write a groundbreaking Harvard Law Review article arguing for legal rights to privacy, a novel idea at the time.

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops,” they wrote in “The Right to Privacy.”

More than a century later, a strikingly similar debate over technology is raised in The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy and Reputation, edited by Saul Levmore, William B. Graham Distinguished Service Professor of Law, and Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics.

The Internet has been a technological game-changer, connecting people around the world instantly with endless amounts of information. And yet, the editors write, some users abuse the anonymous, unregulated Web to target helpless victims with vile speech that invades privacy, ruins reputations or spreads discriminatory thoughts — with limited recourse available to victims of such cruelty.

For example, in 2004, anonymous Internet users in a pre-law chat room called “AutoAdmit” targeted two female students at Yale Law School with defamatory and abusive remarks. Only after two years of litigation by the top U.S. cyber-law experts were some of the harassers identified and much of the website content removed. The case opened many legal scholars’ eyes to the dangers of a technology beloved for its free and open nature.

The Offensive Internet is a collection of essays by scholars of law and philosophy that explores everything from civil rights, objectification, and false rumors, to free speech, privacy and the challenges of social networking sites. The experts who weigh in on this growing issue include UChicago scholars Brian Leiter, the John P. Wilson Professor of Law; Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law; and Lior Strahilevitz, Professor of Law.