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

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Bill, 28 Nov 2007 @ 12:35pm

    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.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.