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Law on the Internet is "Whack-a-Mole" for The Good Wife

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, November 25 2013

Reddit clone "Scabbit" on CBS' The Good Wife (screencap)

The Good Wife took on the futility of trying to enforce law on the Internet Sunday night with a storyline that echoed the problems that arose from the crowdsourcing of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation on Reddit, in the aptly named episode "Whack-a-Mole," giving some high profile TV attention to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Not surprisingly, the episode has already spawned a thread on Reddit itself.

Julianna Margulies, Matt Czuchry & Jess Weixler as Alicia, Cary and Robyn (CBS Publicity)

In the episode, Alicia Florrick, who has started her own firm with co-worker Cary Agos, hears from a client who's being questioned by the FBI in connection with an explosion in Milwaukee. The client is an American college professor with a Middle Eastern background who is writing a book about the concept of spiritual Jihad. The FBI officials issue a warrant for all his electronic devices, citing a photo that appears to show him at the scene, even though he insists he was in a hotel room. The firm's investigator, Robyn, realizes that the photo comes from a Reddit-like site called "Scabbit," where there is a "Find the Milwuakee [sic] Bomber" thread.

(Screencap)

"There's a thread on the Milwaukee bombing and everyone's talking about who might have done it, like the Boston Marathon," Robyn says.
"The FBI is getting their photos from Scabbit?," Alicia asks.
"If the Feds are using Scabbit, then Zayeed is in real trouble," Robyn notes. "The people on here think he did it, and they say they can prove it.

(Screencaps)

(Screencap)

More photos on the site Robyn finds purport to either show Zayeed fleeing the scene on skates, his accomplice with a walkie-talkie or one of them watching the aftermath, posted by users like "sharkbit678" and "lousehunt93." Other photos show the users mapping out distances on photos from the scene of the bombing and drawing connections to Zayeeds work at his college. The lawyers decide to sue for an injunction to get the site to take down the thread on the site to "cut off the supply" to the crowdsourcing that the FBI is drawing on.

At first the injunction seems to be successful, as the thread is removed. "Law works, even on the Internet," Cary Agos remarks optimistically, but a moment later Robyn sees there's another thread. "This is Whack-a-Mole," Alicia reacts angrily. "We get an injunction on one thread and another one pops up."

The firm goes back to court, and Alicia's old firm, Lockhart/Gardner, is now representing Scabbit. Alicia argues that the site has not complied with the cease-and-desist order given the emergence of the new renamed thread. Will Gardner counters that the new thread is a "spontaneous expression of Scabbit's members." His co-counsel Damian adds that "we can control our actions, we cannot and should not control the actions of our members." The judge sides with Alicia and orders the new thread taken down. The CEO of the site, who is in the courtroom, complies and presses delete. Cary argues to the Judge that "Scabbit should honor the spirit of your ruling by deleting threads as they appear" and that Scabbit should ask its moderators to prohibit postings vilifying their client. Will counters that such a move would "be prior restraint." Damian adds that it would be "unconstitutional" to remove threads before the issuing of an injunction.

"We can't come in here every time a new post appears," Alicia insists. "There's new one," Robyn calls out from the back of the courtroom. "Milwaukee Bomber Part 2." Scabbit volunteers to delete it. "This is ridiculous," Alicia tells the judge. "Yes, unfortunately it might be," the judge agrees. "But unfortunately, it's the law. My cease-and-desist orders cannot cover future infractions, only current ones."

Back at the law firm, Cary and Alicia realize that Lockhart/Gardner is representing Scabbit because they think it will hurt their standing with another client the firms are fighting over, another technology company, and the case places Florrick/Agos against Internet freedom. Then Zayeed shows up to tell them he's gotten fired from his job amid suggestions on the site that he was at a Madrasa in Afghanistan and a terrorist training camp.

The firm now sees an opportunity to argue for damages against Scabbit. They ask Scabbit to pay $400,000 in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages based on defamation. But Damian cites Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to point out that there isn't defamation since that law exempts hosts from the responsibility for their users' postings. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls this "the most important law protecting Internet speech."

Will agrees that "that you can't sue the city for building sidewalks where protesters voice their freedom of speech."
"Unless the offender is an employee of the Scabbit website," Alicia replies.

Florrick/Agos puts a Scabbit moderator on the stand with the screenname "Lotionmyfeet." He wrote a comment that "Zayeed is a terrorist trained in Pakistan and sent to America undercover."
"How did you know this about Zayeed?," Alicia asks.
"I didn't. It's my opinion," he replies, to which Alicia notes that Zayeed was born in Detroit. She also tries to argue that the moderator was supervised by the site owners since the site owners reward his moderating with "pimp points." But under cross-examination, Will reveals that the points are awarded by algorithm, discounting the argument of supervision.

Alicia then argues that since they only have access to online usernames, Scabbit should reveal the real names of its users who are defaming her client. "This is the only way they can determine if the posters in question are not actually Scabbit employees."

"Revealing the identities of its users would destroy Scabbit," Will counters. The judge sides with Alicia again however, but also grants a request from Will for a gag-order to protect the identities of the posters from broader publication. "Unlike Scabbit, we are not interested in defaming innocent people,we just want the truth," Alicia says.

Florrick/Agos receives the 180 names and Robyn works to cross-reference them with Scabbit employees and finds no matches, with one exception - one name that seems to match no records anywhere. But he has a username, Chubbysocks52, that shows up on various other social networks. It turns out that he is a "social bot" that Scabbit created to regurgitate posts on its site to other social networks and then drive traffic back to Scabbit. "A social bot cannot defame...," Will begins to argue back in court. But Alicia quotes one of its posts: "Zaeed is a guilty Muslim terrorist who bombed the Milwaukee festival." "It's a computerized version of the worst part of human nature," Alicia adds. "And it was built by Scabbit. Therefore Scabbit is responsible."

The episode ends with Florrick/Agos and Lockhart/Gardner sitting down to try and work out a settlement.

On the Reddit thread "The Good Wife s5e9 on Reddit post Boston bombing," there are already 179 posts with users busily mocking a screenshot of the fake Scabbit and analyzing the site's portrayal of the law. (There is also an existing subreddit section devoted to the TV show.)

"What is that mascot supposed to be - a tick? Which... um... is a bloodsucking parasite, so maybe accurate for the point of the episode...," MBorkBorkBork writes. "The grey background and hideous (and large) font kinda makes me feel this is what Reddit would have looked like if it was 1997," writes Astrokiwi. "I think karma should be changed to Pimp Points," adds loptthetreacherous. "I say if we upvote your post to 1000+ karma/pimp points then Reddit Admins should institute this change," replies vasta_scelta. "To give further proof of how highly TGW writers think of Reddit, the word "Milwaukee" is misspelled," notes kindofblue27.

But there is also some more serious discussion. "Lawyer here. They gave Alicia the legally indefensible position of asking for an injunction against all future posts on a specific subject on reddit-clone Scabbit. They gave Will the morally indefensible position of defending Scabbit users who want to slander indiscriminately. And they resolved it by letting Alicia prove that a Scabbit bot -- think Captionbot but without the First Law -- had joined in the fun, making Scabbit (the creator) legally responsible. Great episode, and square on the law as always!," wrote AmesCG.

"French lawyer here. I love watching US shows dealing with law stuff, we don't have those over here :( That was one very interesting case, i think the argument could work with french law too !," replied WinterMay.

johnavel thought that "The Good Wife is fantastic when it tackles a public policy issue (immigration, teens railroaded into prison, political financing, race, marriage equality rights, etc.), but is a little hit-and-miss when it handles a current technology / digital media issue (like Chumhum, Bitcoin, or Reddit). So I was a tad disappointed with some of tonight's episode. They seemed to focus on 'crowd-sourcing information' as the problem, rather than small bits of data & heresay poisoning the discourse, which is what most media has been long before Reddit, and which Reddit more often than not combats against."

kbeef2 was also disappointed because "It was clearly supposed to be reddit, but they changed some details to make the legal case work (pimp points are determined by page views? even though you can clearly see upvote/downvote buttons when they show the website?) and the people who were running the website were super bland ... Still enjoyed the episode though."

But QuelqueChoseRose responded that "The Good Wife is like ten times better than any other show on television at representing digital media well, though. Sure, they tweak it to the specificities of the plot, but they're remarkably even-handed, and also rather accurate when it comes to the important stuff." And added later that "Not to mention that the thing's called "s/findmilwaukeebomber." Seems whoever does the digital mockups for The Good Wife knows their reddit stuff," though retinarow pointed out that "they clearly don't know it should be /s/findmilwaukeebomber so it links automatically."

As techPresident and others have noted previously, The Good Wife has regularly taken on complex technology issues, with an episode on Aaron Swartz and Anonymous last season, and the start of a likely at some point recurring NSA surveillance storyline earlier this season. As Time TV critic James Poniewozik put it:

techPresident also earlier this year explored the issues around the role of the police scanner and how the false information spread on Twitter during the hunt for the Boston bombing suspects.

The episode is available here for the next few weeks.