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Lessons from Rutgers on privacy and hate speech

By Christopher Wolf, Special to CNN
updated 9:37 AM EDT, Thu March 22, 2012
Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi listens as a jury finds him guilty of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation.
Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi listens as a jury finds him guilty of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation.
  • Rutgers tragedy after webcam intrusion: One person convicted, another dead
  • Christopher Wolf: Respecting others' privacy online, fighting hate speech our responsibility
  • Wolf writes: Our online behavior can hurt ourselves and others, and it can even lead to suicide
  • We must speak up against hate speech, he says, and educate kids in wise behavior

Editor's note: Christopher Wolf is an Internet and privacy lawyer and is chairman of the Internet Hate Task Forces of the Anti-Defamation League and the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism.

(CNN) -- A few minutes of what was considered online fun, and one person is dead. Another is convicted of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation.

When Rutgers student Dharun Ravi set up a spycam to catch roommate Tyler Clementi in a same-sex romantic moment, and when he tweeted about it and his plans to do it again, little did he think that Clementi would commit suicide or that he would face serious jail time and deportation. Ravi is learning his lesson the hard way.

There are lessons for all of us:

What you do online can hurt people. Despite the adage about sticks and stones, words can and do hurt -- especially when anyone can publish information that reaches millions. The Internet is full of homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic content.

At a minimum, hate speech is online pollution, but it can go much further. It reinforces stereotypes and strengthens the belief that singling out "the other" for abuse is acceptable. Hate speech can harden low self-esteem and intimidate its targets -- and even lead people to commit suicide.

Christopher Wolf
Christopher Wolf

Online bystanders have a responsibility. Some students in the Rutgers dorm were amused by Ravi's spycam-Twitter scheme. Others ignored it. They should have been outraged, and they should have done something about it. "If you see something, say something" is not an admonition restricted to the security realm.

Tools are online for each of us to flag and report content that is objectionable. Many online companies have staffs to review such reports and to take action, from removing the offensive content to ejecting the person who posted it. Each of us should take responsibility to combat hate-filled content.

Speak up: Clicking to report hate speech to an online host is not all we can do. Justice Louis Brandeis, in a 1927 Supreme Court case, extolled the virtues of "counter-speech" to address objectionable speech.

That pre-Internet admonition applies full force to online messages today. Hate speech legitimizes discrimination, and many of the people who post it believe no one objects. So object. Speak up to counter the lies of hate speech or the inappropriate online conduct directed at minorities. Just as the Internet provides thoughtless haters with broadcasting tools, each of us has those same tools at our disposal. A little counter-speech can go a long way.

It's time to get serious about cyber-literacy and ethics. The lack of education in schools about the rules that apply to online posting is appalling. Kids are left to their own devices, literally, with little guidance.

Given the power in everyone's hands to cause injury -- and to be injured -- schools should provide serious discussions of what is appropriate online behavior. We are well past the time when adults can think of themselves as the digital immigrants who don't fully understand new technologies, compared with their kids, the digital natives who better understand the online world.

Privacy is a shared responsibility. Discussions about privacy usually revolve around consumer privacy and protection. But in this era of social media, when everyone can be a publisher and broadcaster, individual responsibility to respect privacy should be the focus. Most people would know that secretly setting up a webcam to spy on someone is wrong. But posting embarrassing photos and videos and making thoughtless comments can be a wrongful invasion of privacy as well. Each of us has a responsibility to consider the privacy implications of what we do online.

Homophobia is not funny. Finally, while young straight people today are much more accepting of gay people, an undercurrent of homophobia remains. Ravi most likely would not have set up a webcam to catch his roommate making out with a girl, nor would he have tweeted about it.

In some quarters, the put-down "That's so gay" is still common parlance. Many think of gays and lesbians as "the other" and fair game for jokes. Racist and anti-Semitic jokes still have currency. Ravi may have thought what he was doing to his roommate was funny, but he now knows it was anything but, for Clementi and for himself.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Wolf.

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