Open Source Rough Justice

from the vigilantes-and-justice dept

As legal scholar Yochai Benkler is fond of pointing out, there are three main ways of providing public goods. You can create property-like rights, as we've traditionally done with intellectual property or emissions vouchers, in order to more fully internalize the costs and benefits of their provision. Government can provide the good directly, as in the case of national security. Or, especially in a world of cheap computing and ubiquitous connectivity, you can rely on distributed peer production, a method most often associated with software. But as a pair of articles in the Los Angeles Times make clear, peer production can also take over such archetypally governmental functions as punitive enforcement of the social contract. The Times recounts the sad tale of Megan Meier, a Missouri teen who killed herself last year after the vindictive parents of a neighbor girl fabricated an online persona, "Josh Evans," who struck up a MySpace friendship with the girl, then cruelly ended it. The adult's actions, however, don't appear to have been criminal — presumably because any statute that sought to limit such speech would quickly run into First Amendment difficulties. But, perhaps poetically, community members have used the Internet to exact their own form of rough justice:

In an outburst of virtual vigilantism, readers of blogs such as and have posted the Drews' home address, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and photographs. Dozens of people allegedly have called local businesses that work with the family's advertising booklet firm, and flooded the phone lines this week at the local Burlington Coat Factory, where Curt Drew reportedly works.

There's plenty of precedent for this sort of distributed posse formation: In the now infamous stolen Sidekick case, Internet users mobilized to locate and hound people who had found (and were refusing to return) a lost mobile device. A student in China, known as the "Bronze Moustache," had to drop out of his university after outraged users answered the call of a distressed husband accusing him of having an affair with the man's wife.

In a way, this is a validation of the characterization of the Net as a "global village": Formal, governmental enforcement mechanisms are a substitute for older reputation-based methods that use social pressure and shunning as primary sanctions — methods that had become impractical as social cooperation expanded beyond the village level. But it may be worth worrying whether the resurgence of this sort of social sanction doesn't leave some desirable procedural checks by the wayside — especially since it's hard to determine who's accountable for the actions of a distributed mob, where it may be that no one individual's actions rise to the level of harassment.

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Comments on “Open Source Rough Justice”

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Max Hansen (user link) says:

Virtual Lynch Mobs

Glad to hear your note of caution.

I watched a mob form this past summer on YouTube, as a chorus of voices called for the expulsion of LisaNova (at the time the 9th most subscribed YT channel) for spamming. What had she done? She’d sent unsolicited emails to attract attention to a video she was preparing to do on the subject of… spamming.

I was ambivalent about what LisaNova had done. I was disgusted (sans ambivalence) with the mob mentality. Lisa had spammed. But was she in the same league with porn spammers? Absolutely not. She did it exactly twice and with a specific end in mind, as part of the overall “entertainment act” of which the video was the other part.

It was a fascinating episode. I made a video about it. Called “Where Comment Spam Goes to Die”, it’s on my channel “maxhansen” on YouTube.

Memorabilia says:

If people want to belong to a society, on line or otherwise, they’ll have to adhere to that society’s rules. Nothing says they have to belong, or that they’re entitled to belong.

Our actions not only (may) have legal repercussions but they have social repercussions as well. The Myspace parents deserved to be shunned. Their actions were in a public, albeit virtual, place and that invites public comment. I can find no fault with someone who witnessed or read about their actions and then emailed or called them with condemning comments.

Don’t want to be universally reviled for your actions or lack of character? Behave appropriately. If I was a business that delt with the Drew’s advertising company, I’d be happy to have been informed that I was doing business with such horrible people. I wouldn’t knowingly support a company that was run by such. Had I been a customer, I would have cancled and told them why.

It’s more odd to suggest that an online presence is an entitlement to act in ways that we know would have concequences if done in the “real” world.

lar3ry says:

First amendment doesn't mean no accountability

Just like you are not allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, a person should be held accountable for their actions online.

I just don’t want to see the rules tightened to the effect that simply saying “I hate CompanyXYZ because…” will make you liable to damages. I’ve always felt that a single person “damaging” a company is laughable–especially if that person is simply a customer, anyway. However, even those “I hate [insert-name-of-ex]” postings should be allowed.

And, I also realize that if you start putting limits on what people can do, then you slide down the proverbial “slippery slope” where people can say, “well, if harassment is no longer allowed, then we might want to redefine Internet Flash Mobs as harassment to the businesses targeted.”

I’ve seen mob mentality express itself on sites like Slashdot. One of the first cases I witnessed was a story about an interview with a spammer who freely admitted what he was and how he has no regrets about it, and some commenter discovered that person’s home address, published it, and many people helpfully “subscribed” this person to massive amounts of postal “offers.” While I agree that the point they were making was ironic, it bothered me a little because we only had the word of one or two people that the person they targeted was actually the spammer. Also, signing up for things in other people’s names is technically illegal (to do this, you need to impersonate the target). This “punishment” also extended to the postal service, which had to deliver incredible amounts of mail to the targeted person’s house.

However, what do you do when somebody does something that strikes you as terribly horrible? It’s easy to forget yourself and your principals during the heated rush of negative emotions. Could YOU simply stand by and, say, watch a thirty year old man run into a playground and abduct a young girl without trying to stop it? Your natural reaction to such a thing is to do what you can. Your adrenaline pumps up, and you have a feedback loop. You react.

On the Internet, people feel just as heated up when they hear about something that they consider to be blatantly unfair, and it gets worse when they believe that the guilty party will get away scot free. It’s human nature.

This is not new, either. There was that story from the 1980s about the dying kid that wanted postcards. People react to emotional stories; they don’t always react sensibly. They don’t always check facts, and because of that, we will always see vigilante justice, and we will always see innocent people being punished.

How do you educate millions or billions of internet users? You can’t. Even if you can make an example of one of them to “teach them a lesson,” it can become a vicious circle, especially if other vigilantes decide that the punished person was unfairly treated…

So… what’s the solution? Disbanding the internet is not possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just a little error I noticed...

“…after outraged users answered the call of a distressed husband accused him…”

Should be either “…after outraged users answered the call of a distressed husband accusing him…”


“…after outraged users answered a call in which a distressed husband accused him…”

But its a very good article, and, personally, I think that “web-vigilantism” is something that, if used right, would be a good thing. But, we tend to not use things in the proper way.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:


I agree with the above comments, and worry that there is no due process, and few checks and balances to vigilante justice. In tribal times, rumor and taking sides would occur and people would be shunned. At least those individuals would have some level of personal knowledge on which to base their shunning / stoning / whatever. But even then it was largely rumor based and he said / she said.

Taken to the Internet level, people have very little idea whether they are jumping on a bandwagon of justice or a bandwagon of misguided retribution. Often it could be the case of somebody deliberately trying to manipulate the Internet masses with some false facts. I don’t believe the Nigerian 411 stories I get, why should I automatically believe that some parents drove a girl to suicide using a MySpace avatar?

Also, with respect to no single person in a mob being responsible, my belief is that anyone who posts someone else’s address or contact info should get a portion of the blame if things go bad. This is solicitation to do harm, and it seems to me a lot like putting the gun in the madman’s hand. I know that people like Spammers deserve to get pummeled, but even then if you’re the one to put their address up, you take the risk of sharing the responsibility for whatever happens next.

Bill says:

Sympathy for Megan

I had a similar event occur to me and I can understand why Megan chose to suicide. In my case, the person came by to gloat in person after informing me that the relationship was all a joke. Her goal was to inflict pain and she accomplished it very well. The Drews appear to be the exact same sort of people. If it takes a mob to make the perpetrators take the situation seriously…then so be it. People who demonstrate malice deserve to be scorned.

Upsidedowner says:

How could they have possibly known that the young woman they were destroying emotionally was a suicide risk?

While cruelty cannot be criminalized (we’d all be in jail) it is good to know that people can still recognize its worst forms and respond with appropriate fire.

As for confirming the story… I agree that we should be cautious. Especially with the rash of false accusations of cruel-online-joke-fake-identity-romantic-entaglement fakery and subsequent unjustified executions.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Wearing Blinders

Raghav (comment 8),

Thanks for taking my general commentary about mob retribution via Internet, and narrowing your interpretation down to just this one case. That takes vision.

Perhaps in the case of Ms. Meier the accused are guilty, but you seem willing to forgo their right to due process. I’m not. But in the more important general discussion of mobs:

– Does anyone think that the members of a mob take the time to fact-check? Gimme a break. The reason people respond to Nigerian scams is that they don’t check facts. They respond the same way to “Billy is dying, send him a card” scams, “Bill Gates will send you to Disneyland if you forward this email” etc. Now I’m supposed to feel comfortable that this same, level-headed populace is meting out justice?

– Is a story in the NYT proof that something is true? Because if it is, the Dems could impeach Bush, and bring a couple of NYT articles along as the evidence.

– The Meier case makes you and I both angry at the Drews. But our anger would probably stop short of burning down their house. Yet there are enough wackos out there who don’t see that line. By joining the mob, you provide “aid and comfort” to those wackos, and rile them up enough to act.

– There’s a reason for a professional police force, a legislative gov’t, and a judiciary. They are far from perfect, but they also protect us from needing an amateur police force, amateur judiciary and vigilante executioner. People, getting past DIY justice is Civilization 101.

Mrs. Drew’s a douchebag. Agreed. I’ll sneer at her as I walk past on the street, but I’m more evolved than to join the mob.

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