Democracy in Danger

Saving the rule of the people — one episode at a time.

The Wild Web

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 9

Our guest today says the internet is a “force multiplier” that brings out some of the best — and worst — qualities in people. You can order food, go to school, speak your mind and donate to worthy causes from the comfort of your living room. But the laissez-faire structure of the web also has engendered new forms of abuse, like cyberstalking and cyber-mobbing, as well as routine invasions of people’s intimate lives through the unprecedented tracking of personal data. Is there any privacy left online? Should there be? And why does it matter to a functioning democracy?

Photo illustration by Gualtiero Boffi via

When law professor Danielle Citron began exploring the scourge of online harassment, especially of women, what she found was disturbing. Virtually undeterred, stalkers would share intimate details about their targets, post nude photos without consent and threaten rape. This kind of behavior is enabled by the same Wild West approach to cyberspace regulation that permits so much of our personal data to be harvested and abused. What’s at stake, Citron says, is not just our privacy online, but our civil rights.

This time on the show, Citron joins Will for a special forum hosted by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, and walks him through some of the early history of the internet. In the 1990s, Silicon Valley executives convinced lawmakers in Washington that the web would thrive best with zero to few guardrails. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 attempted mainly to regulate and limit pornography online — but its anti-porn provisions would be struck down the following year by the Supreme Court; the justices found that most of the law violated the First Amendment.

The lasting legacy of that legislation, however, has been the way it shields internet platforms from liability when users post defamatory or criminal content. Essentially, it established a Good Samaritan rule: make an effort to police and filter out abusive content, and you can’t be sued for anything that gets through your filters, or for failing to filter the bad stuff. The rule has been good for social media companies, bad for users who are the targets of harassment. Citron argues that the much larger issue in play here is the way in which intimate invasions, not just by stalkers but by algorithms, have become ubiquitous. And it’s high-time, she says, that the government rein in cyberspace aggression — starting with laws already on the books to protect citizens in the real world.

About our guest

Danielle Citron was a 2019 MacArthur Fellow and is now the Jefferson Scholars Foundation Schenck Distinguished Professor in Law at the University of Virginia School of Law. Her research and writing covers information privacy, free expression and civil rights, and she is the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace (Harvard University Press, 2016) — a book about the serious emotional, professional and financial harms done to victims of cyber harassment. Follow Citron on Twitter @daniellecitron.

The interview featured on this episode was recorded in February and posted on April 6, 2021. Watch the full conversation and Q&A that Will moderated with Citron.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Hate Crimes in Cyberspace exposes the ways abusive users, sometimes ganging up as cyber-mobs, have used network technology to target people and subject them to terrifying online abuse.

Citron’s academic work includes papers in prominent law journals on everything from the dangers of automation to laws regulating — and failing to regulate — sexual privacy.

You should also check out some of the pieces she has published in the popular press. Earlier this year Citron wrote for Slate about Donald Trump’s abuse of social media; and last year she had an op-ed in the Washington Post about how the Trump administration’s plans for health surveillance programs would put American freedoms at risk.

From around the web

Thanks in large part to Trump’s fixation on the alleged silencing of right-leaning viewpoints, there’s been a lot of political hoopla over Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Read more about this enduring, and arguably overbroad, piece of the law, in this primer from Insider.

Even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas got into the fray — the day before we released this show — suggesting that Twitter may have abused its discretion under Section 230 when it banned President Trump. Thomas’s statement came in a concurring opinion on an adjacent case, echoing views common among conservative pundits. While his argument carries no legal force, it sent ripples through tech world anyway.

Cintron describes the United States as “a bit of scofflaw” when it comes to data brokerage. And Northeastern University’s Woodrow Hartzog — author of Privacy’s Blueprint — has described all those corporate privacy policies no one reads as “anti-privacy policies.” The European Union, by contrast, has much stricter regulations governing the misuse of personal information.

Health and wellness apps let you track your snoring, your calorie intake and your periods — all great services to help you stay in tune with your body. But their ability to store and share intimate details also raises serious ethical concerns.

In her extended conversation with Will, Cintron points out that one reason digital technologies tend to be biased against women and minorities is that so few of them work in the technology sector.

Wittingly and unwittingly, internet users leave their digital footprints all over cyberspace every time they tap their phones or mousepads. Perhaps nothing illustrates this predicament better than the vast and complex investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. In a report last week for the Washington Post, Drew Harwell and Craig Timberg reveal how deep the government can go to retrieve such data. And while that’s helping round up insurrectionists, civil liberties groups are eyeing the FBI’s work with worry.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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