Seizure-causing Tweet could set dangerous precedent

In which Kurt Eichenwald definitely deserved that seizure.

Don’t worry Kurt, it’s not animated

Epileptic journalist is Anti-Trump
Trump supporter sends journalist a strobe gif

So this is just the Internet on a normal day, right? Nothing special, no high crimes, this is just what your normal, reasonable person expects to happen on the Internet. Everyone knows the Internet has trolls, and trolls are gonna troll, right? Apparently not… A Maryland man was arrested today on a federal criminal complaint charging him with cyberstalking after he, among other things, sent an animated picture of a strobe to Newsweek writer Kurt Eichenwald.

John Rayne Rivello, 29, of Salisbury, Maryland, was arrested in Maryland today on a criminal complaint filed in the Northern District of Texas.  The complaint was unsealed today following his initial appearance in the District of Maryland.

According to the allegations in the affidavit filed with the complaint, on Dec. 15, 2016, the victim, who is known to suffer from epilepsy, received a message via Twitter from Rivello.  The tweet contained an animated strobe image embedded with the statement, “You deserve a seizure for your post.”  Upon viewing the flashing strobe image the victim immediately suffered a seizure.

At first glance, it looks an awful lot like somebody just got arrested, by the feds no less, for sending a flashing picture to somebody on the Internet, and nothing else. In fact, the victim even implied as much when he paraded his “victory” on Twitter… 

But it’s important to actually read the sources. Mr. Rivello was not charged with assault over IP, he was charged with cyberstalking. Cyberstalking isn’t a single act, it’s a series of acts that place a victim in reasonable fear for their life. The DoJ press release cited that Mr. Rivello appeared to rally other Twitter users into giving him a seizure, publicly admitted that he knew Mr. Eichenwald had epilepsy, and that he had even done his research by hitting up the Epilepsy Foundation’s website for a list of triggers. As the prosecutor will be sure to point out, this case is about far more than a single picture.

But of course, that’s not going to stop Mr. Eichenwald and the rest of the media from leading the public into believing that somebody was arrested and will stand trial for sending a picture to someone else. If that’s allowed to stand, and Mr. Rivello is convicted, this case has the potential to set a dangerous precedent, potentially allowing any message on the Internet to result in arrest and prosecution. Don’t believe me? Just watch.

Essentially, the problem is this: Mr. Eichenwald’s lawyer is claiming that Mr. Rivello’s Tweet was “no different than a bomb sent in the mail or anthrax sent in an envelope; it triggers a physical effect,” in other words, Mr. Rivello was literally arrested for triggering a medical disorder. Are these words starting to sound familiar?

Remember, we live in a country where sitting with your legs too far apart on public transit could “trigger” the wrong person. A country where calling a person by the wrong pronoun or assuming their gender could send them into a panic attack, and possibly, the hospital. Just like Mr. Eichenwald. If folks of this nature are to be believed, a picture depicting “aggression”, micro- or not, could be just as damaging, and, to that person, just like Mr. Eichenwald, be “no different than a bomb sent in the mail,” and would entitle the sender to the same potential sentence as if he’d just up and sent them a pipe bomb.

My point is simple: While it’s obvious that sending a strobe light to an epileptic is a dick move at best and, apparently, cyberstalking at the worst, the line has to be drawn somewhere, it’s already clear as mud, and it will only continue to get blurrier as more cases like this hit the Courts.

The good news, though, is there already is some case law in this field. In 2011, a federal judge ruled that an indictment for harassment on Twitter was unconstitutional. In this case, Judge Roger Titus likened blogs and microblogging services such as Twitter to bulletin boards in colonial times. He essentially said that to inspect someone’s bulletin board, it is necessary to make an effort to go look at it, and that if you don’t want to see what may be on it, the only logical solution is to, ya know, stop looking at it.

It is my hopes that the EFF, the ACLU, or a similar organization intervene. Even if you think Mr. Rivello did a terrible thing, it’s important to remember that being an asshole is not illegal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *