CommResp and AutoAdmin(t)

When I wrote the action plan for Comment Management Responsibility (“CommResp”) in April, I had hoped to test it against additional online communties. Oddly, I hadn't been aware about the brewing storm that month concerning the AutoAdmit law student discussion board and its rampant misogyny.

It only reached my radar when I heard the NPR report that two aggrieved students have filed a defamation suit. I thought I researched the fallout from the “MeanKids” debacle fully, but I never came across the other story at all. Harvard Law School even assembled a panel on April 5th about the incident, and while a few of the listed resource were about MeanKids and Tim O'Reilly's Blogger's Code of Conduct, nobody made the connections. Perhaps part of the problem was O'Reilly's mistaken focus on bloggers and not on comment forums in general.

AutoAdmit is a bit of a throwback: a discussion board launched in the midst of the blog era. It had been spunoff in 2004 from the Princeton Review bulletin boards when some of the members found that the boards had become too restrictive. (I had observed the same thing with the C-SPAN). Jarret Cohen set it up (original at, and Anthony Ciolli later joined to co-administer it. Budding law students had plenty of places in the “blawgs” to weigh in on topical issues, but apparently no places to, well, hang loose. One early target of the locker room banter was Jill Filipovic, a law student at NYU, and one of three contributors to the Feministe blog. She swung back at the sophomorics of AutoAdmit in January 2006. Other women who didn't have as strong online profiles were attacked as well, often out of “hot or not” discussions around Facebook pictures.

By 2007 a couple of Yale Law students had had enough, and they engaged the assistance of ReputationDefender, a new type of PR firm founded by recent Harvard Law grad Michael Fertik. ReputationDefender claims that they can “destroy” harmful Internet content (using “proprietary techniques”), and in doing so positively affect search engine ratings. According to Cohen, Fertik's main work was writing a lot of letters – to law deans, to Google AdSense, to AutoAdmit's server company – before contacting Cohen directly. Unfortunately, Fertik's approach backfired: Cohen was offended at what he felt was a self-serving media campaign by ReputationDefender, and the AutoAdmit community gleefully amplified three of the aggreived women's names on AutoAdmit and a couple of other websites. The story was picked up in an article in the Washington Post, and covered on Good Morning America. Ciolli had a job offer from a law firm rescinded, whereupon he resigned from AutoAdmit. Still, they did take down at least one thread.

By coincidence, the very first conference for Ms. JD, an online forum for women in the law profession, was held at Yale on March 31st. I watched the video for the panel Technology as a Tool: Changing What it Means to be a Woman in Law. One of the panelists, Ann Bartow, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, mentioned “the AutoAdmit situation” in the middle of her presentation, but explained very little. She she merely dismissed it as part of the still-thriving habit of men objectifying women on the media and on the Internet. On her blog she had offered a much more concise analysis, looking at ReputationDefender and wondering why they don't have a woman on their management team (taking an assumption of faith, as we do here, that women are overwhelmingly the victims of online harassment). On her March 15th post she summed it up clearly: “A better, more just long term solution would facilitate self-help in these matters, rather than a new business model.” No such self-help guide was mentioned in the conference video I watched, or in the website, so I'll supply one here.

Very much commentary has been offfered by the usual suspects of the legal blogosphere, but almost zero has been offered by any information architects (and none of the legal beagles mention Cahill either). That's where I come in, or rather, Lessigian code comes in. Under Lawrence Lessig's code model of social constraints, one can interchange software code for legal code. This doesn't come cost free, and is has often been applied too strongly, but, following Lessig's conclusion in Free Culture, law “could be made radically more efficient, and inexpensive, and hence radically more just.”

(If you haven't noticed by now, this essay coyly includes "AutoAdmin" in its title. This is because in the time of writing this article, I kept finding myself writing that word: AutoAdmin. I'd do Google searches and then wonder why nothing relevant to the story came up. AutoAdmin not only sounds more correct to a software engineer, it sounds like the solution to this problem: we want to be able to automate the administration of publishing sites, as much as can possibly be done).

Let's consider the questions that an information architect wants to solve here:

  1. What social good was provided by AutoAdmit, and was it being supplied elsewhere? Dave Hoffman, an assistant professor of law at Temple, did a brief round of anthropological research about the AutoAdmit website, trying to understand its general appeal. He found that part of the appeal was that a prospective student could post his GPA/LSAT, and get direct answers. The Law School Admission Council has an interactive chart for 186 ABA-approved schools. There's also and I would have expected Hoffman to do a simple test by asking a set of the same questions on all three boards and comparing the quality of answers.

    Also, Hoffman adds, “For many, the law — its study, its practice, its details — is terribly boring. Checking XO for the latest outrageous scatological picture, a comparison between the prestige of Superman and the Chief Justice, or a discussion of an anonymous poster’s intimate life, is, basically, a way to turn off your brain and slouch into a day-dream.” Would there really be no place for this if AutoAdmit didn't exist?

  2. How do you govern a community? For all of the agitblog about the triumph of the grassroots, there's few actual examples of it being a great success for large Internet communities; on the other hand, the benefits of top-down leadership is often not given its due. DailyKos was able to become vastly more successful than the Democratic Underground because it has a leader sets the tone and picks assistant (“guest”) editors to be take leadership roles. There are also fairly comprehensive guidelines. It could well be that DailyKos (and BlogHer, Feministing, LawSchoolDiscussions, etc.) have more focused missions where AutoAdmit does not. Without a sense of purpose (beyond “letting off steam”) any governance efforts would be pointless.

  3. What technology do you use to build a governable community? Amazingly, the AutoAdmit admins wrote their own software, when many complete packages are available. Feministing uses WordPress, BlogHer uses Drupal, Daily Kos uses Scoop. Each of these tools have varying levels of comment management, but the better ones help the community to police themselves (this depends on the community having an actual constructive mission; see point above).

  4. How do you keep a website from the prying eyes of Internet searches? Part of the complaint was that this information was findable in Google, and thus to prospective employers. Jarret Cohen acknowledged this in an April contribution to the Harvard Law Record; he suggested that Google have some scheme where individuals can register their own names in such a way that defending information would come up in a search. (Seth Finkelstein was skeptical about a recent proposal along those lines from Lauren Weinstein). But there's according to a March article in the University of Virgina Law Weekly, several UVA students discovered that the admins “declined to prevent the information from being accessible through Google.” This is actually very easy to do. One approach is to set up login accounts and prevent outsiders from searching in. Short of that, a publisher can resort to the robots exclusion protocol, which plainly block search engine crawlers. Given the degree of damaging information on AutoAdmit, this should have been a no-brainer.

  5. How do you make a complaint to a website? The web has been in popular use for over a decade, and no one has supplied a good answer to this. Complainants should seek a balance between communicating quickly/cheaply (through email) and communicating formally/obscuredly (through lawyers). The need is complicated by the fact that many proxied domains which shield the name and address of their owner. There are too many blogs to count that are hosted by Google, TypePad, etc. where the publisher declines to list their email address, for fear of spam. The set of missteps in this whole story was that come of the complainants claimed they emailed Cohen, who claimed he never got the message; Cohen then asked that they do email him directly.

    There should be a combination certified mail/email service. Every domain registrar (and web hosting services) should offer a service which delivers certified mail to the effective publisher. You can send certified mail online through the U.S. Postal Service costs $2.69. Domain registrars can easily automate this process. Furthermore, the certified complaints should be visible in an online database, and every search engine and browser should support one-click access to the database. (even running a Whois is still ridiculously complicated given the number of domain brokers out there). This way, there is a direct channel from a complainant to a publisher, that can protect the complainant's identity while leaving no excuse to the publisher for non-receipt of mail. Moreover it would protect the email address of private publishers.

    Naturally, the database should serve as a public record of the publisher's efforts to deal with complaints. From Cohen's responses to media stories, it's difficult to tell just how many threads he had taken care of out of how many requests.

    The first domain registrar to take the lead should be Go Daddy, the leading domain registrar. Their DomainsByProxy allows for private registrations, and the service currently handles email and certified mail forwarding. It should combine them as above. In practice, Go Daddy has often released website publisher's names on mere allegations of wrongdoing.

    Lastly, this act of registering needs to be as common in the average person's lexicon as blog. It'll more important to know how to issue a complaint. It's called PONAR: Protocol for Online Abuse Reporting. [Originally called dicem – domain-based Internet certified electronic mail.]

With the privileges of publishing comes responsibility. Internet publishers who fail to honor this will often find themselves at the mercy of litigation or undesirable exposure.