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Nov 08 2010

New Site to Combat Harassment Could be Used for Harassment

A new site called ihollaback.org was launched recently to help women report instances of street harassment. It allows women to post their stories of street harassment and it collects them in the hope of maybe changing the belief that this is an acceptable societal norm.  Here’s part of its mission statement:

Stories change the world. Don’t believe us? Think about Rodney King, or Terri Schiavo. These stories didn’t just change the world, they shaped policy.

Sounds great and innocent enough and certainly women should not be subjected to catcalls, come-ons and subway gropers and if this site helps in that area, that’s excellent.  My concern is that a new mobile phone app  from iHollaback  now lets folks also post cell-phone pictures of their alleged harassers on the site.  I think its a great idea for women who can catch men committing a crime like exposing themselves on a subway platform.  In fact, cell phone pics have been used to prosecute a few of those cases here in NY in recent times.

But having a forum to post pictures of alleged street harassers from your cell phone opens the door to abuse. What constitutes harassment in the first place? While sexual innuendo and commenting loudly about a woman’s physical appearance are clearly examples of boorish behavior, ultimately what level of harassment is worthy of posting is in the ears of the beholder.  Here is an example from the site that I find troubling:

Yesterday I went for a short bike ride. I ride a two-wheeled handed cycle that is the height of a standard recumbent bicycle. During that period of time, I received three unsolicited comments:
1. A middle aged women in a car on her phone yelled at me as I rode by “GET A FLAG!!!”
2. A male biker said “That looks hard.”
3. Some kids yelled “Wow, cool bike.”
Here is my point, regardless of whether or not I should have a flag on my bicycle: it is DISRESPECTFUL to yell at me. And I don’t like it. And I don’t care or want to hear the driver’s opinion even if it is good advice. It is OBNOXIOUS AND RUDE to make unsolicited comments to people you don’t know.
Now this poster (who happened to be male) did not post a photo of the rude NYers who yelled at him. But if he had, the man who said “That looks hard” would have his face posted on a website that also includes men who rubbed themselves against women on  a subway and a man who repeatedly followed, cornered and hit on a woman in the elevator of the building where they both worked. Shouldn’t he have had a little thicker skin?  Where do we draw the line on what kind of conduct gets reported and catalogued forever? The other concern is that the site apparently makes no provision for someone who claims to be falsely accused of the harassment.  Think of the potential for people who want to cause grief to others by posting their picture and name on this site and making up a false story about them as street harassers.  Every week I get calls from individuals and companies who want to do something about what is now being labeled “Internet Defamation.” They may have had a personal or business dispute with someone and now their adversary has posted a false story on a “complaint site.”  One individual who had an issue with a tenant found himself falsely labeled a pedophile and child pornographer on a site that is supposed to catalogue disreputable businesses.
He now has to spend time and money to pursue the site and try to obtain proof of who posted the information.  The company is based in the Midwest and likely has limited assets anyway. The tenant has even less assets and he has no idea where she is located. Its a nightmare. Whenever you search for his name on Google, the story comes up on the first page due to he amount of traffic to the site.
This app from ihollaback provides an instantaneous and cheap way to get back at someone whether or not they deserve it.  You do not need to put up a website or anything.  Simply take a cell phone picture of the person you want to harass (if you don’t already have one in your photo library that would be usable) and post it with a false story about his harassment of you. Voila! The internet now has possession of the story and the individual needs to start a massive campaign of clearing his name.
In the old days (ten years ago, before the Google explosion) if you were defamed in a newspaper, a few people saw it or heard about it for a few days. We used to counsel clients in high-profile court cases to just ignore it and it will go away after a few days. Not anymore.  Now we have to demand that news media retract the slightest false information in the article or else it stays part of the story forever. While the traditional “No Comment” still holds as the preferred response to media inquiry in a court case, more and more, clients are irritated that all the internet will contain is the other side of the story.  For public figures that can be especially troubling and frustrating.
At the very least ihollaback should not allow the posting of names.  While this will only slow the harassment down for a little while (till your adversary spreads the picture on around your social network : “Look, just found a picture of  John Doe on this site.  Apparently he groped some girl on the subway!”) its a least a step. The other protection they should add is a place that allows the alleged harasser to respond if he/she so chooses.
I do not mean to belittle the issue but I worry that more harm than good can from this idea.

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