Over on Tumblr, an anonymous user asked:

What’s the legal deal with PAT-FB in the US? If I use the app to report someone for a crime they haven’t been convicted of, can’t I be sued for defamation? If so, even if my report was “anonymous,” couldn’t you still be subpoenaed for my information? I’m sorry if you’ve answered this before, I looked around your blog and the app page but couldn’t find any information related to this.

Long story short:

No. It is not defamation to accuse someone of committing a crime they actually committed. Think about it. If you were required to obtain a conviction before accusing someone of committing a crime, then it would be impossible to obtain a conviction.

Defamation is specifically false communication, or in English, lies.

Short story long:

You’ve asked two distinct questions. I’m going to take them one at a time. First, you asked whether or not you can be sued for defamation if you use the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook to share information about another person’s actions.

Okay, so, I am not a lawyer. That being said, thanks to my experience helping destroy the reputation of FetLife (a website premised on its founder’s efforts to be a rape profiteer), as well as my experience of getting accused of being a sex trafficker by the United Nations’s advisor on human trafficking, Donna M. Hughes (who didn’t like that I was producing free and open to the public, all-ages, sexuality education conferences across the United States, called KinkForAll unconferences), both of which occurred while I was in the United States, I’m familiar with legal questions of this kind. I’ve been threatened with lawsuits more times than I can count.

I’ve never actually been sued. There are two big reasons for that. First, because nothing I did was technically illegal. (Since the legal system has nothing to do with what is right and wrong, but rather what is against “the rules” or not, technicalities matter. More on this in a moment.) Second, and more relevant to what I suspect your personal concerns are, because lawsuits claiming that what I did was illegal in order to stop me from doing it were counterproductive to pursue.

Your concern about being “sued for defamation” relates to what’s broadly known as tort law, which is basically the civil legal system’s version of asking the teacher to make the person who hurt you apologize. Defamation is a specific area of tortious conduct that relates to “false communication, either written or spoken,” or in English: lies. When a lie is communicated verbally, it’s legally known as “slander,” whereas when it’s communicated in writing, it’s legally known as “libel.”

Since the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook, like all other Internet technologies (such as, say, Tumblr, or WordPress, or Twitter, or even Facebook itself), deal with written rather than spoken communications, it’s specifically libel law you’re asking about. Since libel is the act of writing a false statement, writing a true statement is not libel and therefore does not meet the legal minimum requirements for grounds to sue.

Importantly, that doesn’t mean you won’t get sued. It just means that if you are sued, the judge is legally required to dismiss the case. And of course, this doesn’t mean the judge will dismiss the case, because the legal system has nothing to do with justice. It’s all about rules—rules that the people with money and power can reinterpret arbitrarily at their whim, just like all the other contemporary institutions in our society borne from generations of systemic violence and oppression.

So first and foremost, if you use the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook to write about something that actually happened to you, that you know to be true, then it is by definition not defamation, even if what you wrote contains facts about other people committing crimes. Whether or not those other people were convicted of a crime is not relevant with respect to whether or not they committed it. Think about it: if people had to obtain convictions before discussing facts about other people’s allegedly criminal behavior, then no one would ever be able to obtain any convictions.

(As an aside, if you do want to use the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook to share information about criminal convictions, you can do that, too.)

Moreover, the nature of defamation makes suing someone over it particularly unwise for the vast majority of plaintiffs who would consider it. I’ve never talked to or heard of a lawyer who’s eager to prosecute defamation cases. That’s not only because they’re notoriously hard for plaintiffs to win, but also because the very act of suing for defamation has the byproduct of publicizing the allegedly false information the plaintiff ostensibly wants to silence.

In other words, unless you’re a very famous person, it is almost always more effective to threaten to sue for libel than to actually sue for libel.

With respect to your second question asking if I could be subpoenaed for your information even if you used the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook “anonymously” (air-quotes for a reason!), the simple answer is: yes. As we wrote in the PAT-FB FAQ, “How secure is my data, really?”:

PAT-Facebook currently runs and stores data on servers provided by Heroku, Inc. We assume that employees of that company can access the information you share with PAT-Facebook. These servers are, in turn, running on hardware provided by Amazon, Inc. We therefore assume employees of that company can also access the information you share with PAT-Facebook. Moreover, even though we don’t share your statements with Facebook, we assume that employees of Facebook may be able to make copies of information you share as you share it. Finally, PAT-Facebook’s maintainer has access to all information shared with PAT-Facebook. Their name is maymay. They don’t work for anyone.

If this sounds like a lot of people having access to your data, that’s because it is. When making decisions about sharing personal information, you should be aware that this is how Web sites work. Like, almost every last one of them. For instance, if you use GMail, some Google employees can read all your email. Same deal with AOL, Hotmail, and so on. Employees of the companies whose services you use have access to the data you share with those services.

Any person who has access to your information can potentially be subpoenaed for it. This includes me. It also includes employees of Amazon, Inc. and Heroku, Inc.

While I promise to do what I can to assure your privacy, I won’t go to jail for a PAT-FB user I don’t know personally. This means if I am subpoenaed for any information, I will do everything in my power to protect the data of PAT-FB users, short of incarceration. I would love to collaborate with others on building and deploying new technologies that would fight rape culture in the ways that the Predator Alert Tool for Facebook does but that would also prevent server operators such as Amazon, Heroku, and myself from having access to your data.

I’ve been saying this for a while, but I’ll say it again: violence prevention needs more hackers. This includes violence perpetrated by the State.

Thanks for the ask, and I hope this answers your questions.