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. icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 10 Dec 2007 @ 4:52pm

    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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