by Ann Bartow 
Harvard Journal of Law & Gender
Vol. 32, Winter 2009
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Table of Contents:
• I. The Internet Can Be a Hostile Environment for Women and That Hostility Fosters an Extensive Market for Reputation Defense Services
• II. The Legal System Offers Little to Harassment Victims and Reputation Defense Services Will Profit and Thrive by Keeping it That Way
• III. Reputation Defense Services Are Attractive to Entities Seeking to Actively Hide Misdeeds
A woman who is aggressively sexually harassed while walking in a public place can turn to the police. A woman who is sexually harassed on the job can turn to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or hire a lawyer and file suit. Neither of these women may ultimately receive justice, but there are at least government actors who are charged with offering assistance to women in these situations. When sexual harassment occurs on the Internet, however, they are on their own, as far as government actors are concerned, especially if the identities of the harassers are unknown. Victims feel exposed, vulnerable, and helpless.  Private entities are seeking to take advantage of this void by marketing online “reputation defense” services, which purportedly allow clients to manage and manipulate the information about them on the Internet. The companies cannot prevent online sexual harassment, but they claim an ability to help clients hide bad things that have happened by burying the abhorrent websites deep within search engine results or having objectionable words and images removed from websites altogether. 
The Internet harassment storms directed at tech blogger Kathy Sierra  and at the law students targeted by posters on the AutoAdmit message board  have been widely reported and discussed. Kathy Sierra, a technology expert who received a torrent of online threats and abuse, used to run a tech website called Creating Passionate Users.  In the spring of 2007, she was subjected to verbal abuse in the comments section of her own blog, where she could delete those abusive comments, and other blogs, where she could not. The comments included posts like “fuck off you boring slut . . . i hope someone slits your throat and cums down your gob.”  On a blog specifically established, at least in part, to make fun of Sierra, someone posted a photo of a noose next to Sierra’s head, which drew the comment “the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size.”  One journalist observed with some understatement that the “rhetoric hurled in the blogosphere . . . [went] over the top in this incident,” noting, “[m]uch of the discussion [was] heated, as some people suggest Sierra has overreacted by calling the police, and some even say the death threats should be protected speech.”  Sierra shut down her tech blog and stopped making public appearances,  writing:
As for the future of this blog, I know I cannot just return to business as usual—whatever absurd reasons have led to this much hatred for me (and for what I write here) will continue, so there is no reason to think the same things wouldn’t happen again . . . and probably soon. That includes anything that raises (or maintains) my visibility, so I will not be doing speaking engagements—especially at public events. 
The harassment fear she experienced drove her from her online life and affected the way she lived offline as well.  The only actual choice she had was to surrender, or to stand and fight. If she had chosen the latter, all she would likely have gotten for her trouble is additional ridicule, hostility, suspicion, and threats of bodily harm. And as she noted, she was “simply one of a gazillion examples about what’s happening today both on and offline.”  Her experience elicited a lot of complicated reactions from other women who had experienced Internet harassment. For example, Joan Walsh, an editor for Salon.com, explained:
Ever since Salon automated its letters, it’s been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men—sometimes nakedly sexist, sometimes less obviously so; sometimes sexually and/or personally degrading. But I’ve never admitted the toll our letters can sometimes take on women writers at Salon, myself included, because admitting it would be giving misogynist losers—and these are the posters I’m talking about—power. Still, I’ve come to think that denying it gives them another kind of power, and I’m trying to sort that out by thinking about the Kathy Sierra mess in all its complexity. 
AutoAdmit  is “a widely read message board that ostensibly provides information about law schools and law firms;” however, “the nature of much of the message board’s content is . . . racist, misogynistic, or otherwise obscene.”  Hostility toward women generally, and feminists in particular, is rampant.  Women are identified by name or photo or both, and then savaged.  Most of the law students targeted by AutoAdmit posters were neither bloggers nor members of any lecture circuit and did not have the option of disappearing from the Internet. The activities of their tormenters brought them firmly into the cyber limelight, and have kept them there, by continually publishing negative information in ways that visibly link to their names. 
The targeted law students were apparently initially ridiculed on AutoAdmit by people they knew in real space, as evidenced by personal information that was disclosed, such as the style or color of clothing they wore at a particular location.  But once the women were contextually framed as people who deserved to be mocked and punished (mostly because they objected to the ill treatment) online strangers mobbed and besieged them as well. 
The attacks on Kathy Sierra and the students targeted by AutoAdmit took place against a context of widespread misogyny online. These stories were widely covered by mainstream media sources and a host of blogs, sometimes conterminously. A less commonly known episode that is representative of the ubiquitous presence of online sexual harassment and misogyny involved a long string of vulgar comments left on the YouTube trailer  for the documentary Girls Rock!  about a rock and roll camp for girls between the ages of eight and eighteen.  Within twelve hours of the video appearing, the following posts were made:
Girls cant play guitar. . .. . ..
are you a lesbian? if you are thats ok. I’m a lesbian too; in the way that I like women.
if girls want be respected as good rock musicians, maybe they should actually put out a good album.
WHINY WHORES!!! FUUUUCK!
girls are going too wild. . . . .seriously. . . . .get a life
Without men there would be no children and the women with their P.M.S. would nuke each other until there was no world left.
Shouldn’t they be teaching girls more useful things, such as how to make sandwiches??
I think its cool if girls are in bands, but do you have to look like a dude / really butch. . . .ugh thats nasty.
There are 2 things a woman should never go near: a) a car b) an electric guitar
want to read something funny. . . “WOMANS RIGHTS”
When they try to rock they just end up looking like morons, stick to the dolls ladys. It’s like a guy trying to be a? super model, you just dont do that, unless you want to look like a retard.
Just another lame Self-empowerment video for women, they say they’re so strong, why do they NEED these videos/programs. . .? It is completely stupid.
Yes, the best way for progression is to poorly imitate what males have already done.
girls do rock, well hott ones atleast
im assuming your a female so i probably would fuck you but then your probably fat so i wouldn’t
This is trash. So the girls shouldnt be concerned about being fat and become some alternative crappy emo singers instead? What kind of logic is that? Why cant she join a gym?
girls need too learn too suck dick better fuck these whores
you should not have been featured because males are the domminant gender period, and im a girl [R ICHIE [AUTHOR OF BLOG POST]: THIS USER’S PROFILE IDENTIFIES THEM AS A 27 YEAR OLD MAN CALLED JOHN] 
ill those girls in the video were fugly
theres is a shortage of goodlooking girls in the video 
These comments and many more like them were listed within a critical blog post sarcastically entitled, “THEY ARE DROWNING OUT MALE VOICES WITH THEIR EVIL MOVIE TRAILER.”  Richie, the author of this blog post, observed, “[c]onsidering the average age of the pro-segregation feminazis girls involved was about fourteen, they’re not likely to weather coordinated cyberbullying terribly well.” 
Richie’s post about the horrifying comments thread drew the attention of people associated with the actual movie. One of them, Arne Johnson, responded:
I’m actually the co-director of the film Girls Rock!, and was likewise blown away by the deluge of horrid comments. We quickly put an “Approve First” filter on it because of exactly what Richie is saying about the ability of these young girls to fight off cyberbullying. We did, however, decide to let the less personal and stupidly ugly comments (“Dyke slags”, that sort of stuff) remain so folks like you could see what was out there and talk about it. A heartening amount of women and men fought back in the comments and that was worth showing too. Funny thing is, the comments were evenly divided between “Girls can’t rock, only men can play the guitar, they shouldn’t try” and male panic comments like “Why do you need a special camp to separate girls out, they have the same opportunities as men now!” Amazing no-one realized the two canceled each other out. 
As noted, the comments reprinted above are actually the edited version; the really ugly, harshly personal comments were deleted.  These quotes and others like them were allowed to remain, and I repeated some of them in this article to inform the public about just some of the misogyny that girls face online. This episode represents only one of many angry, sexist diatribes that occur on the Internet every single day.  Aggressive and personally abusive discourse found in various spheres of the Internet is disproportionately directed at women and girls. 
Neither civil nor criminal laws offer effective tools to prevent, address, or punish online speech, which is viewed by many as being vested with very broad First Amendment protections.  Current Internet norms may foster civility in some specific contexts,  but, as a general matter, gender based harassment is broadly permitted online.  Thirteen years ago, computer scientist Ellen Spertus wrote an article entitled Social and Technical Means for Fighting On-Line Harassment in which she described social and technical responses she believed could be used to reduce the occurrence and impact of online sexual harassment.  She wrote:
In many ways, women are better protected from unwanted speech on-line than off-line. For example, there is no way in the off-line world for a woman to ensure that she not hear certain insulting terms, which could be used by her co-workers or yelled at her on the street. On-line, tools such as Net Nanny ensure that we do not see unwanted words. Developing technologies will allow the online implementation of standard social mechanisms such as reputations (good and bad), introductions, and social pressure to behave civilly (however that is defined). More basically, the same freedom of speech that allows someone to send us an offensive message allows us to call it to the attention of others, however this might embarrass the sender. 
Retrospectively, her optimism seems misplaced, to put it lightly. In fairness, the Internet was structured very differently in 1996, and the opportunities for anonymous harassment of women outside of community structures were far fewer, as blogs and online discussion boards as currently structured did not exist.  Furthermore, the power of the Communications Decency Act’s  (“CDA”) § 230 Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) immunity was not yet known. It was not until the 1997 decision of Zeran v. America Online, Inc.,  that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined ISPs were exempt from liability. 
Efforts to decrease the sexist aspects of online fora have been largely ineffective, and in some instances seemingly counterproductive, in the sense that they have provoked even greater amounts of abuse and harassment with a gendered aspect.  And so, in the wake of a series of high profile episodes of cyber sexual harassment, and a grotesque abundance of low profile ones, a new business model was launched. Promising to clean up and monitor online information to defuse the visible impact of coordinated harassment campaigns, a number of entities began to market themselves as knights in cyber shining armor,  ready to defend otherwise defenseless people whose reputations have been sullied on the Internet.  Of course these companies charge a fee and place particular emphasis on women who they recognize as potential clients.  This article raises three concerns about these businesses. First, these companies have economic incentives to foster conditions online that perpetuate acts of online harassment, as the more harassment there is online, the greater the number of potential clients. These companies are also incentivized to create fora with hostile climates and to stir up trouble themselves. Second, these companies have economic incentives to oppose legal reforms that might enable online defamation and harassment victims to seek recourse from law enforcement agencies or through the courts. And finally, though they cloak themselves in the mantel of protectors of the innocent, their real agenda is to sell their services to wealthy corporations and individuals for far more nefarious purposes: to help bad actors hide negative information about themselves. This practice creates information asymmetries that can harm anyone who detrimentally relies on what they incorrectly assume to be the best available information and can lead to increases in the sorts of financial losses and personal vulnerability that access to un-manipulated Internet search results might otherwise reduce.
I. THE INTERNET CAN BE A HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT FOR WOMEN AND THAT HOSTILITY FOSTERS AN EXTENSIVE MARKET FOR REPUTATION DEFENSE SERVICES
A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape. A single mother who blogged about “the daily ins and outs of being a mom” was threatened by a cyber-stalker who claimed that she beat her son and that he had her under surveillance. Kathy Sierra, who won a large following by blogging about designing software that makes people happy, became a target of anonymous online attacks that included photos of her with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth. As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms—a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said. 
Anyone who spends time online has at least seen, if not experienced, some form of Internet harassment. Pitched arguments that turn ugly can break out in the comments section of any website or blog over topics as seemingly mundane (at least to unimpassioned outside observers) as how much arch support a particular brand of athletic shoe offers runners, which the reader can confirm by perusing the customer reviews of sneakers at any typical online running shoe sales venue.  One wonders: do runners really care about others’ opinions of sneakers that much? Or is one company hiding behind anonymity to trash a competitor’s latest offering, while the competitor is simultaneously attempting image burnishing and damage control, similarly cloaked in pseudonyms? It’s generally impossible to tell. But where everyone involved is anonymous, and the topic is a series of subjective views about inanimate objects, it does not seem like much harm is being done with the angry insults,  as long as readers are cognizant of the fact that ostensibly neutral product-reviewing commenters may be deceptively attempting to manipulate the readers’ purchasing decisions. 
When the targets of opprobrium are people rather than sneakers, disputes become more personal. Kathy Sierra expressed confusion about why people seemed to hate her and her tech blog so much that they would literally threaten her life.  Many other lower profile bloggers have been just as perplexed by the occurrence of similar episodes.  Unless the culprits are identified and questioned, which rarely happens, the motivations and triggers underlying Internet abuse storms can only be guessed at. One journalist wrote:
Have you ever participated in an online forum where an anonymous someone turns really ugly on you and starts saying every disgusting thing under the sun for no apparent reason?
You never forget the feeling.
It’s creepy. It’s violent. It violates you even though it’s “just words.” It makes you feel powerless because there’s virtually nothing you can do to stop it. Even worse, if the forum isn’t moderated, the words and posts will remain there forever to haunt you . . . and smear you in the eyes of potential employers, clients, even boyfriends who google your name. 
Self-identifying as a woman online can substantially increase the risk of Internet harassment.  Some people initially had hopes that gender would become less important online. As one commentator noted:
One of the great early hopes for the internet was that it would erase sexism. Once we couldn’t see gender, we’d be judged on the quality of our ideas and not our sex. And now huge sectors of the internet are porn sites and games where female avatars look like porn stars with fantasy metal bits instead of genitalia. And that’s only where it’s smack-you-over-the-head obvious how fully sexism thrives online. Sexism may well be worse online. 
A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from twenty-eight percent in 2000 to seventeen percent in 2005.  The decrease was entirely due to an enormous exodus of women.  In 2006, a study assessing the threat of attacks associated with the chat medium IRC (Internet Relay Chat) found that users with female identifiers were “far more likely” to receive malicious private messages.  Users with ambiguous names were less likely to receive malicious private messages than female users, but more likely to receive them than male users.  These results indicated that attacks came from anonymous human chat-users selecting their targets, rather than from automated scripts indiscriminately sending attacks to all users.  This study replicated earlier findings documenting the hostility and harassment expressed in gendered and sexually threatening terms toward women who identify as female online.  One high profile woman blogger theorized that Kathy Sierra’s attackers “want women out of their worlds,” observing, “[w]hen someone goes this far, to make death imagery and maintain a 24/7 hate blog, we’re not talking about a lack of social skills, we’re talking about a desire to destroy.”  Research also suggests that women who violate prescriptive gender roles are disproportionately targeted for harassment.  Simply having an online presence or expressing confident opinions on male-identified topics may be viewed as unwomanly or outside the norm and therefore worthy of censure.  This condemnation will generally take the form of disparaging sexual references, which fit into one of two interrelated categories: it’s bad to be a pussy, and it’s bad to have a pussy.
A study by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University found that seventy percent of women chose to construct male characters when given the option by online games, in part to avoid the sexism and sexual harassment that they are subjected to online when they identify as women.  In one illustration of the kind of treatment women may seek to avoid, when Ailin Graef attempted to take part in an online three-dimensional interview to discuss her successes in the “Second Life” virtual world, hackers attacked her cyber-character with an onslaught of flying pink penises. 
There is no feasible way to measure the quantity of the harassment that women receive online, but the quality, so often rooted in gender-specific opprobrium, is easy to observe.  The insults hurled at women are deeply gendered. If you doubt this, enter any online forum in which men appear to be in the majority and, using a female sounding pseudonym, say something provocative. Some people will respond with an articulation of disagreement on the merits. Others will engage in sexist name-calling or making indirect threats. Even when men are being insulted, the derogatory terms employed will often be references to female body parts, such as pussy, twat, or cunt, or will allude to femaleness or homosexuality in some disparaging way, such as suggesting someone is someone else’s bitch or making graphic allusions to oral and anal sex. 
All this occurs in the comments sections of very mainstream blogs.  One can observe comments threads at purportedly “liberal” political or current events blogs that are drenched in misogyny and functionally indistinguishable from some of the conversations that transpired at AutoAdmit or the now shuttered college gossip site JuicyCampus.  I have often observed that when a blogger identifies someone as a person deserving of opprobrium, he or she encourages readers to trash that person in comments. The blogger can also incentivize trashing people on other blogs by linking to them approvingly, thereby delivering elevated traffic counts to those linked blogs. That some subset of these people feels justified in expanding the harassment by contacting the employers or e-mailing or phoning threats to the targets of the harassment directly seems of no concern to most bloggers. Most ignore pleas for help from the targeted parties, and perhaps even derive enjoyment from the distress they cause others. Those publishing at highly-trafficked blogs can inflict a lot of misery on fairly small bloggers, but proportionality is of no apparent concern, unlike in real space where significant size disparities between combatants is considered unsporting and unfair. For targeted women, the abuse bloggers can inspire and encourage will often include rape threats.  All an attorney can generally do in the short term is advise the target to stop answering her phone or checking her e-mail for a few days, in the hopes that the abuse will crest and then subside as other targets are identified. While I am uncomfortable pointing to specific examples of this harassment, so as not to risk inciting additional abuse toward individuals who have already been traumatized, I have observed and experienced this both as a blogger and as an attorney who has assisted other bloggers with various matters over more than five years. 
The harassment of the AutoAdmit victims spread across portions of the Internet in a viral manner. During a discussion of the AutoAdmit lawsuit appended to a post written by Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, the following comment about the AutoAdmit victims appeared:
The poor little girls Paris Hilton themselves around a prestigious law school instead of, you know, studying, flaunt whatever physical attributes they were lucky enough to be born with or acquire through surgery, insult the half of their class with condescension and snobbery, insult the other half with bitchiness and attitude, then go screaming and crying to daddy warbucks when some of the people they spent years denigrading [sic] call them on their inadequacies and laugh at their failures.
What could these little primadonnas who have no business being at YLS expect for their behavior? I think they got off lucky, though truth be told, I am still waiting for some home video to pop up online. 
This comment is illustrative of one very common phenomenon: when women complain about harassment, it often escalates.  The AutoAdmit administrators seemed to intentionally create a climate that encouraged angry, widespread flaming of anyone who complained about the way they were treated by posters at the AutoAdmit boards.  This intensified the harassment, which in turn led to the filing of the lawsuit.  Subsequently, seemingly everywhere in cyberspace that the AutoAdmit lawsuit was discussed where anonymous commenting was allowed, attacks on the two women followed. 
If the women had passively endured the initial postings, would the harassment have eventually subsided? There is no way to know. Even if it had, the victims would have remained apprehensive that the campaigns could be resuscitated by unforeseeable acts or omissions. If they didn’t know what actions or events initiated the first angry postings, they could hardly know how to avoid repeating them. Avoiding harassment by remaining invisible or gender-neutral is not always an option. Many people are not seeking the limelight in any way when they become the subjects of Internet harassment. Maybe they got a promotion at work someone else felt s/he had earned. Maybe they broke up with someone or refused to date somebody. Maybe they are very physically attractive and someone wants to see them humbled. Maybe they are not traditionally attractive, so someone decides to make them objects of derision and scorn for not trying harder to be thin and pretty. Maybe their profession requires them to have a personally identifiable presence online.
When someone is trying to become culturally visible, as a writer, entertainer, public intellectual, or in any other capacity, they may have to endure Internet harassment in extremis. As actor Tina Fey recently noted in her Golden Globe acceptance speech: “If you ever feel too good about yourself, they have this thing called ‘the Internet.’ You can find a lot of people there who don’t like you.”  Entertainers may receive the most scrutiny and criticism. While this is recognized and predictable, it is still an alarming and painful adjunct to the pursuit of widespread fame. In contrast, people who become subjects of Internet discussion because of their occupation or hobbies may be less likely to expect Internet-based attacks, or to have the emotional tools to deal with them as compared to seasoned Internet participants who know the kinds of abuse that can arise.
As legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick notes, one of the reasons online harassment is scary is that it often occurs with a total lack of context.  She observed:
Women have accumulated at least some skills in figuring out when face-to-face sexual innuendo or threats are serious, joking, or pathological. True, we are sometimes tragically wrong. But for the most part, we can tell whether Jeff from accounting needs a restraining order or just a stern “no.” An anonymous sexual threat on a blog could come from anywhere, and it’s virtually impossible to determine whether or not the poster is serious. 
People who make an effort to explicitly build norms that oppose harassment often become targets of abuse themselves. After technology blogger Kathy Sierra went public with allegations of online harassment, journalist Tim O’Reilly floated the concept of a “Blogger’s Code of Conduct.”  The online response was “vitriolic,” to put it lightly.  Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos wrote that “[c]alls for a ‘blogger code of conduct’ are stupid” and implied that bloggers who claim to receive death threats are exaggerating or lying.  He asserted, “if they can’t handle a little heat in their email inbox, then really, they should try another line of work. Because no ‘blogger code of conduct’ will scare away psycho losers with access to email.”  A group of bloggers actually founded a new blog specifically to mock the idea of promulgating a voluntary Code of Conduct,  and one poster there either blithely or dishonestly alluded generally to unspecified formal remedies:
For the comments threatening sexual assault and death, well . . . a Civility Code isn’t going to stop the insane dorkwads who do that shit from doing it. What’s more, there are legal remedies in place for that, whether it be on a blog, via phone or with the person scrawling threats on your walls with your dog’s blood. 
Of course, as anyone who has actually contacted the police about fairly unambiguous online threats knows, this is completely untrue.  But the point of the post is not to be accurate, it is to disparage and frighten off anyone who tries to affirmatively build civility norms into online culture. This is a common trope in the blogosphere, where the concept of “blogger ethics” is thoroughly derided whenever it is raised and sometimes even when it isn’t. Blogger Duncan Black frames every link about misbehaving mainstream journalists with a sarcastic gibe along the lines of “time for another blogger ethics panel.”  And he is far from the only purportedly progressive blogger who does this.  One extremely extant online norm is that calls for civility are met with derision and those who make them are disciplined into silence with aggressive personal attacks.  For example, when Zephyr Teachout  raised the issue of blogger ethics in the context of disclosing financial relationships to political candidates, a post at Daily Kos in response was entitled “Fuck You Very Much Zephyr Teachout.”  Even a moderate response is likely to be an exhortation to harassment victims to “man up” or “sack up,” sack being a reference to testicles. Even established women journalists can receive escalated abusive treatment if they complain about online harassment. Washingtonpost.com turned off the reader comments feature on a feedback blog “after several comments containing personal attacks, profanity and hate speech were posted on an item about Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell’s column about the Abramoff scandal.”  Howell was thereafter mocked and virulently castigated by a diarist at Daily Kos,  by Duncan Black at Eschaton (who called her “little Debbie”),  and by Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake (who accused her of “shrieking hysteria” and “unnecessary PMSing”).  Hamsher spent a substantial amount of time during a panel discussion accusing the washingtonpost.com people of exaggeration and mendacity with respect to the objectionable comments.  Hamsher described a subsequent real space meeting where Howell explained the effect that the attacking comments had on her:
[A]fter an hour and a half of listening to Howell and others describe her experience like she was the sole survivor of the Bismark, Matt Stoller grabbed the microphone and said “The antagonism here is coming from you guys . . . . Nothing happened to you!” Aravosis says Stoller went on for a bit more—“You’re fine . . . it’s not like you were hit by a car . . . you’re sitting here, eating a nice meal” or words to that effect. 
Any blogger sets the tone for her blog with the content of her posts and by which comments she allows through moderation, as all blogs can be moderated.  And anyone with an extensively read blog can use it to draw positive or negative attention to other people. Bloggers affirmatively make choices about whether to allow, or even to encourage and facilitate sexualized insults by deciding whether or not to moderate their blogs and determining the topics for their posts. Sex sells, so bloggers can utilize sexualized commentary to attract readers. Some do it eponymously, while others choose to hide behind pseudonyms. Women’s bodies get treated like public property. Feminist author Jessica Valenti described one appalling instance in which her breasts became the subject of a series of critical blog posts by a blogger apparently determined to use Jessica’s body to drive up her own readership:
Last year I had my own run-in with online sexism when I was invited to a lunch meeting with Bill Clinton, along with a handful of other bloggers. After the meeting, a group photo of the attendees with Clinton was posted on several websites, and it wasn’t long before comments about my appearance (“Who’s the intern?”; “I do like Gray Shirt’s three-quarter pose.”) started popping up.
One website, run by [University of Wisconsin School of Law faculty member] and occasional New York Times columnist Ann Althouse, devoted an entire article to how I was “posing” so as to “make [my] breasts as obvious as possible”. The post, titled “Let’s take a closer look at those breasts,” ended up with over 500 comments. Most were about my body, my perceived whorishness, and how I couldn’t possibly be a good feminist because I had the gall to show up to a meeting with my breasts in tow. One commenter even created a limerick about me giving oral sex. Althouse herself said that I should have “worn a beret . . . a blue dress would have been good too.” All this on the basis of a photograph of me in a crew-neck sweater from Gap.
I won’t even get into the hundreds of other blogs and websites that linked to the “controversy.” It was, without doubt, the most humiliating experience of my life—all because I dared be photographed with a political figure. 
Valenti’s breasts unexpectedly became a topic of conversation that embarrassed her, which, as she noted, led to negative commentary about various aspects of her person in many different Internet contexts. Rather than apologize for the discomfort she caused by exploiting her breasts, Althouse’s indignant response to Valenti was, in part, as follows:
I still maintain that it was absolutely justified to mock that photograph. Distort what I was really saying there all you want, but the fact remains: Cozying up to Bill Clinton is not something a feminist should be doing. You have never responded to what I was really writing about. You have instead chosen to attack me, and you’re doing it again, and you and your friends have leveraged what was a minor satirical blog post for your advantage. You’re exploiting it again and going through the whole routine of trying to ruin my reputation again. It’s an ugly way you’ve chosen to try to build a career as a feminist writer.
I’d love to see you take some responsibility for what you’ve done instead of whining that everyone’s talking about your breasts. I don’t give a damn about your breasts. What I care about is the way feminists sold out feminism to bolster the fortunes of the Democratic Party. But you will never talk about that, because you don’t have anything to say there. So it’s on and on about breasts, breasts, breasts, please don’t talk about my breasts. 
Then she featured derogatory, sometimes sexualized comments from her readers such as: “Valenti continues to milk her sagging ‘breast controversy’ for all its worth,”  egging on her readers to spew a long thread of aggressively rude comments. She also vehemently asserted that she, rather than Valenti, was the person who had been victimized. 
Even a feminist legal theory conference can provide blog fodder for someone willing and, maybe even eager, to expose professional colleagues to ridicule by strangers. When Ann Althouse “live blogged”  a conference called “Working From the World Up: Equality’s Future,” celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project,  the tone of her posts inspired misogynistic mockery in the comments threads at her eponymous blog.  Some of the people at the conference found this fairly alarming. 
This example of leveraging sexism for blog hits is deeply personal to me, as many of the people at the conference were my friends. Fellow law professor Eric Muller  and I  pointed out what was happening by posting about these misogynistic, mocking comments at our respective blogs, only to become targets ourselves after Althouse instrumentally directed the commenters our way. With respect to Muller, Althouse wrote: “Look what Eric Muller said about my commenters. I haven’t read all the comments, but I have a feeling that Eric is missing some of the humor. I’m mainly seeing a reflexive distaste for leftwing academic theorizing more than any real ‘misogynist . . . [n]auseating . . . filth . . . spewing.’”  Another post asked: “What self-styled ‘feminist law professor’ is trashing my blog because I’m blogging this conference? Hello? We’re honoring the 25th Anniversary of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project and you’re not here.”  The comments that followed that post were predictably sexist, noting that “[m]isogyny is the magic word that serves as a condom. Still, we all need feminists. They are, after all, women.”  In another comment, a poster colloquially referenced spanking and ejaculating into my hair.  Unsurprisingly, given her penchant for encouraging misogyny on her blog, Althouse was not very sympathetic to the AutoAdmit victims. 
Althouse has a fairly widely read blog, and makes a practice of aggressively censuring anyone who dares criticize her.  One of my favorite posts documenting this practice was written by Brian Leiter. It was sparked by my criticism of David Lat’s penchant for running “hotties” contests at Above the Law,  in which the personally identifiable participants were often targeted involuntarily, and then publicly humiliated by having their physical appearances evaluated against their wishes.  Leiter wrote:
Feminist Law Profs [sic] critiques sexist legal humor, while Ann Althouse (Wisconsin) defends it.
UPDATE: A reader points out that Professor Althouse (who, accordingly [sic] to the AALS Directory, is 55 years old) has responded to my merely calling attention to this debate by calling me a “nerd.” Oh goodness. My 5th-grader was also called a “nerd” at school the other day. This will help us bond.
(As members of the Caron Blog Empire know, we get paid by the number of visits, so this Update is admittedly a cynical attempt on my part to get Professor Althouse to link here again.)
AND A FINAL ONE: Thanks to one of my students for pointing out that in the comments Professor Althouse has gone a step further, and called me a “jackass.” Oh goodness, again! A surprising choice of language from someone who, in the past, was quite prissy about the use of such words. 
Yet even Althouse has acknowledged that the Internet can be a rough place for women. In an interview on the topic of “Blogging While Female” she said:
In the blogosphere, it’s sort of like the Wild West, and you actually can try to push people out. You can push women out. There’s a way of trying to get women to leave and because it’s a rough world where people are trying to climb to the top, they will use whatever techniques they can, you know? And so I think that makes you vulnerable as a woman, but you don’t have to be. There’s a positive side to it, too, that you can use. You get attention just for being a woman because it’s less common. 
Using the Internet to target specific people for abuse or removal is not unique to bloggers. Social networking sites can also be harnessed to facilitate harassment. Students who participated on the university-focused Juicy-Campus’s websites often sought retaliation for bad romantic encounters, or for social slights that happened offline. One pundit described it as “a forum for exacting sweet, anonymous revenge.”  According to another observer, “If your aim is to build traffic, it’s a fair business plan: create a site for college kids to act like assholes to each other anonymously, wait for the hateful garbage to build up and for the media to cover resulting outrage, and enjoy the resulting hits.”  Certainly Vanderbilt’s JuicyCampus site received high traffic when someone posted about one student’s rape, with the assertion that she deserved what happened to her and that he wished he had been the one to rape her, writing, “what could she expect walking around there alone. everyone thinks she’s so sweet but she got what she deserved. wish i had been the homeless guy that f***** her.” 
Given the poisonous climate in sectors of the Internet, the abject failure of efforts to foster online civility, and the prohibitive logistics of civil litigation, it is not surprising that opportunists would explore ways to lucratively mine the human misery caused by Internet harassment for riches. The highest profile reputation defense service is ReputationDefender.  ReputationDefender has energetically exploited online harassment of women to garner extensive national publicity.  ReputationDefender management used the suffering of the law students targeted by AutoAdmit to get itself featured in stories in prestigious publications such as the Washington Post,  and in an article that basically amounted to an unpaid (I assume) commercial on NPR.  The ReputationDefender homepage touts this media attention  and the company’s “press page” lists additional positive references in other media outlets as well. 
The company transparently sought to exploit the suffering of the AutoAdmit targets in its own self-interest. For a while, its website touted a “CAMPAIGN TO DEFEND A WOMAN’S RIGHT TO PRIVACY & HER GOOD NAME!”  Chivalry is not dead; it simply requires the payment of monthly fees to a reputation defense service. Here is a button the ReputationDefender website used to feature:
Campaign to clean up AutoAdmit.com
As is discussed in the next section, one could cynically observe that if AutoAdmit didn’t exist, ReputationDefender might have been tempted to invent it.
ReputationDefender also aggressively exploited JuicyCampus as a customer recruiting tool.  Ultimately the JuicyCampus business model failed when universities debated blocking access to the site on campus, and potential advertisers were repulsed by the bad press the company received.  In addition, the Attorneys General of New Jersey and Connecticut initiated legal actions premised on the legal theory that the site violated consumer fraud statutes by not enforcing its own publicized rules about postings.  The closure of JuicyCampus may be a positive sign that external pressure can effect positive change on Internet mores. But a lot of harsh words were published before JuicyCampus ended, and its advertisers were probably more sensitive to the threat of boycotts within a university community than they might be in the context of a blog targeting a more generalized audience. And the actions brought by the New Jersey and Connecticut Attorneys General could presumably be avoided by successors who use the JuicyCampus model if they decline to post rules or terms of service policies altogether.