Before the Internet went corporate, a few keystrokes revealed plenty about a person … name, location, even where you had been online and for how long. Now he or she can give you the finger (figuratively speaking) and the bully’s identity remains elusive.
They call it cyber bullying, and the National Crime Prevention Council reports it’s a problem that affects almost half of all American teens. Without a shred of accountability, bad behavior has no consequences online.
But all that changed recently, when two court cases highlighted the inadequacy of the global village to rein in troublemakers. Attack on free speech? Plague of political correctness? Anarchy has reigned, except now the cyber bullies are getting sued by the cyber babies.
Consider the cyber cat fight between cover girl Liskula Cohen and fashion student Rosemary Port. And it happened on Google, of all places. Port created “Skanks in NYC” to verbally terrorize Cohen, gossiping that she was a “skank and a “ho” – anonymously, of course. Last week, a judged ordered Google to undress the virtual assailant. Now “Skanks” is suing Google back, as if the “Streisand effect” will get her sympathy?
As if America cares?
No stranger to vitriol, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd confessed, “If I read all the vile stuff about me on the Internet, I’d never come to work. I’d scamper off and live my dream of being a cocktail waitress in a militia bar in Wyoming.”
But America does care. Parents and politicians alike have become besieged by a Gestalt-like climate.
In another court case, a judge reversed a misdemeanor conviction against Lori Drew, an adult who had taken part in an anonymous cyber bullying scheme that drove a teenager to suicide.
Wired reported the judge rationalization that prosecuting anyone for violating a website’s terms of service “would convert a multitude of otherwise innocent Internet users into misdemeanant criminals.”
They aren’t criminals?
Andy Beal, an “online reputation management consultant” (cyber cleaner/fixer), observed that anonymity is coming to an end on the web. It will be a business decision.
“I’ve seen too many companies have their reputation burned by an anonymous blogger–one that is just as likely to be a competitor fabricating lies, as a real customer. So, if you have plans to attack anyone’s reputation, don’t assume that you can do so in the safety of anonymity.”
CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk acknowledged that a virtual riot act might soon be read soon by the courts.
“I know that some people have pleasures that are not entirely innocent.
They go to sites such as What Would Tyler Durden Do? or Dlisted to read the occasionally besmirching remark aimed at those more famous, wealthy, and beautiful than themselves.
Sometimes, the bloggers behind these bastions of moral sure-footedness prefer to remain anonymous.”
Matyszczyk noted how Port’s attorney in the cyber catfight case claimed that blogs “have evolved as the modern-day soapbox for personal opinions.
Defending blogs, the attorney argued that these venues serve as “mere venting purposes, affording the less outspoken a protected forum for voicing gripes, leveling invective and ranting about anything at all.”
The judge didn’t buy it. Cohen is entitled to know who called her “psychotic, lying, whoring…skank.”
Reality check … Just look at Britain’s House of Commons if you need a taste of lawmakers chewing on each other’s reputations like body parts. Dirty laundry is a daily part of American politics.
Free speech in the United States was drawn from how Peter Zenger antagonized a pre-revolutionary governor in New York. Zenger was arrested for rightfully exposing corruption and he did it with his own name.
Anonymity has a way of turning reasonable human beings into cruel jerks.
Maybe the solution is an online driver’s license but there are moments when confidentiality protects everything from a breaking news story to a Federal indictment. One can imagine an unscrupulous politician turning such an online database into the staging ground for intimidation and censorship.
”Our whistle-blowers, victims of domestic abuse and community activists need to be protected with anonymity, just as our bullied minors and libeled business owners need to be able to defend themselves from malicious liars.”
However, as Maureen Dowd concluded, “anonymity on the Internet is often less about being constructive and more about being cowardly.”