Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Death threats are not a good idea

This week the gaming news are full of yet another death threat story. Only this time it was a man who received the threat, Gabe Newell. And the threat wasn't made anonymously, but by a game developer unhappy with a technical flaw on the Steam page of his recently released game. Now Gabe could have called the police, as death threats are illegal in many jurisdictions, being a form of coercion. Instead he pulled out the ban hammer and kicked the game in question from Steam. The dev quit and I'd guess his career is finished. But apart from being a funny story about human stupidity, I think this is an opportunity to discuss the frequent use of death threats in gaming, especially on Twitter.

Death threats are illegal, especially so if what is threatened is a mass killing, like a plane bombing or a school massacre. So why did gamers divert John Smedley's plane with a bomb threat, and prevent Anita Sarkeesian to speak at a school by threatening a massacre? Don't they know that is both illegal and unethical? The answer is probably that they think their grievances justify unethical behavior and they don't think anything can happen to them because they made those threats anonymously.

Many people think they have a constitutional right to anonymous free speech. Guess what? Death threats aren't covered by that! If the so-called speech is criminal in itself, the first amendment doesn't protect it. No judge would consider a threat to bomb a plane or to massacre poeople to be "free speech". Which means that the only protection somebody who makes such a threat online has is technical in nature. The person making the threat counts on law enforcement not being technically able to find out who is behind that Twitter sock puppet account.

There are only two possibilities in this case: Either they are right, or they are wrong. If they are wrong, and law enforcement can trace such death threats back, some people will get a nasty surprise when the police rings at their door. What worries me is what happens if they are right. As I said, anonymous death threats are not a right anybody has. So if too many of those happen on Twitter and law enforcement gets frustrated, everybody's right to anonymity on Twitter might get threatened. Under pressure from law enforcement, Twitter might well be forced to change the rules, either openly demanding verified accounts or secretly adding better IP tracing. And if that happens we will have the idiots who made death threats about gaming issues to thank for.

No question the dev is an idiot, but I think the death threat against Gabe isn't comparable to the ones Anita gets. This is because Gabe has become more than an employee. He's now a figurehead and even a meme if you go on Reddit, and I suspect this in the dev's head threatening to kill Gabe was the equivalent of threatening to kill Ronald Mcdonald because Mcdonalds wouldn't serve you breakfast after 11.
Good on Gabe. No one should have to put up with death threats just for doing their job.
I recently read an article where the regular columnist hit the nail on the head. She'd looked up some of stolen celeb photos as she thought it might be interesting, then asked a male-friend if he had seen them. When he replied he thought it was a creepy, stalkery thing to do that she made the realised that things done on the internet are real.

That is the key. Many people do not make the connection between real life and internet behaviour. A lot of people consider the internet to not be real do think about the impact of their actions.
Gabe might not have reported it to the police, but that dev basically burned his own house down by his behavior.

Good for Gabe to kick that dev to the curb.
So long as a site allows effective pseudonymity, I don't mind if the police can trace my IP.
@1: One could equally argue that Sarkeesian is a figurehead. The bigger difference IMO is that this was a non-anonymous developer blowing up on Twitter, which is a lot less alarming than an anonymous bomb threat.
Defining the limitations of "free speech" is, and probably always will be a culturally evolving effort. The Internet age is in its infancy and to expect that all people will use it with common sense and emotional self discipline is probably not realistic.

IMO the problem is less that a few people will ruin it for all of us, and more that we will all ruin it if we overreact to anonymous death threats. I'm not saying it's not terrifying nor that it shouldn't be illegal and prosecuted vigorously, but seriously, do we blame the mail system for anonymous death threats? It's also anonymous and private.

I remember learning about free speech limitations in elementary school, primarily that "you can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater". The answer is education and establishing cultural limits, not stripping away our right to express our opinion privately or anonymously.
@Sam Bellman - you're likely correct about the magnitude of the threat to Gabe. However, I don't think Tobold was comparing them beyond the fact that they happened, and that death threats are A Very Bad Idea.

And really, there's no way to know how serious a death threat is, which is a huge part of the problem.
The trend lately has been to create MORE security against spying from big brother. This has been in response to CONSUMER demand for protection. Just this week, the FBI complained that encryption tech offered by Apple/Google makes it impossible to retrieve evidence.

While that example isn't specifically about anonymity, the point is that CONSUMER demand plays a big role in this discussion.

If the majority of users want anonymity, then expect companies to fight to protect that anonymity.
What kind of amuses me about all these on line death threats is that they are essentially terrorist threats, particularly when talking about the Utah thing. So ostensibly this would be a case that the FBI and NSA would be allowed to leverage all that super secret spying crap to figure out. But in reality law enforcement doesn't care, and won't bother trying very hard because it is unlikely to make someone's career.
Have you never watched a movie or read a book where one character says to another "I'll kill ya"?

Was there no point at your life, at school in a pub,or some other place when you said or someone said to you "I'll kill ya".

This is real life behavior suggesting that it is not is ingenuous at best.
Now I am not saying it is appropriate behavior, either in real life or on the Internet. But it is human behavior.
Gabe Newell's response was measured and appropriate. The bomb hoax on John Smedley's plane was obviously illegal, and I am sure is being investigated by the authorities.

I am not sure if Sarkeesian's death threat was real or not, the statements police made at the time suggested they thought it was not. But I hope it is investigated and the person behind it punished. It is just that I believe that person will turn out to be a supporter of Sarkeesian or Sarkeesian herself.
Dear @milliebii,

I'm curious as to why you think Anita Sarkeesian conspired to make a death threat against herself.

I mean, I strongly believe that John Smedley helped Lizard Squad make up the bomb threat himself to help give Sony much-needed sympathy...

Oh wait, I wouldn't think that, because it's ridiculous, I have no evidence, it's an absurd thing to consider, and I'd openly mock anyone who ever dared suggest such a thing.

Yet Anita Sarkeesian's death threat was different because...? I'm genuinely curious as to how you think that it was in the realm of possibility.
Google "anita sarkeesian fake death threat"

There's a bunch of posts that could make anyone suspicious. That said, given the internet, it's just as easy for all the suspicions to be similarly faked from the opposition. It's a huge he-said, she-said.

That said, I doubt it was really faked, given the internet, but I wouldn't be surprised. IIRC, there were things proven to be fake with Zoe Quinn (fake doxxing/hacking), so nothing's really out of the realm of possibility here.

Reason why I'd say it's possible here and highly unlikely with John Smedley is because John's probably not in command of some internet horde and ultimately doesn't care THAT much to start sending in fake bomb threats. When you're 15-20 though, and fake death threats are just another prank you pull with little to no consequences, anything can happen.
@ Pzychotix

Do you have some sources for Zoe Quinn faking anything?

All I remember seeing is multiple people, her included, being the victims of people making fake twitter screenshots. Did I miss something else?
As far as I know, there was a doxxing on Zoe Quinn which was shown to be false information. Whether this was actually released by Zoe Quinn/supporter or just someone messing with the opposition, who knows. Similarly, there was a hacking of her Tumblr page which has suspicious circumstances surrounding it. Googling "Zoe Quinn fake doxx hack" has more context than I'd know.

I only really follow this stuff peripherally, so I could easily be wrong. Most of my knowledge is third/fourth hand, so it's probably tainted quite a bit. I mainly posted just to show why someone might be a little more suspicious of false flags here, regardless of whether they were actual false flags or just internet accusations.
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Oh and to be clear, I've never seen the fake doxxing and how it was verified to be fake either. So the internet could similarly be playing tricks on me there too.
"Twitter might well be forced to change the rules, either openly demanding verified accounts or secretly adding better IP tracing." You say that like it would be a bad thing.

I kid! I guess it would be. Maybe.

What's interesting is the guy in question could simply have treated this like a business issue and dealt with it professionally and quietly by addressing the matter to Steam. Kind of makes me wonder if there's a new growing gap in social awareness/comprehension of appropriate behavior in the right situations in this new upcoming generation (or let me guess, the guy was 40). Hmmm.
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