Creative Commons License photo credit: theHalo

A friend passed along Kurt Opsahl’s blog post on the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)’s blog, “Georgia Court Censorship Order Threatens Message Boards Everywhere.”

Matthew Chan runs a website called ExtortionLetterInfo where he targets “copyright trolls.” The EFF story paints a somewhat noble picture of his actions. When you read the story by Ars Technica, though, you start to get a greater sense of what occurred.

Linda Ellis is a writer and the author of a poem called “The Dash.” Another author published this poem in his book without permission and was contacted by Ellis requesting compensation of $100,000. The author chose to instead pay Chan to bring attention to the situation, hoping public pressure would force Ellis to back down.

The Ars Technica article includes excerpts of statements that Chan made, taken from Chan’s own response to Ellis’ request for a restraining order.

“I could even find your house to see what it looks like and where you live,” Chan writes in one post. “Don’t worry I won’t trespass or threaten any physical harm. But I definitely would get some video footage of your house from a safe distance and maybe provide directions to your house. Remember, as a self-proclaimed public figure and celebrity author, this would be of public interest. I could be a one-man paparazzi.”

“Believe me when I tell you I have a LOT on you,” he says in another. “I found out about your brother but I have a LOT more personal information on YOU that I don’t really want to post. I don’t even want to say what information I have simply because it can get out of control very quickly. There are people who hate you and looking to put you into the ground. I don’t ‘hate’ you. I simply find your copyright extortions to be outrageous. We may never agree but that is OK. I do have information that I can post that I am certain you would like and not do you well. But I will leave a few nuggets to let you know I mean business. Some of this will mean very little to most people but YOU should “get it.'”

This is followed by a list of names and what appear to be places or organizations. “Just so you know, my patience is fairly low,” he continues. “It wouldn’t take much to push me over the edge on this. I am content to leave this post as it is if you quietly back off and stop harassing and threatening people. But if not, you will find this thread become one of the most active threads you have ever seen.”

It’s pretty creepy stuff. The friend who shared this story with me also explained to me how Chan’s tactics are not always what one would describe as above board.

If Chan made those comments himself, it is reasonable to expect that he allowed the members of his forums to do the same. In general, allowing people to post personal addresses, phone numbers and other details in an online community is a poor choice. I don’t even allow my members to post their own home addresses or phone numbers on my forums.

What the EFF story is mainly about is the restraining order that was issued in a Georgia court related to this case and Chan’s comments. As part of that order, Judge Frank Jordan held Chan responsible for not only posts he made, but posts that his members made and demanded that he remove “all posts related to Ms. Ellis.” This is problematic.

It suggests that no one may mention Ellis in any context, since Judge Jordan ordered that all posts be removed, not just posts made to threaten the author. The bigger issue, as far as community managers are concerned, is that it flies in the face of the Communications Decency Act, which shields community managers and owners from liability for remarks made by other people on their communities.

This appears to be pretty clearly erroneous and, for that reason, I’m not overly concerned by it. When challenged, it seems very likely that it will not stand. I debated writing about this at all, for that reason. I want to be clear, though, that my disagreement with the ruling is not an expression of support for Chan. I can disagree with the ruling while also saying that I do not support Chan.

Instead, though, I think a more salient point is to understand that when someone uses their community as Chan did, which I view as irresponsible, that is the real threat to responsible, independent community managers. The government will simply react to that irresponsibility – and the people who responsibly manage their communities will suffer because of it.

On March 18, Chan made light of a comment posted on a newspaper website, which said that Ellis should buy a gun and learn how to use it because Chan would “change his tune when he looks down the barrel of a gun.” He said that, because of the comment, he could file for a protective order against the newspaper, but that he really couldn’t because they enjoy protection under the Communications Decency Act that he does not.

Ironically, Chan updated his post shortly thereafter to say add: “It appears the threatening gun posts were removed within the last 24 hours by the Marietta Daily Journal.” Yes, because that is what you do when you responsibly moderate a comment section or forum.