February 17, 2016 at 9:06 AM
By all accounts, Zoe Quinn — the 28-year-old video game developer whose personal life sparked the Internet conflagration known as Gamergate — had a solid, even winnable, criminal harassment case.
Since August 2014, when her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, posted a 9,000-word screed about her online, Quinn and her family had been deluged by threats so severe that Quinn fled her home in Boston, afraid for her life. Gjoni's online "hate mob," as Quinn described it to a municipal judge that September, had unearthed her address and old nude photos, hacked her website, promised to kill and rape her, and placed multiple threatening calls to her father's home in upstate New York — all of which Quinn had meticulously documented and organized in evidentiary zip-drive folders.
But as the date for Gjoni's Feb. 24 arraignment hearing drew closer, Quinn found herself wavering. The court case had made her ex something of an online celebrity, a role he gleefully embraced, and the hate mob had only grown bolder.
"Is there any way to back out?" Quinn emailed assistant District Attorney Mary Nguyen on Jan. 15. "He did another post yesterday and now stuff like this is popping up. . . . "
She attached a screenshot from the Reddit topic thread "GGFreeForAll": "If Eron goes to jail," the post reads, "I will hunt Zoe Quinn down and rape her."
Quinn wasn't necessarily scared by this faceless Reddit troll — the statement is typical of her inbox and Twitter "@"-replies these days. But to Quinn, it confirmed a fear voiced by other victims of cyberharassment before her: that the legal system couldn't, or wouldn't, ever really protect her from the Internet hordes.
According to a review by Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the author of the book "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace," only 10 cyberstalking cases were filed in federal courts between 2010 and 2013, despite statistics suggesting that millions of people had been stalked or harassed online during that time. In June, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would force the Justice Department and FBI to devote more resources to cyberharassment, because — as she said, on the House floor — "we are failing these women."
Quinn herself had been forced, on multiple occasions, to explain "Twitter" and "doxing" and "online mobs" to judges and officers unfamiliar with any of those concepts. Despite new cyberstalking and harassment legislation in many states and growing public awareness of these problems, the legal system remains unwilling, or unable, to resolve all but the most straightforward of them.
"What we're seeing now is the law's limits," Citron said. "Mobs have little fear of the law, and unfortunately, Zoe is the victim of that."
But the mob who has victimized Quinn is a special case. While the hateful and amorphous trolls who collectively called themselves "Gamergate" have since morphed into a neo-reactionary movement, bent largely on fighting "social justice warriors" online, its roots lie in Quinn and Gjoni's personal relationship, which has been debated to the point of exhaustion by both sides.
Undisputed is the fact that the pair met online in late 2013, then — after a tumultuous six months or so — broke up in July 2014. Both claim to have felt abused or wronged by the other, but only Gjoni published the details online. One month after the breakup, he posted a seven-part chronicle of their relationship, complete with annotated chat logs and lurid sexual details, and promoted the links in a series of forums known for their antipathy toward female and progressive game developers. He would later tweet that he suspected "The Zoepost" would provoke harassment but that he chose to publish anyway.
As predicted, the forums quickly latched onto the post — particularly Gjoni's allegation that Quinn had slept with a writer at a prominent gaming website, presumably to score a good review. Within days, the uproar over "ethics in gaming journalism" had grown from forum chatter to full-blown abuse. Gjoni publicly condemned it, while simultaneously blogging and tweeting that he believed the hell visited on Quinn was deserved. Reached by phone, Gjoni told The Washington Post that, looking back on everything that has happened since, he would still choose to publish "The Zoepost," minus a joke about Five Guys that morphed into a slut-shaming meme.
"If I ever see you are doing a pannel [sic] at an event I'm going to, I will literally kill you," one person messaged Quinn on Tumblr, according to court documents. Wrote another: "I'm not going to stop spreading your disgusting nudes around and making sure your life is a living hell until you either kill yourself or I rape you to death."
After a month of this deluge, Quinn applied for an order of protection against Gjoni in a Boston municipal court.
"My personal info like my home address, phone number, emails, passwords and those of my family have been widely distributed, alongside nude photos of me, and several of my professional accounts and those of my colleagues have been hacked," she wrote as part of her application. "Eron has coached this mob multiple times . . . and doesn't seem to be stopping."
The court was convinced by Quinn's application: In late September 2014, a judge granted her a year-long restraining order, which — as Gjoni points out — has a lower evidentiary standard than is typically required in other sorts of civil cases. Much of it was boilerplate, barring Gjoni from contacting Quinn or walking within 150 yards of her. But the judge, apparently perplexed by the subject of the "online mob" — court transcripts show that, at one point, he asked Quinn what exactly that was — also wrote in a special clause, prohibiting Gjoni from publishing further information about her.
"I just hope to, you know, give you some relief," the judge said — but the restraining order seemed to have the exact opposite effect. Gjoni, who contends that the write-in could be used to "silence activists," of whom he is self-admittedly not one, promptly began soliciting funds online for his legal defense, which drew further attention and outrage to the ambiguous online movement. Within a span of weeks, they had begun latching onto Quinn's friends, employers and defenders, finding more menacing ways to embarrass, threaten or silence her. (It was around this time when Quinn's father started receiving, by anonymous mail, ejaculate-stained pictures of his daughter.)
Anita Sarkeesian, a longtime feminist game critic and friend of Quinn's, went into hiding after Gamergate began passing around her full name and address. Brianna Wu, the 38-year-old co-founder of the game studio Giant Spacekat, who mocked the growing outrage on Twitter, received more than 200 death threats.
Wu, who now employs an assistant to document the online harassment she still receives, says that the FBI, as well as police in Boston and San Francisco, initially showed interest in her case. The Massachusetts attorney general investigated one man who tweeted, among other things, that he "personally sniped" 41 insurgents in Iraq, and was going to shoot Wu next.
But the AG concluded that the man, 20-year-old Jan Rankowski, was not mentally stable enough to prosecute, Wu says. And while the FBI did assign a special agent to her case, they eventually passed it on to state prosecutors and the attorney general's office, who have not yet pursued charges. Documents show that law enforcement officials visited the homes of several of Wu's tormentors, only to conclude that they were underage and leave them with a warning. Last May, Wu and her husband sent a desperate email to the agent assigned to her case, complaining that "we feel like we are sending emails into the void" and that "we do not have any faith that the FBI is interested in helping our family."
In response, according to emails Wu provided to The Post, a federal prosecutor said that "cases of this nature are very challenging" and offered to refer them to victim/witness services, which never happened.
"I had every advantage," said Wu. "I spoke to people in Congress, there were hundreds of articles, there was a 'Law & Order' episode based on our case — I don't know what other incentive they could have to investigate. Even if you do everything right, the police will not help you."
Meanwhile, back in Boston, Quinn had taken Gjoni back to court for half a dozen restraining order violations, which, nearly a year after the abuse initially began, caught the attention of the Boston district attorney's office.
But at this late stage, the dynamic had changed irrevocably: Quinn no longer alleged that Gjoni was her sole harasser, or even that he was the worst. Her meticulously archived evidence — like that of Sarkeesian's and Wu's — suggested a faceless multitude, who together were profoundly more frightening and disruptive that Gjoni's blog post ever was.
"Do we expect Massachusetts police to go after all of them?" asked Citron, the law professor. "At some point, it becomes too much for the system to bear. You can't nail down criminal liability in a case like Zoe's, where there's such a huge number of actors."
And yet, the system has tried, repeatedly: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, almost every state has enacted explicit cyberstalking or cyberharassment laws over the past two decades. At the federal level, at least two criminal statutes promise to punish offenders who cause "significant emotional distress" online. But most of these laws cover only narrow, specific cases of abuse, and investigations are rarely so straightforward or clear-cut. That's made both investigators and prosecutors hesitant to pursue them.
"It's very clearly not a priority," said Clark, the congresswoman, who has become something of a crusader for victims of online harassment since Gamergate visited chaos on her district. "Their feeling is that it doesn't cause bodily harm, but that misses the point. What's so corrosive is that it has the effect of silencing people, of disrupting their personal and professional lives. We see more of a reaction if someone's purse is stolen."
Clark is unusual in her belief that the law can still help victims like Wu, Sarkeesian and Quinn; in June, she introduced a bill that would, among other things, force the FBI to devote a team of 10 agents to investigating issues like online harassment. But in the eight months since, the bill has yet to attract a single Republican endorsement, and it's not expected to make it past the subcommittee to which it was relegated.
Quinn has met Clark; she's spoken to Congress and at the United Nations. But despite their efforts, she's not convinced there's any help to be found in the legal system. On Feb. 10, Quinn officially decided not to pursue criminal harassment charges against Gjoni, concluding that the abuse was more likely to stop if she didn't fight it in court.
Recently she has spent a lot of time speaking to organizations such as Twitter and Google, and she's become convinced that they're equipped to address abuse like the kind she faced. She and a longtime friend, Alex Lifschitz, have also partnered on a project called Crash Override, which provides victims of online abuse with practical advice, support and counseling.
Quinn hasn't technically exhausted her legal options: There's still that rumored FBI investigation, and she could pursue a civil case for defamation or exposure of private facts. But Quinn's lawyers are working pro bono already, and a defamation suit would require delving into unwanted sexual history in court.
Plus, pursuing further legal action would mean facing Gjoni in a Boston courtroom, which Quinn hopes to never do again.
"It's exhausting, and the whole point of this is to try to reclaim my humanity and stop having to be a 'good victim' for the court system," Quinn said. "So I decided to be an absolutely terrible victim by speaking up" about the legal process.
There is one party that hasn't tired of that process, however — and that is Gamergate. Gjoni is still challenging Quinn's initial restraining order, which she voluntarily vacated last August, in an attempt to establish new legal precedent around the use of restraining orders against online incitement or harassment. He has already raised $29,000 from his supporters, and persuaded constitutional scholars like Eugene Volokh to file amicus briefs on the case.
"It's an outrageous violation of the First Amendment," said Volokh, whose legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, is published on The Post's website. "Fifty years ago, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, we asked if speech that encourages crime could be punished. The Supreme Court said no. There is no legal remedy for [Quinn], because that's how the First Amendment works."
Asked if perhaps the world had changed since 1969, when Brandenburg was tried, Volokh acknowledged that while the world may have changed, the Supreme Court "has not been inclined." Quinn, for one, will not be a test case.
"It doesn't feel like a battle worth fighting," she said.