Reaching through the "Ghost Doxer:" an Argument for Imposing Secondary Liability on Online Intermediaries

By Homchick, Natalia | Washington and Lee Law Review, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Reaching through the "Ghost Doxer:" an Argument for Imposing Secondary Liability on Online Intermediaries


Homchick, Natalia, Washington and Lee Law Review


I. Introduction

Imagine you have decided to run for office, to speak out publicly against an injustice, to enter the job market, or even to join a new online forum. Now, imagine after starting your chosen endeavor, you go online to discover that someone who disagrees with your position posted your personal information on the internet and called for others to harass you. To make matters worse, you realize that you cannot determine who posted your personal data.1 You have been doxed.2 Because you cannot identify the person who posted your information, where can you turn for recourse? The next logical party is the website where your personal information was posted.3 Unfortunately, under current laws online intermediaries are typically immunized from liability in these situations.4 This Note argues that this lack of legal recourse is no longer acceptable in the internet-dominated modern world.

Doxing (or doxxing) is the act of releasing personal information on the internet without consent.5 The motivations for doxing vary, but this Note focuses on doxing that is done with the intent to cause harm and the need to provide a remedy to the victim.6 Doxing originated in the 1990s and quickly gained popularity in the hacking community.7 Originally, hackers doxed as a revenge tactic against other hackers.8 A hacker would dox a rival-revealing the rival's identity-to try to open the victim "up to harassment or even law enforcement action."9 More recently, however, doxing has moved beyond the hacking community and evolved into a form of cyber-harassment.10

Doxing is often done anonymously, and it is frequently difficult to identify the perpetrator-the "doxer"-if they wish to hide their identity. 11 Doxers typically post a victim's personal information on social media sites and other websites that are widely available to the public, such as Wikipedia or Twitter.12 Once someone is doxed, anyone with access to the internet can find and use the information to perpetuate the harassment.13

Current examples of doxing are all too common. The home address and phone number of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, were posted on Twitter after she came forward publicly with her accusations.14 After being doxed, Dr. Ford received death threats and other harassing messages, which ultimately caused her and her family to flee their home.15 Additionally, during the September 2018 Kavanaugh hearing, three Republican Senators-Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, and Orrin Hatch-were doxed.16 The Senators' home addresses and personal cell phone numbers were posted on Wikipedia and then shared on Twitter.17

Doxing victims also include those not in the public eye. Numerous college professors have been doxed after discussing controversial topics.18 In Washington state in December 2018, a student secretly filmed his high school teacher's lecture on the Swedish YouTube sensation Felix Kjellberg.19 During his lecture, the teacher criticized Kjellberg "for promoting racism and anti-Semitism."20 After the student posted the video on Twitter, followers of Kjellberg made public attempts to gather the teacher's name and personal information to dox him.21

Doxing creates harm offline in the real world because the personal information posted is accessible to anyone with an internet connection.22 Once the personal information is on these public sites, it is available for anyone to view (and use) and difficult to remove.23 Doxing's harms include harassment, physical harm, and financial harm.24 Doxing victims are also at an increased risk of identity theft.25

Doxing tactics also include more severe forms, such as revenge porn26 or swatting.27 Revenge porn is the posting of intimate images of another person without permission.28 The images are typically posted with offensive remarks about the person and often include links to the victim's social media profiles and to other personal information. …

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