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What lurks in the shadowy corners of the Internet

Ever heard of "doxxing" or "revenge porn"? How about the names Violentacrez or Craig Brittain?

If not, you're hardly alone. But if the terms wife, sister or daughter are familiar, keep reading.

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Violentacrez was the online screen name for a 49-year-old Texas computer programmer named Michael Brutsch who became one of Reddit's most popular forum moderators in part by posting "creepshots" taken of unsuspecting women in various forms of undress. He also posted photos of dead children designed to shock viewers and traumatize the victims' families. Mr. Brutsch even claimed online to have had sex with his step-daughter.

Mr. Brittain's story is similar. The 29-year-old was investigated by the FBI and recently reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission to stop publishing nude images of people without their consent on his "revenge porn" website, where he published compromising photos of more than 1,000 women. Many photos were provided by angry ex-boyfriends (hence, the revenge aspect). In some cases, Mr. Brittain "doxxed" women, meaning their personal contacts and other identifying details were published online.

Mr. Brittain's motive? He apparently wanted to extort money from victims in order to remove their images and information from his site, which advertised "content removal services" owned and operated by Mr. Brittain.

After being exposed by investigative journalists, Messrs. Brutsch and Brittain whined that their privacy, reputations and livelihoods had been jeopardized. Mr. Brittain is trying to force Google to scrub the Internet of photos and references to him, claiming "fair use" violations. That's rich.

The online harassment of women is abhorrent. It can be severe and debilitating for victims, many of whom have little power to stop it. And very influential women often endure special abuse. Female journalists who reported on the so-called "GamerGate" controversy involving male video gamers' harassment of female colleagues within the gaming community experienced withering public and private attacks.

Writing recently in the Washington Post, journalist Michelle Goldberg catalogued some of the harassment feminist writers have faced. On Twitter, some female journalists were threatened with rape or death. If they were doxxed, the abuse continued offline in the form of ominous and threatening phone calls.

"Feminists of the past faced angry critics, letters to the editor and even protests," Ms. Goldberg writes. "But the incessant, violent, sneering, sexualized hatred their successors absorb is harder to escape. For women of color, racial abuse comes along with the sexism."

In a leaked internal email, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently admitted that he and his company "suck at dealing with abuse." His honesty is cold comfort to those who have suffered online abuse. The fear and frustration from dealing almost daily with hateful messages in the comment sections of their online work or in their Twitter feeds prompted some female writers to retreat from the public sphere.

Let me be perfectly clear: The vast majority of people who use chat forums, post comments on Internet sites or play video games online are having fun, participating in public discourse and harming nobody. But the sad truth is that, for all its power to foster commerce and connect us socially, the Internet is also home to repulsive and menacing forms of intimidation directed at both sexes. Its shadowy corners are safe havens for misogynists and other vile people.

"Shadowy" is the key: These attacks are facilitated by the coward's cloak of anonymity. Given their disavowals and defensiveness once their identities were revealed, Messrs. Brutsch and Brittain would never have behaved the way they did without pseudonyms.

Anonymity plays a vital role in a democracy. It's essential to protect whistleblowers from retribution when they attempt to hold powerful persons accountable. People in chat forums sometimes need anonymity to explore important ideas and engage in useful discourse without fear of scorn or backlash.

But anonymity also empowers people to traffic in vile and venomous abuse because, behind the comforting shield of pseudonyms, they needn't worry that their actions will be judged by friends, co-workers and family members. This is cowardice, and unfortunately it has not claimed its last online victim.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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