I don't like starting arguments in pubs with people I don't know - not because I'm particularly averse to arguing, more because they might try to beat me up. However, I'm fairly certain that nothing I could say in such a pub argument would lead to the relevant person stalking me and trying to ruin my life. Either I'm safe, or I'm attacked and possibly severely injured - either way, unless I decide to go all vendetta-y, this is the end of the dispute between me and my assailant.
The Internet isn't a pub, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. In some ways, this is good. If you tell someone on a blog or a discussion board that they're a wanker, then they'll probably tell you that you're a big fat ugly wanker, rather than punching you in the face. This ensures that debate on the Internet is generally more robust than debate in real life. It isn't, however, safe.
Until this Tuesday, I ran a moderately popular blog called Shot By Both Sides. Now, I don't. This isn't because I've decided that writing political nonsense on the Internet is a waste of time - it's because someone was so offended by my writings that they decided to blackmail my employers into firing me. This person sent them a letter that, by taking quotes from the site out of context, made me sound like an anti-semite and a fan of political violence. In the same letter, they threatened to contact my employers' customers and the press with similar out-of-context quotes unless Something Was Done.
My blog didn't mention my employers, wasn't updated on company time and didn't contain any illegal content, so sacking me was a non-option - which was lucky. Still, since I have no desire either to see my employers lose money (I like bonuses) or for my grandmother to read my name in a 'Why Don't They Sack This Evil Fascist' news story, I felt obliged to take the site down. Yes, this was craven and cowardly of me, and in some ways I wish I hadn't surrendered. But at least I had the choice, and at least my blackmailer was merely an anonymous idiot.
Newton Emerson, formerly the anonymous editor of Northern Irish satirical website The Portadown News, was less lucky. Northern Ireland's ridiculous, puffed-up self-important murder-supporting politicians are in some ways easy targets for ridicule, but this doesn't make it any less important to ridicule them. And the whole 'murder-supporting' thing made Mr Emerson's desire to stay anonymous particularly understandable.
The Andersonstown News, a nasty sectarian rag, decided that mocking Sinn Fein was out of order - so they dug up Mr Emerson's identity and wrote to his employers suggesting that they ought to sack him or face the Wrath of the IRA, err, sorry, I mean Sinn Fein, who aren't the IRA at all. Perhaps out of fear for their kneecaps, Mr Emerson's employers promptly sacked him for using company IT resources to maintain the site. The story ends happily: Mr Emerson hasn't been shot so far, and has managed to use the scandal to build himself a successful media career, which probably gives him the last laugh over the bigots.
Mr Emerson isn't the only blogger to get into trouble by offending the wrong pathetic losers. Since Tuesday, I've heard several tales of threats of libel proceedings that several bloggers of varying degrees of popularity have received. This is also unsurprising: English libel law is perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of our legal system (a hard-won title), as anyone who's followed the lives and times of Robert Maxwell or Jeffrey Archer knows well. If someone's said something nasty-but-true about you, they don't have money to fight a lawsuit, but you do, then it's easy to make them retract it. Again, retracting is a little cowardly and craven, but entirely understandable if you enjoy having a house.
My case seems a bit different from the others, in that the vendetta-wielding maniac appears not to be a person or an employee of a political organisation I've insulted, but merely a nutcase who thinks it's appropriate to try and destroy people's careers for writing things he finds offensive. Well, for writing things that *were* offensive - my blog did include satirical rants based around such tasteful topics as (in ascending order of appallingness) necrophilia, assassination, the Holocaust and the Daily Mail. But Christing hell - what kind of loon reacts to reading something they don't like by trying to ruin its author's life?
Actually, although I was shocked when it happened to me, it's not particularly surprising that the world has a reasonable number of terrible cunts who believe that people who disagree with them should be punished. Fundamentalist religion and authoritarian politics (whether Nazi, Tory or merely Politically Correct) both demand that their adherents hold precisely this belief. Because I don't spend time with fanatics or Nazis, it's easy to forget quite how many loons share their attitudes - but there are lots, and many of them have Google.
So if you want to say controversial things online, don't just be prepared to be insulted. Don't just be prepared to have your words utterly taken out of context by people who want to smear you. Be prepared to have your words taken out of context and forwarded to the people who you'd least like to hear them, over and over again. Anonymity might help, but it didn't work for Newton Emerson. And if you want to guarantee that you can say appalling and offensive things online without hurting your career, probably the best plan is to get a job working for some kind of offensive satirical paid-for email newsletter.