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Freeze, As*h*le! It's the Net Police!

Nancy Ahern

is a freelance writer and columnist in Arizona.

Nancy Ahern
August 27th, 2001

Being an a**h*le is not a Constitutionally protected right -- at least, not when it comes to Usenet, a collection of computers acting as "news" servers wherein people exchange information, ideas, conversation and data.

First off, let's get some basics out of the way: the Internet is an interconnection of computer servers that provide the backbone for the exchange of services such as e-mail, web pages, chat, and Usenet news. It is not a function of the government; it is an "owned" thing. Its owner is the consortium of major telecommunications players who provide and maintain the equipment. They get income from it by leasing out their lines and equipment to smaller providers. The owners and the providers set up the rules. When you purchase your Internet service, you are entering into a contract that says, "I'll abide by your rules and give you money. You give me access."

We all know what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says. It bears repeating, however, because it is a beautiful
collection of words that carry great import:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

That's it. Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech. Private bodies may make all the rules they desire, to abridge whatever they desire. It's up to you to decide if you wish to do business with them or not.

Apparently, to quite a few people out there on the Internet, this is not as done and dusted as it seems.

The Complexities of Usenet

Usenet. You may be familiar with the concept of "discussion boards". Usenet is, effectively, a "discussion board". As in chat rooms and on discussion boards, there are some who take it seriously and use it as it should be used, and some who view it as an opportunity to rile people. Folks who attempt to rile people for no purpose other than to get their jollies are known in Usenet parlance as "trolls." Trolls' worst trick is that
they manage to get emotions stirred. Trolls, as a rule, do NOT engage in activities such as Denial of Service attacks, flooding, or cyber-stalking. There are other sorts who do those things.

I am of the firm belief that a person has the unalienable right to express him or herself in any way he or she wishes, so long as that expression does not abrogate the rights of others, or cause anyone harm. I do not consider getting upset "harm."

Therefore, a troll, as infuriating as he or she may be, is perfectly within his or her rights to stir up emotional discord -- so long as his or her service provider permits that activity.

However, there are many people who participate in Usenet who feel that Usenet is a "community" and a troublemaking troll should be dealt with by removing that troublemaker's ability to make trouble -- remove his or her ability to communicate. They contact the troll's service provider with complaints. In Usenetese, this is called "netcopping".

The Concept of Harm

Even though trolls are not actually protected by the Constitution in this arena, they are, nevertheless, victims of a heinous, Unconstitutional practice. Never mind the law, for a moment. Let's talk ethics. Ethically, your rights end where mine begin.
You may not like me punching your buttons and indulging in behavior that angers you, but it is within my unalienable rights
to do this, so long as my doing it does not libel you or harm you. When you (the theoretical you, of course) attempt to restrict me from doing this, you may be within your legal rights, but you have crossed the line of ethics. You have imposed your will on me and forced me to comply with your wishes. You have harmed me.

Ethically, the way to deal with trolls is to censure them (express your disapproval of their behavior in the hopes they will alter it), or ignore them. The absolute best way to deal with them is to ignore them, in fact. Trolls find gratification in attention. If they don't get attention, their work comes to naught. There is nothing wrong with ignoring them, encouraging others to ignore them, or censuring them. One may ignore them manually, or by "killfiling" them -- that is, making use of technology to ensure you don't see them making trouble. This is not censorship.You are not preventing them from communicating, you are merely exercising your right to not see what they have to say.

While I do not much care for people whose sole purpose on Usenet is to stir up trouble, I care much less for people who netcop. To me, they are ethically deficient children, who are better off playing with blocks and leaving Usenet to the adults who can handle a little discord in their lives.

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"...I am of the firm belief that a person has the unalienable right to express him or herself in any way he or she wishes, so long as that expression does not abrogate the rights of others, or cause anyone harm. I do not consider getting upset "harm." ..."

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