Fictional Case #1: Hierarchy with Board
- Jack is an Executive Director of Testy Metrics, an online nonprofit devoted to measuring the effectiveness of other nonprofits.
- Jack is caught promoting Testy Metrics under a pseud.
- The Board meets and sanctions Jack.
- The responsibilities of a Board within the hierarchy of a nonprofit or forprofit are clearly defined, whether the nonprofit operates in bricks and mortar or mostly online.
- In this case the Board met and discharged their responsibilities under a well understood set of laws.
- End of story.
Fictional Case #2: On-Line Community
- Tamar is a member of Ultras, an online community with 10,000 members, one owner, and no board.
- Let's say the community site is established as a limited liability company.
- Tamar, under the handle, Avenging Fury, participates over the years in a number of investigations as they are called, looking into and documenting online the misdeeds of others.
- She also enjoys participating in the Ultras occasional raiding parties where they go to other site en masse and bully the owner.
- In the course of one such outreach operation, she and 25 others from the Ultras, come and go in a raid on a site, Happyland, they feel has slighted them.
- Back at home base in their community they whip each other into a fury of righteous indignation.
- The Ultras invoke their supervisory procedures: They convene a discussion of the moderators in a public thread. The Happyland owner is invited to take his concerns to the Ultras' moderator thread. In expressing his concerns he is bullied and reviled, though here and there voices of reason are heard.
- He protests on his own site. He is told in the comments by Ultras to toughen up. Get over it. Ultras have done far worse, he is told, in other situations, and their are communities far rougher than the Ultras.
- The situation grows more heated.
- At Happyland, the bullying by several Ultras spills over into harassment. Tamar under an alias (Bonsoir) sends an email to the site owner threatening to expose, say, some private aspect of that person's life in the newspaper. Or, she threatens to work on his neighbors revealing things about him which may or may not be true, but which would be humiliating. Or she threatens to bring the site owner's employer into the picture in ways that could harm the owner. Or, maybe she threatens to blacken the owner's reputation with the clients of a business he runs. In any case, the owner of Happyland feels that he is being intimidated and may be harmed.
- Back at the Ultra's clubhouse, Tamar brags of her harassing letter and calls it payback. "Let's make an example of people like him! No one messes with the Ultras!"
- Bruce, under the handle, Crusher, writes, "Are they intimidated by us yet? They should be! There's people here who can take that site down, steal the owner's identity, and mess up his life forever!"
- Owner of Happyland asks by onsite email for a phone conversation with the owner, Lydia, of the Ultras. Emails go unreturned.
- Meanwhile, at the Ulra's site the moderator's thread continues to take up the issue of their responsibility, if any. The owner of Happlyand is again asked to participate. He is listened to a little, bullied a little, denials are made, no action is taken. The gist, among some, is that the owner of Happyland is a wimp who was asking for it. Others say, "That is just how the net is; you can't change it." The thread is characterized by diversity of opinion. No one is in charge. No one speaks with delegated authority via "top management," the owner, or a Board. There is no clear supervisory mechanism, or chain of command. Job deceptions of mods are nonexistent or hazy. Policies are hazy. There is no Board. It is all talk. Opinions differ. Lydia, the owner, has no clear mechanisms for exerting control, even if she wished to do so.
- Happyland goes down in a denial of service attack.
- Owner of Happyland hires a detective who unmasks Bruce. He is revealed to have been the hacker who took down the site.
- Owner of Happyland sues Ultras.
- Lydia, the owner of Ultras, when deposed declares she has no responsibility for things said or done by her members, either on their own, in a group, or in the site's name. She has no control. Her site is a limited liability company. No way is she responsible.
- The mods when deposed declare they have no control and no responsibility. They never had been told they were supposed to keep things calm. They couldn't keep things calm, even if that had been their assigned task.
- The conveners of the thread internal to the Ultras assessing their procedures when deposed claim they have no responsibility. They were just talking.
- The suit against Ultras names the owner, Bruce, Tamar, the moderators, and 15 members who participated in the moderator's thread. Case goes to court.
- Case draws public attention
- As the case wends its way through the courts, legislation is introduced in Congress to better regulate the wild west of the internet, which is said to "provide a haven for bad behavior."
- The fact pattern could be spun in thousands of ways, to include dead dogs on the Happyland owners lawn, anonymous phone calls, Ultras in a car outside his home, letters to his boss, and his eventual stroke, loss of a job, or suicide. The case could be expanded to detail the Happland's owner's flaws. Maybe he is an ex-con, or in the witness protection program. I made the facts up; you could make up others. But even the mild case above raises the critical issues.
- Under current law does the owner of Happyland have a cause of action against Tamar?
- Against Bruce?
- Against Lydia, the owner of Ultras?
- Again the mods at the Ultras?
- Against the conveners of the thread internally who failed to condemn or restrain the emotions that spilled over into the actions as they unfolded?
- Against the voices of unreason in that thread?
- Cased law and legislation is evolving in this area. Wherever the edge is, we had better not explore it. Better we learn to police ourselves. That begins with accepting moral responsibility, and joint responsibility as a community, before it spills over into legal responsibility.
- A nice tight Board structure over a hierarchy is a much easier case to parse. The law is settled and everyone knows the rules, and the legally defined roles, though they may argue the facts.
- Whatever current law may be, we may soon see net communities forced into a legal mold such that, when suits or criminal cases arise, blame can be laid in an orderly process upon those who have supervisory and management responsibility, or the equivalent of Board level oversight.
- Operating in the gray is safe, it feels like, until things go black and white, and then we wonder how we ever let it happen.
- Best to tighten up while matters are still in our own control, and we can evolve mores, manners, rules, policies, and procedures that keep us all safe.
This Case Study is fiction. Any resemblance to any specific case, controversy, or persons is unintentional. In my own blogging life I have no complaints. I have never been intimidated, threatened, harassed, or harmed in any way online. I like the status quo, where we hash things out among ourselves, but I do think the day is coming when law will intervene, and the consequences to free speech and freedom of assembly may be ugly. So, this Case Study is put out on the net to seek a net solution to an evolving set of issues that affect all of us who care about this open, public space in our democracy. Let's self police before the legislature and the courts find a pretext to crack down on a culture they would dearly love to control from the top down.