On Tuesday, Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark sent a letter to her fellow Congress members asking them to urge the Appropriations Committee to address various forms of online harassment. Her letter emphasized harassment women face online, was accompanied by an op-ed, and was in response to some of the more aggressive language used against various female activists in the “Gamergate” controversy which began last year.
The #Gamergate controversy, for those unaware, is a term used to describe recent drama within gaming culture. What it’s about is going to depend entirely on who you ask – if you listen, because the two sides appear to be having two entirely different conversations. One side says it’s all about resistance to the evolution of the larger gamer community, including female gamers with their own market presence and concerns, with rampant sexism at its core. The other side says it’s about ethics in games journalism, and tries to address the way gaming is written about. The space between these two groups doesn’t seem to be a middle-ground but rather a minefield of strong opinions in either direction, with complete disrespect for the other side.
Why? Probably because any reasonable dialogue has been massively derailed by internet trolls. How many there are is certainly debatable, but there isn’t any doubt that they’re disproportionately loud, as is the response to them. Doxxing, the practice of researching and exposing people’s personal information on the internet, has been used in journalistic pursuits as well as in the worst actions of trolls (some claiming allegiance to #Gamergate). It’s those trolls and the reactions to them that get the press and derail any progress on the issues presented by either side.
#Gamergate may have brought certain things to light, but Clark’s advocacy shouldn’t really have anything to do with #Gamergate. The real question here is what to do about doxxing and things like it? The concept of cyberstalking and harassment isn’t new, and it doesn’t exclusively affect women. Even as a vocal feminist and political commentator, I’ve experienced less than many other people. One of my oldest friends is a much more prominent social justice advocate who deals with frequent rape threats, doxxing, doxxing of her family members, and horrific and threatening messages with enough information to cause her to get authorities involved at times.
She asked me once, since I’m a libertarian: where is the line? Where is the line between free speech and putting someone else is physical danger by posting their address, work schedule and other information on the internet for someone to potentially attack them? Where is the line where spamming your online presence possibly “treads” on your person? We live and work and play online now. What can we do, in a world where things are increasingly digital, do our laws stay limited to physical spaces? Should they?
In the meantime, invoking #Gamergate to talk about cyber-harassment is actually probably a terrible idea, given the emotional and trolling reaction it inevitably inspires. Clark argues that the FBI and other law enforcement don’t prioritize cyber harassment, because they don’t take it seriously. That’s probably true, as there are laws on this subject already and they are being abysmally enforced.
My libertarian answer, as always, is that law enforcement would have more time to fight real crime (even cyber crime) if victimless crimes were done away with. I’m more than happy to look at the roots of problems. The problem Clark has identified is that current laws aren’t being enforced. Strip away the sexism, the trolling, the emotional context, we’re left with law enforcement with limited resources, and other laws that should be struck down to free up their time to work on real crime. She’d be better off supporting the CARERS ACT.
I get the desire to latch onto emotionally compelling news to further one’s agenda, but if she really wants to make a difference in people’s lives, protecting women (and men) from actually dangerous people online, I hope she’ll take a critical look at the real obstacles in the way. Changing hearts and minds about potential sexism is one thing, but Congress directs the taxpayer’s money. They should stop spending it where they shouldn’t be.