Monday, May 19, 2008

Freedom on the Internet = Bad!

Okay, I've been bored to death with local politics lately. Too much whining about the stupid trash fee (services don't come free, people!).

But we're back to good times, because we've got another dumb editorial from my good friend Jeff McMenemy!

This one has the very promising title of Laying down the law on the Internet, and it gives me the excuse to talk not just about about a terrible legal case, but also ruminate on freedom on the internet and the nature of pseudonymity! Whee!

The editorial is about the rather depressing case of Megan Meier, who committed suicide after being rejected on MySpace by a fake person. Said fake person was portrayed as a 16-year old boy, but in reality appears to have been several people. The one we're dealing with today is a 49-year old mother by the name of Lori Drew.

She's just been charged with a crime, and Mr. McMenemy in his editorial couldn't be happier!
The world of the ever-growing and ever-more dangerous Internet got a little dose of much-needed law-and-order Thursday when a federal grand jury indicted a Missouri woman for her alleged role in perpetrating a hoax on the online social network MySpace against a 13-year-old neighbor who committed suicide.
As anyone who's listened to his dribble before knows, McMenemy is no fan of freedom on the internet.

But let's deal with the charge first. What Drew allegedly did is certainly distasteful, but is it really illegal? I mean, this is an old story, and the official word had been that Drew didn't actually commit a crime. But there's an indictment (and here's a pdf of it). So what's Drew charged with?

To put it simply, she's charged with breaking the MySpace Terms of Service. That's right, the "injured party" here is more MySpace than Meier, she's just so much collateral damage. This charge is being brought under a federal law that's generally used against hackers. Not the cool kind, but the intrusive criminal kind.

There are perhaps two big problems here that just about anyone can see:

First, the assumption is made that Drew's messages caused Meier's suicide. Personally, I'd argue that an otherwise emotionally healthy person doesn't hang herself over some MySpace friend she's never met, but people seem to be assuming causation anyway.

Second, the federal law is really about intrusion into systems, not breaking stupid Terms of Service. Breaking Terms of Service is generally grounds for losing your account, not going to jail. So it's an obvious case of trying to cram something that doesn't really fit into the federal law because the federal law has harsher punishments.

So not only does this case have the assertion that bad messages on MySpace were a causative factor in Meier's suicide, we also have a case of misusing anti-hacking laws to punish someone for essentially creating a fake online persona and doing (extremely) stupid shit with it.

It's no wonder McMenemy loves it!
While there is little doubt prosecutors may have a tough row to hoe -- as they say down South -- when it comes to making their case, I applaud them for having the courage to charge the woman with a crime. [Ed: This would be called "wasting taxpayer dollars" if McMenemy wasn't in favor of it.]

For too long, the Internet has been not only a place for freedom of expression and instant communication with anyone in the world, but a place where unsavory people can inflect real emotional damage on another human being.
Man, the internet sucks! People can say stuff that other people might find unpleasant!

To continue with the editorial:
As I've said repeatedly, the Internet is a great tool for the world, but it also allows people with little or no morals to say things to people anonymously that they would never have the guts to say to their face.
Ah, now we're on to a different topic, and it's one I enjoy.

I always love the "anonymous people are cowards" line of attack. Chuck Owen used it on me, and pretty much every pseudonymous blogger in the world has heard the same thing at one time or another.

Not because it's true, mind you. There are a lot of reasons to remain pseudonymous on the internet (note: pseudonymity != anonymity).

Having seen some of the abuse heaped on female bloggers basically just for being female, I'm amazed that any of them use their real identities. People with families also have a good reason to be pseudonymous. To say nothing of whistleblowers, those living under oppressive governments, and basically anyone who would rather avoid every crazy asshole on the internet knowing who they are.

The thing I find funny this is that it's very commonly the line of attack used by newspaper-people. I guess we're supposed to assume that because their names are (sometimes) on their stuff, it means they do have the guts to go up and say these things to people's faces. Which is laughable, but I'll get back to that...

In contrast, they can easily say that pseudonymous people don't have those guts, because who can really tell? If I go up to McMenemy and tell him exactly what I think of him, he's not going to think "wow, that pseudonymous blogger actually does say things to people's faces." He's going to think "hey, that jerk I don't know just came up and told me off!" Most pseudonymous bloggers I know are not shy about telling people what they think in person, they just don't want their names all over the internet.

Of course, I contend that newspaper reporters don't in fact have guts at all. Sure, maybe a few do, but when Helen Thomas is the pinnacle of bravery in journalism, it's a pretty sad state. Have you ever talked to a reporter who's on the job? They're the most pusillanimous little shitsacks you'll ever meet in person. Even an "aggressive" reporter in person is about as intimidating as your average narcoleptic. Maybe not all are like this, but it sure seems to be the majority. No hard questions, no probing, nothing but simple stenography. They're not going to even hint at what they think.

Now, that may be for a good reason. Newspaper reporters need to maintain their access. Bob Woodward is a great example of this (in his more recent years, at least). Not pissing people off becomes important if you want to keep getting interviews. It also leads to cowardice.

Picking right back up with McMenemy:
Combine that with the disturbing trend of people taping people being attacked and beaten, and then posting it online, and it's obvious that it's time to start taking control of the Internet and punishing people who act maliciously while using it.
Yeah, maybe creating limits on free expression because you don't like what people do with it isn't that obvious a need to most of us, Jeff.

People who lack familiarity with the internet (and I'd argue that McMenemy is one of them, as was Chuck Owen) often like to use it as a scapegoat for society's ills. The general form is:

1) Person sees something unpleasant on (or involving) the internet.
2) Person can't recall having seen that particular thing in person.
3) Person therefore blames the internet for causing the unpleasant thing.

This is, of course, a logical fallacy. Just because you haven't seen it before doesn't mean it didn't exist, and it sure as hell doesn't mean the medium on which you saw it caused it to happen.

McMenemy relates what he remembers as a bad day, which boils down to either getting turned down when asking a girl to the prom, getting a strike in baseball, or acting dumb at a party. That's a tough life, alright! Maybe he really does believe that these things didn't happen when he was a kid, just because they didn't happen to him. Could he be that blind to reality?

Just because the technology didn't exist to videotape fights and post them online doesn't mean they didn't happen. They did.

Similarly, jilted lovers have always committed suicide. It's always tragic, but that's life. Is this more tragic because one of the "lovers" was a fraud and MySpace was the vector? I don't honestly know, but I hardly see how it's vastly different. In Meier's mind it was no different at all.

I get the feeling that those who would put limits on freedom of the internet are not really interested in solving these problems (because they won't), they just don't want to have to have to see them anymore. It's reality-denial at its finest.

If this case is successful, it's bad news for everyone. If people like McMenemy are successful in limiting the internet to only the things they like, it's even worse. The world exists in this form whether you can see it or not. If you can't deal with it, shut your eyes. But don't try to force everyone else to shut theirs.

No comments: