Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Felony Harassment

You may recall the Missouri teen who committed suicide after receiving hurtful messages through a popular social networking site. Another neighborhood teen, possibly with the knowledge and aid of her mother and a friend, posted the cruel personal messages under a false identity. A federal inquiry is underway to see if those who created the fraudulent online profile and sent the messages can be prosecuted. No Missouri law was deemed to have been broken.

In a follow-up AP story, a panel formed by Missouri governor Matt Blunt is reported to have recommended "making certain types of harassment a felony, such as if anyone 21 or older harasses people 17 and younger."

Later in the same story:
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Loyola University Law School, told The Associated Press that if the government convened a grand jury it would be trying to create a case in which MySpace would be the victim of a fraud — meaning the person who perpetrated the fraud could be prosecuted.

"The whole case is curious," she said, and could raise First Amendment issues of free speech.

The subject of "cyber bullying" received much coverage after the suicide. Legislative and policy responses to the threat (or perceived threat) of online bullying are probably inevitable, much as they have come from a concurrent flap about "traditional" playground bullying.

No one needs to remind us that teen suicide, for any reason, is tragic and probably represents some failure on the part of those within the young person's circle. In some ways we may all be responsible. But is the establishment of felony harassment statutes the proper remedy?

I'm the father of twin girls, aged 7. They visit and enjoy playing with Microsoft Paint but are probably not aware of anything else related to our home computer or the Internet. They do not yet have email addresses, although they will be given them at school next year and be expected to use them. Their slightly older cousins are well ahead of my kids and send me text messages from their cell phones. The future for mine will include these things---all our current electronic communication modes and more---and I'm sure I'll be fighting a losing battle against them all the way.

I'm obviously not a Luddite (although I have sympathies). And my general state of panic about being out of touch with my children will doubtless win out in the war against the cell phone and the email address. But will I want to see my kids on Will I want them chatting up strangers and swapping pics? Let's not go there for a while, ok?

As for Internet identities, I think the best we can say at present is that anonymity is too easy. It's the great pitfall of this medium. We are all (even when we use our own names and photos) somewhat fictional characters and largely free of responsibility for our actions online. It's something I'm going to have to explain to my girls one day soon.


Moro Rogers said...

That slimy girl in Missouri doesn't need a lawsuit, she needs to have her ass kicked.

Heidi the Hick said...

Matt, this is a very thought provoking post. I say this as someone who does not use a surname and poses with a hand over the face...

My kids have gmail but I have flatly refused to let them have cellphones. I told them that even if they paid for it themselves I forbid it.

REasons? They're kids. They should let themselves be kids. Why do they need to be gotten ahold of? Why be so tied to communication? Why complicate their young lives?

Cell doesn't make your life easier. Harder. I won't even have one. It's like this: I'm either home, at the barn, or the grocery store. Leave a message at home.

As for the internet, they've been given warnings -by us- to be careful about what they post, whether it's email or a discussion group or a chat. Once it's said it can't be unsaid...and jokey sarcasm doesn't translate well onto a screen!

We've given the kids the talk about giving out identity information. We go over it a lot. I still don't know if they get it and I don't know if I'm a good example, or bad.

Matt Mullenix said...

Moro you are probably not the first to think so!

Heidi I think your choice to obscure your identity on the Net is reasonable (although we all appreciated your sharing last year's music award pics!) Also, the way you've handled mention of your immediate family is classy and respectful.

For my part, some of my business in copywriting and booksales is online, and being anonymous wouldn't make much sense for me. I also feel strongly that accountability is a good thing, and tends to moderate discourse online that could otherwise be pretty hostile.

Nonetheless, I do sometimes regret "putting myself out there."

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

The internet has very much changed the nature of running a business as well and although I'm thrilled to have such easy access to people and information, it has made communication more of a hassle than anything.

The lack of immediate reprecussion in emailing gives people the option of being horribly rude and downright mean-spirited even when it is completely unprofessional and damaging to business relationships. People should just pick up the phone or meet for lunch if they have a greivance, for crying out loud. The internet has turned so many people into bullies who would never bully in person. It's not good.

I am very much hoping that many parents are teaching that the golden rule applies to the internet too when they raise the children born into this new world of communication (rather than the rest of us who are adjusting). Heidi and Matt give me hope...