We must find, then define, the line on online abuse
Making homophobic slurs is not ok, whether it be in real life, on twitter, or even arguably amongst friends. It says something about you as a person; that you’re bigoted, fearful, or just damned ignorant. However, it is also not really ok to contravene someone’s right to freedom of speech either. Conundrum.
In her article The Online World Doesn’t Need Real-World Police, Tory Maguire discussed this in the context of a 17 year old boy who had his door bashed down in the night by the police in response to a homophobic tweet he posted about Olympian Tom Daley. She argues that this approach is ham-fisted and excessive – I agree.
Where I start to disagree is when she concluded “the internet has its own lynch mobs to kick down virtual doors in the middle of the night – it doesn’t need Bobbies to do its work for it.”
The issue is complex. The internet is becoming an increasingly larger part of the day to day life of most people. Where ten years ago you could screech on with dial-up for an expensive (brief) time of searching on Alta Vista, now we can reach in to our pockets on a whim to look up a simple fact or to let the world know that you are drinking a coffee.
It’s becoming its own country, its own meeting place – and very soon, or even now, we won’t be able to say it is something detached from “real life”. Is it then ok to argue that things we do online should be exempt from the social rules that dictate how we act in the “real world”?
The internet allows for anonymity; arguably people are more their true selves, or let out otherwise buried darker aspects of their personality when hidden behind a screen. It makes bullying, racism and sexism easier, and I don’t think that letting the internet “lynch” mob on them is enough.
Conventionally, racism, sexism or bullying in their more minor forms are not a crime; but they can prompt behaviour which is criminal. Assault and discrimination in the work-place are amongst this, and bullying in relation to stalking has recently been criminalised in Victoria.
The internet is rampant with the budding forms of this, often normalised through the use of memes, Facebook groups and websites. In some ways, it suggests to some that it is socially ok to have these attitudes simply because you have the power of numbers behind you.
People’s intentions are unknown, as all you have to interpret is text. Poe’s law was created in order to reflect this, stating “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”
When a behaviour is seen as ok, people will inevitably push the bar. Someone cheated on you? Post a status. Make a hate group. Add their name to a “cheater outing” website. Post personal information about them online. After a while, the line between free speech and hate speech begins to blur.
The laws surrounding internet behaviour are hazy. Every so often an example is made of someone who downloads too much or who posts naked pictures of their girlfriend after a break up; but where the actual line is drawn remains a mystery. People are getting away with so much all the time, and mostly it is treated like a joke. So it is ok to keep on keeping on.
On the darkest side of the internet there are things like child pornography and online predators. This has been written in to the law, but things like stalking, bullying, posting other’s private materials; it’s a hazy shade of limbo.
On the most simple level, someone making racist slurs on the internet should be treated the same way as someone making racist slurs on the street. The internet is becoming a part of the real world; it should be reflected as such in the law.
However, like most suggested changes, it is much easier said than done; in the most optimistic scenario we would still be looking at a timeline of years filled with bickering, committees and handballed issues.
The main problem with policing the internet lies in issues of jurisdiction, privacy and where lines should be drawn. The internet doesn’t exist within one country; so how can it reflect the laws of any one place?
England’s Digital Economy Act, which was what got this 17 year old’s door kicked down, is a start – but not really a great one. It focuses on the internet as its own separate place, and has unpopular, and at times illogical rules.
Strong on piracy and copyright, it contains provisions in it such as when one member of a household is proven to be repeatedly breaching copyright laws under the act, the result can be the internet being shut down for everyone living there. Imagine this translated in to a real world equivalent – your brother steals three times – your entire family goes to court.
The fact also remains that the internet exists outside of country borders, which is inconvenient as the best scenario would be to have an over-arching law which would apply the same rules and penalties to all intenet users world-wide.
However, we don’t have this in the “real world”, so the idea of attempting to set up a unifying law becomes almost laughable. Sure, countries can monitor and police their own citizens within their own borders and rules, but this raises two issues; one of fairness, and one of feasibility.
In the example of child pornography, the rules and punishments for this differ wildly depending on what country the crime is committed in. What constitutes child pornography is defined differently depending on region; sometimes to include cartoon forms and written versions.
With the internet crossing many borders, two separate people downloading the same thing in different countries could be face very different consequences. In India you can be subject to five years imprisonment for searching online for child pornography, whereas in Japan, distribution or display is illegal while possession is not.
The Philippines have legislation in place which attributes a large amount of the responsibility with the internet service providers rather than the individuals, requiring filters to be put in place and mandatory reporting to happen.
Inconsistency across countries in terms of laws is just a reality; in one country a drug is illegal, in another it is available over the counter. That isn’t going to change, or at least not any time soon. However on the internet, your activity can cross numerous borders; something which in the “real world” would be fairly uncommon. In those cases, who has jurisdiction and which country’s laws would come in to play become a much bigger and complicating issue.
What can change is the attitude towards the internet . In an ideal world, laws would be consistent and fair both online and off. In a slightly less ideal world, laws surrounding the internet should be reflective of the laws of real world country the users are in.
At present, none of this is really happening. The internet is treated as its own place, and only a small subset of rules are being enforced – often at the cost of freedom of speech. The issue is large; so large in fact, that maybe it is just too hard to deal with. So, in the meantime, people will settle for going after the small fry, and knocking down the doors of 17 year olds for tweeting.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…