(via The Guardian’s Tech blog) What is it about the relative anonymity awarded by the internet that turns some people into monsters? Read the story of the Catsouras family, where gruesome pictures taken after the tragic death of their daughter started being distributed all over the internet. Nikki Catsouras had been taking cocaine, stole her father’s Porsche and crashed into a tollbooth. One of the policemen at the scene took a picture and forwarded it to someone else in the community, where it went viral on the underbelly of cyberspace. Then followed a collection of comments in forums and emails that showcase the worst part of the online world, with people commenting on spoiled brats, the fact that she had been using cocaine, how she deserved it, and even comments on how the accident was a waste of a good Porsche. At some point, someone even sent Christos Catsouras a picture of the nearly-decapitated daughter with the caption “Woohoo Daddy! Hey daddy, I’m still alive.”
The case highlights the legal void that surrounds internet trolling. The family tried several legal avenues to stop the spread of the pictures, including cease-and-desist letters, code, and even the intervention of a firm specialising in removing damaging personal content from the internet. All of these failed because there is no liability for trolling. Defamation law does not fit, neither does copyright as the picture was owned by the policeman who first took it. Privacy legislation in the U.S. is also inadequate for this type of event, and personality and image rights do not fit either. The Catsouras family even attempted to sue the California Highway Patrol for negligence, privacy invasion, and infliction of emotional harm, but they were unsuccessful because privacy rights do not extend to the dead. The case is under appeal.
I have been thinking on how the case would have been dealt with in this side of the Atlantic, and I think that we suffer from a similar deficiency in legal certainty in this issue. Would the nebulous privacy right we enjoy apply? What about data protection? Can the dead be data subjects?
There is an inherent problem in regulating behaviour that is deemed offensive, deceitful, morally harmful and distressing. The main issue is that if we try to legislate against actions that cause subjective offence, this would cover way too much behaviour online. Having said that, internet trolls have been thriving precisely because they are largely immune from prosecution, and even the most blatant displays such as this one go unpunished. There must be some way in which the law can respond to something that is so glaringly wrong as the online publication of pictures of a recently-deceased teenager without compromising other digital liberties.