College ACB leaves users vulnerable to libel

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It began with JuicyCampus. Suddenly, the idea of an anonymous Internet forum didn’t seem so strange, with a simple modus operandi: Give college students a place to talk about anything (or anyone) without fear of repercussions. Then in 2009 JuicyCampus closed, and College ACB moved into the void left behind. It’s been steadily growing in use ever since, with an explosion of activity on Carnegie Mellon’s board over the past three months.

The concept, on the surface, is surprisingly liberating. Students can post topics complaining about a fellow student, an organization, a class, or an RA — all without fear of being held accountable for their comments. Fraternities and sororities are also at the center of many discussions. However, College ACB’s problems are immediately visible with only a brief glance. An average post from the Carnegie Mellon board is slightly ridiculous, sometimes amusing — and sometimes outright defamatory. Topics such as “Frats that haze vs frats that dont [sic]” and “are there any hot Indians at Carnegie” are the trending fodder, to name a few. It’s a site that runs somewhere in between the humble pensiveness of Montaigne and the collective trash of a service like 4chan.

The problem for users of College ACB lies in one word: libel. Comments printed about an individual that are untrue and are defamatory can be pursued by that person in a court of law — and the site can be served a subpoena for a poster’s personal information.

College ACB does offer an internal moderation service, but its effectiveness is questionable. “Any post that might be threatening, libelous, or otherwise illegal is immediately brought to the webmaster’s attention,” wrote Peter Frank, the site’s operator, in the site’s first press release. However, the notification function often takes days to carry through, and it can often only nominate several posts for deletion at a time. The person reporting the posts must also be the one defamed by them; simply reporting libelous posts won’t work. Despite this system, there is a very real possibility that legal action may be taken. The Communications Decency Act protects the owners of the site themselves from directly being sued; however, if they wish to avoid being complicit in a John Doe lawsuit, they’ll be asked to provide the offending poster’s personal information (including the poster’s IP address).

Posting from the comparative anonymity of a public station such as a cluster is no safe haven, either. If asked to produce personal information for legal purposes, “Computing Services would be able to identify the account or accounts being used on the machine at a given time,” said John Lerchey, a representative of Carnegie Mellon’s Information Security Office. “On machines like the UNIX servers where multiple users access the machine remotely simultaneously, we would likely be able to provide a list of users that were on the system at the time.” The moral of the story? No place on campus — or on a personal computer, for that matter — is entirely anonymous. The price of an insult to a member of the campus community could be thousands of dollars in attorney fees at the very least, and fines at the very worst. In the interests of self-preservation, if nothing else, the potential cost seems intimidatingly large.

The important question here is simple. Despite all the negative press, is this service worth keeping? Is free speech meant to harm another a tool worth protecting or something worth inhibiting? That’s the debate that this campus’s participating community ultimately needs to have with itself. If there is one thing we must rejoice in, it is that the Internet is such a venue of freedom that sites such as this one are available unhindered. Some college campuses have called for bans of College ACB on their networks; others such as Cornell University have seen students moving to boycott the site. Even if the site were to be censored or banned at Carnegie Mellon, would that be enough, and would anything really change?

It may simply be that, given the availability — or at least the appearance — of anonymity, human nature calls for us to exploit it to the fullest. Yet it is in each individual’s best self-interest to determine whether the price his or her words might carry are worth more than the alternative: a more powerful statement of silence.