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The Twitter trial: Vile harassment online is consequence-free

Emma Woolley is a Toronto-based writer.

One thing is certain after last week's not-guilty verdict in the first criminal harassment via Twitter trial: We cannot rely on the legal system to address online harassment.

I've followed this trial closely for a few reasons: as a feminist writer, I've received online threats and near-constant vitriolic responses to my opinions. I know the complainants, and had my own unpleasant exchanges with the defendant. I've watched the case be repeatedly misrepresented as either a series of mishandled debates (at best); or a deliberate effort to silence free speech, an argument often steeped in anti-feminist rhetoric (at worst).

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As any Twitter user knows, context is everything. Most discussions of the trial tend to focus on the content of the examined tweets – some of which Judge Brent Knazan described in his ruling as "sexist," vulgar," and "obscene" – and not the frequency or his refusal to respect basic communication boundaries. Judge Knazan confirmed that both complainants had been harassed, but this wasn't enough to convict. Both women asked the defendant to stop participating in discussions with them on Twitter.

Judge Knazan ruled these requests as "unreasonable," stating that:

"…asking a person to stop reading one's feed from a freely chosen open account is not reasonable. Nor is it reasonable to ask someone to stop alluding to one's tweets. To subscribe to Twitter and keep your account open is to waive your right to privacy in your tweets. Arranging a meeting or social event using tweets other than direct messages is like inviting strangers into your home or onto your phone line while you talk to your friends. Blocking only goes so far, as long as you choose to remain open."

Judge Knazan is right to highlight the limitations of blocking. Reading someone's tweets while blocked requires logging out of one's account or creating a new one – a level of motivation I'd call creepy. I also think that continued engagement in conversations in which a person is explicitly unwelcome, even indirectly, indicates a frightening sense of entitlement.

The judge called this behaviour "stubborn" but didn't consider it worth being "reasonably" afraid of. The fear that stems from knowing someone is monitoring what you're saying and doing online at all times is about as hard to "prove" as the feeling of being watched, and it isn't until someone blatantly threatens you with violence that you can truly turn to the law.

(Even then, when it happens online, it is not taken as seriously.)

The choices are limited: Keep your account open regardless of how ugly commentary gets, and hope blocking keeps the worst of it out of sight; make your account private, accessible only to approved users; or leave altogether.

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Were this in person, the choices would be equivalent to withstanding harassment simply for being outside; limiting time outside while never speaking to strangers; or never going outside at all. In future cases, it seems it will only matter that the accuser asked for non-contact if they privatize or delete their accounts, and either option results in a degree of silencing the victim.

For people whose economic livelihoods depend on being online; or whose primary support networks exist on the very same platforms that make it easier for others to be cruel to or harass them, doing so can be an impossible decision. For everyone, this means constantly hiding and regulating in order to speak our truths.

When we accept online harassment as an inevitable reality, we also accept that asking for better is unreasonable. There is no room to call for empathy or integrity: only free speech and what is and isn't punishable by law.

Online harassment is common for a reason: it's easy and usually consequence-free. For now, the only way to avoid it is to either accept it as a part of public life, try to ignore fear, and become complacent; or return to the days of pseudonyms and locked accounts.

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