If you haven’t already heard, the Department of Justice has demanded that Reason.com identify anonymous commenters on a Silk Road trial post on their website. The post gathered a lot of angry comments about the New York judge who sentenced Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht to life in prison for creating an online black market where people could browse and buy things anonymously. Naturally, because this is the Internet, a handful of the anonymous commenters wrote some distasteful things about the judge in an attempt to vent their frustrations.
Some of them got really nasty. One commenter said, “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.” To which, another commenter replied, “I’d prefer a hellish place on Earth be reserved for her as well.” Then, came the death wishes. “Its judges like these that should be taken out back and shot,” wrote “Alan.” Someone else replied, “it’s judges like this that will be taken out back and shot” and others said putting her through a woodchipper would be a better idea.
Were these comments wise to post on the Internet? No. I’d say not.
The Internet isn’t as private as many people believe. Even if you use a fake name, there’s always a chance that your identity will be discovered and your comments will come back to bite you. The Internet is forever.
Wired reports, “The subpoena calls for Reason.com to hand over data about the six users, including their IP addresses, account information, phone numbers, email addresses, billing information, and devices associated with them. And it cites a section of the United States criminal code that forbids “mailing threatening communications.” When those communications threaten a federal judge, they constitute a felony punishable by as much as 10 years in prison. (The average internet user has no such protection.)”
Am I surprised by the comments? No, not at all. There’s a popular saying, “never read the comments.” The illusion of anonymity online has people believing that they can say whatever they want behind a computer screen with no real life consequences. Internet comment sections are usually rife with racism, sexism, empty threats, keyboard tough guys, and general edginess. They certainly don’t paint a pretty picture of human nature.
Are these comments credible threats? I highly doubt it.
Maybe I’m desensitized to Internet comments because I’ve been making YouTube videos for years. And yes, I do read the comments. I’ve been told to “die in a fire” more times than I can count. (Get some creativity! Geez.) After a while, you learn to shrug off these kind of comments because they aren’t anything worth taking seriously. They’re just people with boring desk jobs who like to come home and blow off some steam by insulting strangers online. To each their own, I guess.
Anyone who values freedom of speech should be concerned about this Justice Department subpoena. One, it puts the burden on online content creators. Many creators like free flow of discussion and/or don’t have time to make sure that their comment section is squeaky clean. Secondly, it could have a chilling effect where people are afraid to criticize government officials online for fear of government persecution. None of that belongs in a free society.