Truth and Trolls: Dealing with Toxic Speech while Protecting Free Speech Online



The Internet is a powerful platform for the freedom of expression around the world, but it is also abused by people who chose to use it to spread lies, misinformation, and personal threats targeted at individuals or groups. These individuals are “trolling.” Many news and social networking sites struggle to keep “trolls” from posting on their sites. Employees at some news sites have even removed their comment sections, while staff at others spend a great deal of time and effort deleting inappropriate comments. New online, invitation-only discussion forums like Parlio are forming in order to foster online communities and debate by excluding disruptive users. Some foreign governments (e.g. Korea) and some social media sites have adopted a “real name policy” requiring Web users to verify their online identity with a government-issued passport or drivers’ license. Are there better ways to preserve freedom of speech and civility online? Are there ways to use the Internet to fact-check posts and to ostracize or shame trolls? How could hate speech laws end up limiting free speech online?

Organizer and Moderator

nelsonMichael R. Nelson (@mikenelson) works on Internet-related global public policy issues for CloudFlare, a startup that has improved the performance and security of more than 2 million Web sites worldwide. Prior to joining CloudFlare early this year, he was a Principal Technology Policy Strategist in Microsoft’s Technology Policy Group and before that a Senior Technology and Telecommunications Analyst at Bloomberg Government. In addition, since January, 2009, Dr. Nelson has been teaching courses and doing research on the future of the Internet and cyber-policy at Georgetown University. Prior to joining the Georgetown faculty, Nelson worked for almost ten years at IBM. He started his career in Washington, DC, working for Senator Gore, then chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space. After five years on Capitol Hill, he moved to the White House and worked with Vice President Gore and President Clinton’s science adviser on issues relating to telecommunications policy, cybersecurity, encryption, electronic commerce, and information policy. Dr. Nelson has a B.S. from Caltech and a Ph.D. from MIT.


barberGreg Barber (@GJBarb) has made a career of startups within news organizations. These days, he’s focused on engagement, personalization, and interactive tools at The Washington Post. He also manages strategy and partnerships for The Coral Project, collaboration between The Post, The New York Times and Mozilla to create open-source tools to improve community on news sites. In his 12 years at The Post, he’s helped develop products like the Express newspaper as its deputy editor, and Trove and Washington Post Social Reader as managing editor of WaPo Labs.

hanleyJennifer Hanley (@JenHanleyDC) is the Director of Legal and Policy for the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI). Jennifer directs FOSI’s government outreach and policy strategy. Jennifer helps FOSI build relationships with government officials as well as external partnerships and advises leading technology companies on best practices, policy developments, and emerging issues around online safety. Jennifer implements FOSI’s global projects and initiatives and manages the Washington, D.C. staff team. She also leads FOSI’s research work. Jennifer develops policy positions on Internet safety issues including online privacy, mobile safety, cyberbullying, sexting, controversial content, student data privacy, encouraging positive online content for kids, and federal and state legislation and regulations. Jennifer also represents FOSI on panels and in the press. Jennifer is a magna cum laude graduate of the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, where she served as a Vice Chancellor on the CUA Moot Court Board and as the Vice President of the Communications Law Students Association. Jennifer held legal internships with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, EchoStar, and Comcast. Jennifer graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from the George Washington University where she studied Political Science.

lokotTanya (Tetyana) Lokot (@TanyaLokot) is a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She studies augmented dissent, with a focus on the affordances of digital media and social networks, and the meaning of ICT use in protests. Her other research interests include: digital activism and political participation online, impact of internet communities on political decisions, social media platforms and social/political change, post-Soviet online spaces, viral media, and the power of images. She is currently a Contributing Editor for RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project exploring the Russian-speaking internet and also a contributor for the Ukraine chapter of the Freedom House Freedom on the Net report. She has an M.A. in journalism from National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, Ukraine (2004) and a B.A. in management from International Christian University (2002). She has also worked as a journalist for radio, online, and print media.

radschCourtney C. Radsch (@courtneyr) is an international media expert with more than 12 years of journalism, new media and program management experience in the U.S., Middle East and Europe, Ms. Radsch regularly serves as a spokesperson for Freedom House on media and technology issues, has been quoted extensively in U.S. and foreign media outlets, and has represented the organization at numerous conferences, workshops, and events on the topics of internet and press freedom, cyberactivism, and most recently social media and the Arab Spring. Ms. Radsch also has experience conducting media training, including journalism, cross cultural communications, and digital/social media, and international media development and has conducted research, assessment, and advocacy missions to Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Libya, Mozambique, Turkey, Uganda and the United Nations in New York and Geneva. Ms. Radsch has worked for Al Arabiya news station in Dubai, The New York Timesthe Daily Star (Lebanon), and the Development Executive Group, and her articles have been published in an array of media outlets and books.

westHeather West (@heatherwest) works on the Public Policy team for Cloudflare, a cloud-based system designed to enhance website performance and “build a better web” – with security, free speech, and privacy squarely in the wheelhouse. Previously, she was on the Public Policy team for Google with a focus on cybersecurity and digital privacy, and as an analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology. West was recognized in 2014 as one of Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 in Law and Policy. She holds a B.S. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from Wellesley College with concentrations in philosophy and legal studies.

Lara A. Ballard serves as the special advisor for privacy and technology in the Office of Communications and Information Policy, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs (EEB/CIP). She is on detail from the Office of the Legal Adviser, where she has worked as an attorney-adviser since 1999. She has litigated claims in the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, advised the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs on arms export control and various aspects of international criminal law, and defended the Department before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in federal court. Lara has most recently served as the Department’s primary source of legal advice on a wide variety of privacy and technology issues. She helped draft the Department’s guidance on use of social media and provided legal advice to the administrators and designers of the Sounding Board. She has also served as the Department’s primary representative to several interagency groups dealing with issues related to privacy, surveillance, and global Internet freedom.

Prior to her arrival at the State Department, she clerked for the late Hon. Fred I. Parker, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She is a graduate of Columbia Law School (J.D. ’98) and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (B.S.F.S. ’91). From 1991 to 1995, she served on active duty in the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery (PATRIOT) in Kaiserslautern, Germany and Kuwait City, Kuwait, leaving in 1995 with the rank of captain.