Free Communication: Where do we draw the line?

Recently, a comment thread on OMGUW, which was later taken down by moderators, entered controversial territory. The subject of the thread began with what was seemingly a joke about necrophilia: “Alive is overrated,” and soon snowballed into a discussion about drugging women, rape, and the sex that men are owed.

Some of the highlights of the conversation included: “If sex is what I’m after, I just use a couple pills to knock mine out for a few hours,” “Us guys who society has wrongfully rejected and denied sex… we have a right to speak out!”, and “The hottest thing about her being unconscious… is that I can do whatever I want, and she doesn’t resist at all.”

These comments, in addition to offending several other OMGUW users  (“Don’t joke about this. The sad thing — this actually happens”), has raised questions about the legality of expressing these sentiments online.

It is common knowledge amongst those versed in Internet protocol that talking about subjects like incest and necrophilia is passé in places such as 4chan. Terms such as trolling (making deliberately offensive or provocative statements with the intent of inciting an angry response), and Poe’s law (the idea that it is impossible to tell whether provocative statements posted on the Internet are serious or sarcastic without obvious indications of one or the other) have emerged out of this online culture. But with a local, student based website like OMGUW, this type of discussion is particularly unsettling to the student population — the posters are very likely UW students, current or otherwise.

Perhaps the most upsetting part about these comments is the fact that there really isn’t anything anyone can do about them.

According to Dan Anderson, the director of University of Waterloo Police Services, any attempt to take action against the authors of these statements would hit two distinct roadblocks: the lack of criminality in the statements and the anonymity of the posters.

“If we get to the specifics of the statements … currently there’s nothing in Canadian legislation that’s specific to cyber bullying. There are all kinds of criminal offences that may come about if a person makes inappropriate statements, such as uttering threats, criminal harassment which is making statements to a specific person that make them feel that they are in legitimate danger, there’s harassing phone calls, there’s hate crimes and all of those things,” Anderson said.

The issue with these kinds of offences is that it is incredibly difficult to get a conviction in cases such as this. For a case to be heard, one would have to establish who the target of these statements was, and then establish that the target was made to feel genuinely unsafe.

If the comments could be labelled as hatred, rather than threats, there are two other parts of the criminal code that could potentially be enacted. Firstly, hate speech: “One of the interesting things [regarding hate speech] is, there’s a specific section in regards to hate crimes, and there are specific groups identified within that section … gender is not one of the identified groups. It’s race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, age, mental and physical disability,” Anderson said.

However, as with uttering threats, no charges could be made unless a specific target could be identified.

The second hate-related charge is public incitement of hatred that incites action, which does not require a specific target. However, it is necessary to prove that through this action, someone was influenced to engage in criminal behaviour.

“It’s one of those things where free speech is a double-edged sword, and people are allowed to have outrageous opinions. It’s only when it crosses lines and becomes criminal statements that we can take action,” Anderson said.

The second obstacle is greater still: the anonymity of the posters.

“With OMGUW it is completely anonymous. There is no way to go and try and figure out who the authors of the statements are,” Anderson said.

According to one of OMGUW’s founders, who wished to remain anonymous, moderators don’t get any more information on commenters than the general public. If the commenter chooses to appear as anonymous, the moderators do not have the ability to identify them.

“OMGUW is particularly difficult to manage because we don’t know who the organizers of the site are and it’s completely anonymous. The Internet is a very difficult tool to try to trace backwards when you don’t know where the servers are and who the organizers are of a particular site,” Anderson said.

Additionally, for any type of legal action to be taken, a complainant would have to come forward and ask for the assistance of the Waterloo Regional Police Service.

“Our authorities as campus police only extend to the boundaries of the campus, so if someone is sitting on a computer outside of campus doing something we have no authority to do anything about that,” Anderson said.

According to Anderson, the best way to combat these types of posters is to jump into the conversation and make it clear that you do not accept, nor do you intend to tolerate the opinions they are expressing.

“There were lots of comments, as I read through that string of comments, presumably from students, who were taking the authors of those statements to task. That’s probably one of the best ways to combat it. And asking the moderators to take down those things and not let them be posted is probably the best tactic.”

OMGUW requires all original posts to be approved by moderators before appearing on the site, but comments can be posted immediately and in accordance with OMGUW’s strict no names policy, commenters can, and usually do, appear anonymously.

OMGUW moderators change with every term, and with each wave of new moderators comes a new standard for tolerance. According to the anonymous co-founder, moderators meet at the beginning of each term and decide where they will draw the line. These particular comments were eventually taken off the site.

“I wish we could do more, these statements are completely unacceptable. If it happened on campus, and it was a person connected to the community then it would certainly be a breach of policy,” Anderson said.

As for the situation at hand, it appears to be over, though it is unquestionably one that will arise again on another forum, in another form.

<img alt="OMGUW full comment thread" src="/uploads/2014/10/omguw-commentsfull2.png" />