John Rivello was arrested Friday months after he allegedly sent a tweet that caused journalist Kurt Eichenwald to suffer a seizure.
This arrest appears to be the first of its kind and presents serious implications for the world of internet trolling, which seeks to annoy fellow users.
Eichenwald’s attorney Steven Lieberman and cyber jurisprudence expert Peter Stephenson told The Daily Caller Sunday they are unaware of any similar cases where an internet message or posting caused bodily harm and resulted in an arrest. Kevin Fu, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post, “This is a new era.”
Rivello, 29, is being charged under a federal stalking statute which says that someone can’t use an electronic communication service with the intent to kill or injure another person. Lieberman told TheDC that this law fits Eichenwald’s situation “like a glove.” The attorney said that someone doesn’t have to be directly touched for something to be assault and compared Rivello’s alleged tweet to poisoning someone.
In 2008, users on a forum for the Epilepsy Foundation suffered epileptic attacks after people posted animations designed to trigger seizures. No arrests resulted from the incidents.
Eichenwald, a Newsweek writer, suffers from epilepsy and has been public about this throughout his adult life. The tweet Rivello allegedly sent in December contained an image with flashing colors that said, “you deserve a seizure.” Eichenwald’s wife responded to the account Rivello allegedly managed saying that Eichenwald had indeed suffered an epileptic episode, and that the police had been contacted.
An FBI affidavit said that Rivello had sent direct messages to other Twitter users expressing a desire for the image to cause Eichenwald to have seizure. Rivello allegedly wrote “let’s see if he dies.” The affidavit also said that his iCloud account contained information about commonly reported seizure triggers.
The account Rivello allegedly managed, “@jew_goldstein,” was just one of many that sent Eichenwald similar images. The former New York Times reporter tweeted after the arrest that “identifying information about every person who sent me strobes after finding out about the assault is currently in the hands of the FBI.”
“More than 40 ppl sent strobes once they found out they could trigger seizures. Details of their cases are with the FBI. Stop sending them,” Eichenwald added. One Twitter user decided to respond to this tweet with an image that could conceivably cause a seizure.
However, the arrest of Rivello certainly has internet trolls gripped in fear. WeSearcher, which is run by infamous internet troll Chuck Johnson, has raised thousands of dollars to provide for Rivello’s legal defense. “If this goes to trial, it will redefine ‘trolling’ and what it means to troll online. John can’t go to prison for tweeting a gif at Eichenwald,” the post soliciting the funds said.
Lieberman also agreed with the sentiment that this will change online trolling. “I think this arrest will have very significant implications. There were a significant amount of people who sent flashing strobe lights to Kurt for the purpose of injuring him for what he has written. Now that the word is out that authorities consider the act as criminal, something these people should have known, the behavior will decrease in volume,” the attorney told TheDC Sunday.
Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in cyberstalking, told the Post that there is no first amendment defense for what Rivello allegedly did. “It doesn’t have expressive value. . . . It doesn’t express someone’s autonomy of views and opinions. It’s not contributing to the marketplace of ideas,” Citron said.
Breitbart tech writer Charlie Nash disagreed strongly with this and tweeted after the arrest, “Kurt Eichenwald managed to get a guy arrested for sending him a GIF on Twitter… Fuck this world.”