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Human Potential in the Age of Exponential Tech

Social Networks and Accountability – Just who is responsible?

Social networks continue to break new ground in the way that we interact with each other. Thanks to Facebook we have an entirely new category of acquaintances that we would have never had the energy or time to keep up with otherwise. We can have meaningful conversations with strangers on Twitter, and the world appears to be shrinking, as we map the connections between the people we know. Alas, it’s not all rainbows and puppies. Along with all the good, has come an enormous bucket of unprecedented bad, the kind of stuff that we are dealing with now that include legal implications.

Two things happened this week that really brought this to my mind:

1) Megan Meier’s Trial

I have been following this case since I researched it for Grown Up Digital. For those of you who aren’t familiar here are the highlights:

13 Year Old Megan Meier, who suffered from ADD and depression committed suicide after being taunted by a MySpace friend, a boy who was later revealed to be the creation of an ex-friend’s mother.

You read that part right. A grown woman created a fake mySpace account, built a relationship with Megan and then turned on her by saying vile, hurtful things that pushed Megan beyond her limit.  This is the first Cyber-bullying trial to go to court and it started a few days ago.

From the BBC:

Prosecutors say Ms Drew violated MySpace’s “terms of service” that prohibit users from using fraudulent registration information, using accounts to obtain personal information about juvenile members and using MySpace to “harass, abuse or harm other members”.

The trial is being seen as a landmark internet law case.

It is interesting to note that Lori Drew, the woman being charged in the case is facing the consequences of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, because prosecutors couldn’t find any other law in Missouri to charge her with. She is not on trial for Megan’s suicide.

2) A teen commits suicide on Justin.TV

This sad story broke a few days ago. A user announced he was going to end his life. He wasn’t taken seriously by the moderators who thought it was a hoax. Finally a few hours later people realized he wasn’t moving and called the authorities. It was particularly upsetting for me to read because the people in the comments section were egging him on and saying mean and hurtful things.

A timeline from iReport:

  • CandyJunkie posts the amount of drugs he’s going to take
  • Mod[erator]s don’t take it seriously
  • People egg him on
  • CandyJunkie posts a copied suicide note
  • People keep egging him on
  • He pops the pills and goes to sleep
  • He breathes for a few hours, people think he’s going to be alright and keep joking and trash talking on his JTV log.
  • Some time later many people realize he was not moving.
  • Personal details posted on Misc. by a concerned misc. request people to call the cops.
  • People tell me he’s a troll and nobody calls. Staberella especially is quite a huge cynic and says that he wasn’t going to die on that kind of drugs, she insists nothing is going to happen and that people should just gtfo of the thread.
  • Miami Police called, the people there do not take the case seriously and tell to call the sheriff of his county, and give me the sheriff’s number.
  • post the sheriff’s number on the Misc. thread
  • jjlee138 calls the Broward County Sheriff’s office and speaks to them about the situation along with a couple of other people. By the time I called, it turns out 3 people had already called them about it.
  • People wait for the cops to bust in on the JTV cam.
  • Some people start thinking nobody called the cops, at least 5 more people call the cops, they were told the cops were on it
  • 25 minutes after the first call to the cops, the cops bust in. They cover the webcam
  • People speculating whether he’s dead or not
  • At this point of time a lot of people start deleting/editing their posts everywhere.
  • Friends post messages on his myspace worried about him, no response from him.
  • His best friend posts a thread on the Misc. and informs the people that he’s dead.
  • Some people still think its a bluff”

I wonder if any of those people will be liable. Lori Drew was charged because there were no other laws. Maybe this will see the introduction of legislation that starts to map out the digital landscape in an effort to define the boundaries of our online accountability. I think that there will come a time sooner rather than later where a person won’t be able to hide behind a screen name, and will be responsible for how they conduct themselves online.

I also wonder about the responsibility that will be passed on to Social Networks like Facebook or MySpace. How long will their terms of service be enough to shield them from people who would seek to harm others? It also wouldn’t surprise me to see companies become fearful of possible legal action start to crack down on any content they deem offensive, exercising their rights over our data. Especially Facebook who pretty much owns everything you put on their servers.

A lot of people have described the web as the wild wild west, but I think this trial is ushering in a new age of law and order. We’ve already seen the outcome in the battle of Free Speech vs. Potential and Unseen Threat (aka the Patriot Act) so I’m a little apprehensive as to how this one is going to play out.

Either way, the loss of life is a tragedy that should be respected both offline and online. Common decency and compassion shouldn’t dissapear the second you activate an avatar. I would rather call the police on someone who turns out to be a hoax 100 times, rather then miss one person really crying out for help.

Whether or not you thought it was a joke, egging someone one who is making a claim of hurting themselves is irresponsible and shameful. There are certain things that will never be funny -EVER-this is one of them.

Comments: 2

  • JonV

    November 21, 2008

    That is pretty sad and sick. Many people hide behind a computer screen and type away what ever they think is funny but hurtful to most. If you wouldn’t do it in front of that person, don’t do it at all. We need laws to protect the young from others regardless of age when it comes to cyber bullying. Respect for others is disappearing as fast as one hit wonders.

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