Trapped in the web?
It’s difficult to feel anything but revulsion when pondering the case of former ABC Collectors host Andy Muirhead’s dramatic and public fall from grace. As Kate Legge noted in her lengthy piece in The Weekend Australian Magazine ‘Child pornography sickens to the core’.
Despite his defence arguments to the contrary, this week in Hobart Chief Justice Ewan Crawford told the Tasmanian Supreme Court he was satisfied the 36-year-old entertainer had a “sexual interest” in the 12,433 still and video images, some including sadism or humiliation.
In the case of Muirhead, we now know he downloaded thousands of images of innocent children.
The police certainly helped chip away at the massive global audience for this material. One hopes that by catching those who contribute to creating the demand for these images, innocent victims might be spared such abuse in the future.
The issue that has been raised in Muirhead’s defence is that he actually had no interest in children as sex objects, but was driven by a self destructive urge and curiosity.
The line of defence deserves some further consideration. While certainly not excusing the act of repeatedly downloading such material, there are questions here that deserve answers. My first question is: What are the future human implications of an increasingly ubiquitous internet that has provided us with such a dangerous tool that is becoming easier and easier to misuse?
When such material is available through a simple Google image search with key words, or pressing a link on a file-sharing network - can we be said to be guilty of committing a heinous crime or, as Muirhead argued, has the net become a place where vulnerable people will inevitably become victims of destructive human curiosity?
And if, as appears to be the case with Muirhead, someone is possessed by a self-destructive impulse and find themselves alone with nothing but a computer for company, shouldn’t society be setting up some kind of mechanisms for getting help to these people before they damage themselves and contribute to an evil online human commerce?
Yes, there must be a vital point where a line is crossed when the user agrees to download illegal material for which they should be held accountable for there actions. But we are never given any guidance or training in how to manage the awesome power for good or evil encapsulated on the web.
We are essentially left to our own devices every time we boot up our web browser, and no consideration or filter is available to determine the user’s mental state or propensity for self-destruction.
In a less extreme but none-the-less relevant case, US Senator Anthony Weiner last year fell into disgrace after emailing crude photos of his nether-regions to his thousands of followers on Twitter. It appears he was more interested in juvenile ego stroking via the web than actually meeting up with anyone for sex. He let the term ‘followers’ on Twitter go to his head and attached a sexual dimension to the descriptor.
Apart from appallingly bad judgment, his mistake was to press ‘reply to all’ rather than just ‘reply’ to one sender on Twitter resulting in thousands of unsuspecting users getting to see much more of their spritely Senator than they might have wished. Ouch!
For those of us living and working immersed in a period of almost overwhelming transformation in the way we work and communicate online, it is difficult not to feel a twinge of empathy for those ensnared in the darkest corners of the web, or facing the public humiliation of an ill-conceived key-stroke.
There is a massive and widening maw that exists between what we can now all access 24 hours a day from the privacy of our own computers, and a thorough understanding of the dangers and risks involved. I think it is time government regulators and educators stepped up their efforts to at least give people the tools to make wise decisions online before more lives are ruined by moments of bad judgment and online transgression.
Our decisions online affect real people, often innocent people caught in a vile corner of online commerce based on profiting from the vulnerability or criminal servitude of others. The sparkling veneer of an online free-for-all from which we are camouflaged within our own privacy bubbles must continue to be popped by international police, but it must also be tackled more strenuously by online educators to connect these dots in the minds of users before they cross that threshold and find themselves in virtual hell.
The German philosopher Rudolf Steiner once presciently wrote a bleak vision for the future in which he described a ‘web’ that would be designed to connect humans - but would ultimately come to suffocate us like a spider’s web. It is something that Andy Muirhead might reflect on as he serves out the rest of his ten-month prison term sifting through his guilt and shame, and attempts to restore some semblance of light and normality to his life.
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