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
    lar3ry, 28 Nov 2007 @ 7:43am

    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.

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