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College gossip Web sites anonymously take aim at students

Publication Date: 
November 29, 2009
Source: 
Sacramento Bee
Author: 
Laurel Rosenhall

Ryan Calo, Fellow at the Center for Internet and Society, discussed the issues arising from anonymous online posting. The Bee ran this story:

The kinds of comments that used to be scrawled inside a bathroom stall are now posted for the world to read on Web sites encouraging college students to talk trash about their classmates.

"Chico sluts: Gimme some names" is a discussion thread on the California State University, Chico, section of CollegeACB.com. It includes 77 responses that name many enrolled students and make detailed allegations about who's done what with whom.

...

The sites reflect a new reality of campus life, blending the age-old penchant for gossip with the anonymity and the wide reach of the Internet. Unlike social networking sites such as Facebook, where people use their real identities and can limit who sees their profile, college gossip Web sites thrive on anonymity and easy access.

...

Despite the controversy the gossip sites may cause, the law is on their side, said M. Ryan Calo, a fellow with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University's law school. Under federal law, he said, Web sites generally cannot be held responsible for pictures or comments their users post.

If students want to seek redress for something written about them online, they must go after the commenter – not the Web site. And that's difficult, Calo said, because most posts are anonymous.

"It's time-consuming (and) it's expensive to identify someone who has said something about you on one of these Web sites," he said.

Some experts argue that the Internet's anonymous format has been most damaging to women, gays and people of color who are frequently the subject of derogatory anonymous comments on college gossip sites as well as other types of sites. But Calo said the legal protection for Web sites to allow anonymous comments helps Internet businesses thrive.

"The ability to comment somewhere anonymously is important," he said.

"The fact that some people are getting disparaged and have no recourse is an unfortunate side effect."