The Internet is still a frontier. Like the Wild West, it lacks government, authority, or basic civilization. It once was more so, but despite a couple of decades of social norms and ad hoc rules set up by individual sites, the Internet lacks a central authority to police it.
For the most part, this is a good thing. But we're starting to see the need for more "police," and the desire by some to be those police. Before it gets too far, let's consider whether that's what we want.
The last few days have seen three seemingly minor, seemingly unconnected events that show a trend toward frontier justice. And frontier justice usually leads to someone coming in and taking authority.
The first was Curt Schilling's trolling incident. Schilling, a famous retired baseball player (he of bloody sock fame) tweeted his simple congratulations to his daughter for picking a college in the fall. This prompted people -- we can barely call them people -- to respond to the tweet with sexual innuendo, mentions of raping his daughter, and other threats I will not post here. If you want details, go here.
Schilling did something very few people have done before. He responded by tracking down the real names of the people who threatened and insulted his daughter, and showed the tweets from those attackers to people at their places of work and school. At least one person has been fired. Two were kicked off their college sports teams. Vigilante justice -- it's hard not to approve.
Recently, Anonymous trolled Kanye West with a video that said all of the things we have all wanted to say to Kanye West. Particularly, they were harsh on Kanye and Kim Kardashian's attempt to "break the Internet" with pictures of Kim's naked rear. That video is starting to get viral traction this week. I would show it here, except it contains a bit of profanity.
Here is the link if you must.
We all know Anonymous has often gone much farther than posting videos to make a point. Presumably, West's personal website is at risk next. It is easy to approve of taking West down a peg, but let's remember, for the most part, all that he's guilty of is bad taste.
Revenge porn is when someone posts a nude picture or video of someone on the Internet without his or her permission to get back at that person for a perceived slight (like dumping you). Frankly, anyone who would do that deserves more than getting dumped. It seems like locking a Twitter account is a small but useful thing to do.
Add these incidents up and they seem like tiny victories for decency and taste. (I won't comment on whether Kardashian is being indecent by posing nude, but I will say we probably all have better things to do with the Internet than worry about it.) Who wouldn't cheer at the idea of actual consequences for individuals threatening rape via Twitter or posting unauthorized photos of someone (nude or not)? We at InformationWeek take decency very seriously on our own comment boards. We want a professional, civilized conversation here, so we're sympathetic to the challenges that websites face.
Here's the issue. What if Schilling took offense to something less obviously offensive? What if Anonymous picked on someone a little more likeable? How can Twitter actually police its own policy without hindering people's right to expression?
What if someone like Schilling called your boss simply because he was unhappy with an opinion that you tweeted about vaccinations? And what if Schilling and your boss happen to disagree with your views?
The Internet is definitely a place where crimes large and small occur daily. Real fraud happens. Real bullying takes place. Real threats are made daily against someone's safety (ask any woman). The "real world" authorities investigate some of these. The rest they leave to frontier justice.
As frontier justice increases online, the "real" police have to step in to preserve the rights of the accused -- for example, the first time someone uses a Schilling-style strategy on something that is less obviously wrong.
Right now, the "sheriff" in any particular Internet town is the company that's running the website. Social media companies and other website operators offer varying levels of control over what's posted, varying levels of insight into the problem, and varying levels of morality. That alone is clearly not working.
We're at a crossroads on the Internet.
After more than two decades of regular consumer use (and longer for some) the Internet is in the process of becoming civilized. How do we want that to happen? Who do we want policing it? Ourselves? The companies running the sites? The real police? Each option comes with its own set of problems.
If we police ourselves, we get trolls. Ask Schilling. Worse yet, we get people like those operating under the rubric of Anonymous who, if you are lucky, post trollish videos and, if you aren't lucky, take down your website.
If we let the Internet be policed by Silicon Valley, we get pockets of good and evil. Think of it like the TV series Bonanza. When the Cartwrights run your town, everything is fine. But there's always the town down yonder with a little more crime. Little Joe or someone always gets attacked whenever he goes there to sell cattle.
Involving the real police poses the biggest dilemma. Would they shut down all the saloons in town, lock up the show girls, and make everyone go to church on Sunday? The beauty of the Internet is its freedom of expression, which can be so powerful that some countries shut it down.
So what do we do? I don't know. But it is time to decide how we're going to run this little frontier before someone else decides for us. We won net neutrality (for the short term, at least). What did we actually win?
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