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.

Filed Under: open source, vigilantes

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  1. identicon
    Max Hansen, 27 Nov 2007 @ 9:06pm

    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.

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