Internet Police: Ethical Imperative or Utopian Ieal?

14 01 2009

With each passing day, the internet bears witness to countless malicious activities which stand in direct contradiction to the most intrinsic of moral standards. Such heinous abuses of the global possibilities afforded by the internet invariably leave most wondering the same question: what can we do to stunt such amoral cyberspace activity?

There exist a plethora of difficulties which have hitherto precluded the establishment of adequate internet laws. Firstly, most malicious internet activity does not entail any physical harm, but is instead of a more intangible nature, often consisting of the crimes of slander and libel. Apart from the inherent difficulties in winning slander and libel cases in the U.S., the internet now has to face yet another challenge to investigating such malevolent verbal abuse: online anonymity. The increasing efficacy with which internet users can successfully mask their identities makes it extremely arduous to even discover who has verbally maligned you, let alone prosecute him or her. Although there do indeed exist a multitude of positive laws addressing internet activity, the widespread abuses which transpire over the internet daily clearly manifest the inadequacy of present legalism.

There have been many methods proposed to aid in the online policing of the internet. Some have argued that a relatively efficient method through which the internet can drastically reduce internet crime is to establish a specific type of self-reporting service which has already been instituted in a number of websites. Under this initiative, those internet users who have been wronged will be able to utilize a certain interface to report such transgressions. Not only is this methodology far from practical due to the inevitably prodigious expenditures it would necessitate in terms of manpower and resources, but this system would probably create more problems than it would rectify. By allowing any internet user to file a complaint against another internet user, wrongful accusations would inevitably come to dominate the internet. Abuses of the system would arise due to real-world conflicts which would in turn prompt users to falsely accuse their peers as just one more method of retribution. As a result, such a self-reporting service is far too imprudent and susceptible to misuse to ever become practical enough to warrant large-scale implementation.

The ideal situation would be to establish an effective means of policing the internet via a single entity which patrols all of cyberspace. The seemingly incomprehensible breadth of the internet, however, makes it virtually impossible to establish one omniscient body to preside over the internet. As a result, the only course of action which is both fiscally feasible and somewhat successful in stunting internet transgressions is the current course of action. Although modern laws should be more frequently updated so as to keep pace with the rapidly changing nature of the internet, the only realistic method of cyberspace policing is to establish positive laws. The only addition I would make to the present legislation in order to increase the efficacy of such regulation is to bolster the severity of punishments which are issued for the violation of internet regulations.

Given the inability of courts to establish entities to constantly purvey the internet, present legislation must act as a deterrent. As we can see via the heinous actions which are committed daily via the internet, such as the actions undertaken by Lori Drew as referenced in an earlier post, current laws do not serve as adequate deterrents. People are not fearful of violating internet protocols and, as a result, often make the conscious decision to violate existent internet legislation. Thus, the best means through which the overall effectiveness of such deterrent laws can be increased is to increase the punishments associated with such transgressions. Through exponentially increasing the fines or punishments doled out to violaters of internet laws, other internet users who are contemplating violating the law will be further dissuaded from doing so after having seen their peers prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I am certainly not purporting that we should use the misdeeds of a few to “set an example” for the rest of the internet world. Rather I am merely contending that through enhancing the punishments of current internet violators, the number of users who commit the same crime in the future will indubitably drop.

For example, the average settlement for an internet user who has illegally pirated music is between two and three thousand dollars. Although this may seem like an aberrantly large sum of money to be paid for the mere downloading of a few songs, this is actually a very small price to pay for an illegal activity. On the contrary, anyone who has ever watched a movie on video or DVD can recall the vibrant blue screen which precedes the previews. This federal disclaimer asserts that “Criminal copyright infringement including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.” Now I am certainly not advocating that the middle-school girl who downloads her favorite Britney Spears song should be indicted or fined $250,000; however, there is no doubt that the movie industry has not fallen victim to piracy to the same devastating extent that the music industry has. Given the ease with which one can replicate both movies and music today, it seems logical to assert that this fundamental discrepancy between the number of songs pirated and the number of movies pirated lies in the inherent risk associated with each illicit activity.

Will increased penalties for violations of internet laws eliminate all illicit cyberspace behavior? Absolutely not. Nevertheless, such increases in the ramifications of illegal activity will invariably prompt many users to reevaluate their actions before acting and in doing so, reduce the amount of illegal activity plaguing the internet. Although this methodology is far from perfect, given the seemingly infinite expanse which the internet encompasses, it is currently the best available method.