BY: DANIEL KORN
It perhaps goes without saying that the Internet has always been a weird, lawless place. This is what gives it its monumental power, but with freedom comes great responsibility. For every alienated fan boy able to finally share their love of an obscure 80s TV show, is a twitter handle uttering death threats to a woman who is subpar and making videogames. For every irreverent meme of a cat cuddling with a snake, is a teenager driven to suicide by cyberbullying.
Past events like Amanda Todd’s suicide – or more recently, the debacle that is the #GamerGate hate mob– have made it quite clear that the unchecked anonymity of the Internet could be becoming a progressively less tenable situation. Trolls, once the easily ignored punchline of the Internet, have become the ruling class, and it turns out that damaged individuals with obsessive, sociopathic tendencies and a propensity for hacking mischief put a bit of a damper on the public view of freedom of the Internet.
If we want the Internet to grow into its ideal – a forum available to everybody regardless of location, where ideas can be exchanged freely and, most importantly, respectfully – it’s becoming incredibly obvious that changes need to be made. The Internet can still be that magically random place where anything can happen; but the ugliness, the pompousness, and the harassment keep it from reaching its true enlightenment. These things have all got to go, which of course begs the question: how do we do this without smothering expression and potentially invading our privacy?
The government of the United Kingdom has recently opted to increase the maximum sentence for online harassment charges from six months to two years following a series of rape threats against model Chloe Madeley. The original sentence has been in place for roughly a decade, but has been updated in reaction to the hatching of Twitter.
Other places are not too far behind. While the U.S. lacks a federal policy on online bullying, certain states, like Illinois, Massachusetts, and Texas have updated their laws on stalking to include online spaces; while others, like California, have had specific legislation regarding cyberstalking since 1999.
Last year, India made cyberstalking a criminal offence, punishable for up to three years and with a fine for the first offence, and up to five years for every one thereafter. Meanwhile, New Zealand is currently looking into instating the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which would make sending or posting harmful messages punishable with three months in prison or a $2,000 fine.
Although these laws aim on the surface to prevent the potential harassment and abuse of virtual citizens, one must be weary of the potential subjectivity of the term “harmful communication”. Canada’s proposed Bill C-13, or the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, for example, purports to be an anti-cyber bullying law, but is largely regarded as a front for giving police the ability to hack computers, mobile devices, and cars remotely. This is not the first political push to increase the online surveillance powers of the Canadian Government. Bill C-30, the Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act, was the first attempt to rapidly expand online surveillance without the need for a warrant. The bill was dropped in 2012, largely regarded as an instance of emotive manipulation of the public in order to transcend the protection of privacy rights.
But as our online and physical identities become more and more integrated with each other, it’s becoming apparent that a greater degree of punishment – though not the insanity of the Canada bill, certainly – are legitimately necessary. The conventional wisdom of “don’t feed the trolls” or “don’t read the comments” are Band-Aid solutions that don’t solve the systemic problems of the internet as it exists today. The internet was made for conversation and interaction, and the bad apples of the bunch – which are perhaps greater-in-number than originally thought – are making that impossible. And when online interactions can have serious real-life consequences, they need to be treated as any threat in the real world would be.
Besides, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that getting jail time for rape threats is an infringement on your free speech…well, you probably never deserved the Internet in the first place.