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Virtual Communities: Networks of the future
Peculiarities of Second Life: The insatiable desire to start your life anew
Peer-to-peer: Networks of unknown friends
A new kind of digital panopticon has come into being. This is a system no longer requiring a Big Brother to watch over our shoulders, because we keep an eye on each other constantly anyhow. The internet creates an environment in which someone can become famous in the blink of an eye, only usually this fame is based on something the person in question would like to forget as soon as possible.
We need to protect our privacy to ensure that the freedom of internet does not make us less free. But we also have to find a balance between the protection of privacy and the freedom of speech. Common cultural norms should be developed to deal with private information on internet. And legal remedies should be established for people whose rights have been violated. But as we could have learned from the past and as will be demonstrated for recent years below the law is an insignificant instrument compared to social norms.
|Identity and civilization|
Social control and decency
When participating in public life at work, at school, in the neighbourhood, in politics or just in the streets we participate as ourselves. We do not wear balaclavas (unless we camp on the North Pole), no masks (unless we celebrate carnival), and no clothes concealing our personal features (unless we are devoted orthodox muslim women). We show who we are. Even if people do not know exactly who we are, they can still recognise us by our external features at our next meeting. This authentic identity makes us approachable as far as our deeds are concerned: what we do and what we say can be connected to a specifically identifiable person by our fellow citizens. They can praise or criticise us for this, because they know who they are dealing with. This does not only create clarity (because we act openly), but also trust.
We operate in a public order in which irresponsible or antisocial behaviour can be identified, in which the individuals showing this behaviour can be called to account, and in which they can be disciplined, if necessary.
Undesired behaviour can be corrected in several ways: by a reproachful look, by a friendly request (please dont stroke my buttocks anymore), by public admonition (letting everyone know: he is battering his children), by conditioned threat (if you ..... once more, I will .....), or by social exclusion. If all this does not work, and the violation of the social order is serious, we always have the possibility in democratic constitutional states to appeal to the even stronger arm of police and justice. We then report illegal or criminal behaviour. But in general deviation from social norms is suppressed by social sanctions. The social order is not only maintained by negative consequences to the violation of norms in force, but also by rewarding consequences to norm conformity. Opposed to negative sanctions (means of coercion), such as reticence in contact, contempt and antipathy, we find positive sanctions (inducements), such as attention, responsiveness, respect and sympathy. In varying combinations and sequences both means of coercion and inducements are used to prevent or redress violations of norms.
Obviously opinions differ on what socially undesired behaviour is. What is undesired, indecent or rude to one person, can be quite normal to another. This depends on our upbringing and the values and behavioural norms that we consider ours. But it particularly depends on the nationally and locally strongly varying cultures, and on the social, ethnic or religious background. While in some cultures it is decent to cover your whole body, in other countries both sexes walk around almost naked. Besides, the social conventions differ according to specific situations: clothing that is correct on the beach, is indecent in town or at a funeral. Therefore undesired behaviour is behaviour that deviates from our subjective and situationally varying norms and values.
Guarantee by social control
Social conventions and manners
Apart from the norms and values established in laws and official regulations, there are numerous other social conventions and manners that are of the utmost importance to the social cohesion in society and also to the safe and pleasant livability. They are elementary preconditions for a peaceful and livable society.
The way you hear is, ...
In all these cases it often is difficult for individual citizens to undertake something even if they perfectly sense that something is happening they strongly disapprove of and even if they feel morally obliged to act against this indecent behaviour. But still they do not do it, because they fear the consequences. You are at risk when you call the indecent (the scum, the loud mouths, the anti-socials) to order. Also in this respect and often rightly so we are calculating citizens balancing risks against each other. But that is also why we have such great respect for Joes Kloppenburg ( 1996), Mijndert Tjoelker ( 1997) and René Steegmans ( 2002), who did act against assholes, but who paid for it with their lives.
We cannot delegate pushing back the culture of the loud mouths to the government. Citizens themselves have to resist indecency, civil aggression and meaningless violence. This requires self regulation and self organisation from society.
To many people decency has acquired a negative undertone, because it is compared with narrow-mindedness, pettiness, conceit and lack of tolerance for other behaviour. With an appeal to decency, for example, the discrimination of homosexuals had been maintained for years. The mistrust of norms of decency is mainly a result of experiences with authoritarian formalities (intended to enforce respect for non-democratically legitimised authority), and with restrictive norms of morality and chastity (no sex before or outside of marriage and of course the heterosexual norm). This mistrust has turned into aversion with some people. The concept of decency is so multi interpretable and has so often been deployed as a political weapon that I have taken a strong aversion to it. So I will not be guided by it [Marcel Vreemans in Het Vrije Volk - 1.6.2008]. When the Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende tried to breathe new life into the concept of decency (on the pretext of: Decency should be practised) most critics immediately smelled an irritating musty smell the smell sticking to every attempt to restore old norms and values. The mistrust of conservative or restoring pleas for decency is understandable they usually lead to a restriction of our liberties. The moral censors and moralists nostalgically longing for the good old days are history.
There is another reason why decency has acquired such a negative undertone. Decency is often compared to enforcing accepted behaviour from above. However, this is not necessary. Under certain conditions common behavioural norms can also be established in a deliberating-democratic way. The social norms regulating our behaviour are usually based on consensus to a certain extent and are reproduced via social sanctions.
Nevertheless, decent manners are indispensible to a civilised society. Manners are formalised forms of self-control. And especially this self-control often seems to be lacking on internet.
|Anonymity as shield and weapon|
Freedom and disinhibition
When we participate in public life in cyberspace the case is even more complicated at first sight. On internet we usually operate anonymously or under a pseudonym. This anonymity is a blessing and a curse, a shield and a weapon at the same time.
In the virtual world one can move more freely than in local society. The main reason for this is that on internet one can operate mostly anonymously or under a pseudonym. On internet it is possible to operate under a pseudonym (a pseudo identity) without giving up ones true identity. Only in very specific circumstances the government can force providers or administrators of web forums to reveal the identity of a user. Eventually nearly all utterances or actions of internet users can be traced. Yet, internet allows for a feeling of unknown freedom.
People are reticent to say what they really think when they stand face-to-face in front of an authority. They fear disapproval and punishment. However, online people are more inclined to express themselves in no uncertain terms or to misbehave. They imagine they are invisible and are tempted to do things they normally are afraid to do, or are not allowed to do. The anonymous nature of internet communication gives the participants a great feeling of freedom. Due to this disinhibition people are inclined to express themselves more directly, emotionally and disinhibitedly about the most intimate and ultimate subjects. Anonymity enables people to hide behind their computers and to say anything they have on their minds, without fear of immediate repercussions for the local social lives. Consequently virtual communities normally display a much more disinhibited if not rougher communication culture than in local face-to-face communication.
The founders of the American constitution embraced anonymous communication in the political domain as a way of putting forward unpopular, contrary opinions without experiencing personal drawbacks. The founders themselves also made use of this. The essays in the Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym Publius [Zittran 2008:316, note 67]. They opposed the attempts to force anonymous authors to reveal their identity. Their main argument was that forced revelation damages the freedom of press. But in the Netherlands anonymity is no such constitutional right as the right to privacy.
In 1525 Charles V banned the books of Martin Luther and his followers and all books without title and sender. In case of violation, without showing remorse, men had to be put to death by the sword, and women were buried alive. This strict prohibition had little effect though. Luther kept publishing nearly all his treatises anonymously. In 1559 this was followed by the papal ban on all anonymous publications written by heretics. From the end of the 18th century on the French occupier continued the prohibition of anonymous publications. In 1789 this is laid down in law: Every citizen can express and distribute his feelings, in such a way as he pleases; if not contrary to the purpose of society. The freedom of press is sacred; if and only if the writings are provided with the name of the publisher, printer or author [Article 16 of the Civil and Political Basic Principles]. Not until 1886, through intercession of professor Simons from Leyden, did anonymous publishing become a right. According to him freedom of expression could only be optimal if there is no obligation to signing. The right to anonymous publication was only nullified by the German occupier during World War II, as was also done earlier by the Spanish and French occupier [Ekker 2008].
On the Internet, nobody knows youre a dog
Peter Steiner, in: The New Yorker, 6 juli 1993
Indecency on internet cannot be curbed by legal measures or criminal sanctions. They who become the victims of malignant, reputation-destructing gossip on internet often do not know who is responsible and have, on the face of it, few means at hand to effectively defend themselves on internet.
NetSluts and NetBastards
Internet is a place where we can articulate our own identity, and at the same time a place where we can operate anonymously. After all, anonymity means hiding ones identity. In cyberspace people say and do things they would normally not say or do in the local world. We have seen that people feel less inhibited and express themselves more openly, because they can operate anonymously or under a pseudonym. This anonymous conversation is the result of (a) idle mechanisms of local social control and (b) a low risk of legal prosecution. As long as nobody knows your name is Cinderella, you need not fear that you are personally confronted with the consequences of your online behaviour.
The civilisation of a society primarily reproduces itself by the operation of customs, morals, solidarities and common interests. So a society stabilises more or less unconsciously, as a non-desired and unintended side effect of our traditional, affective and utilitarian orientations and actions [Bader/Benschop 1988:265 ff]. Social control and legislation are the two basic mechanisms warranting the preservation of this society, and under certain circumstances its transformation as well. The elimination of these two guarantee mechanisms seems to lead to a premium on extreme forms of social actions. The disinhibition ensuing from anonymous communication is therefore a two-edged sword.
On the one hand we see that people share very personal and intimate stories about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears and desires. Or they show exceptionally friendly and generous behaviour. But apart from this amiable, good-natured disinhibition there is also a vicious disinhibition, expressing itself in profusely gross language, rude criticism, fear, blind hatred and even in threats. It is a raging catharsis in which the most revolting desires are indulged.
As soon as the mechanisms of social and legal control have been suspended or at least pushed into the background a premium is put on excessive and obtrusive flirting (netslutting) on the one hand, and on grossly provoking and insulting (netshitting) on the other. Netslutting is harassing people (mainly women) with unwanted attention, with propositions for undesired sexual intimacies and sometimes with credible threats too. You can also call it a form of online stalking, cyberstalking [in Cyberstalking this phenomenon is analysed extensively]. Netshitting is the dissemination of blunt criticism, gross insults and often also threats. When enough netshits gather in certain internet locations, they can orchestrate digital hanging parties (flame wars), in which the victims are persecuted by a raging mob. This does not only take place by organising a witch hunt on internet. Frequently the dividing lines between the virtual and the local are broken and the victims are also threatened in their private lives, in the streets or at work. A number of examples are discussed below.
All sick, dirty hate fantasies devised during many nights of drunken excitement was exposed in full rage in full daylight [Stefan Zweig].
There used to be the silent majority, but thanks to the internet a platform was found for this silent majority. This silence has come to an end once and for all. Now we discover that a new, prosperous lumpenproletariat has risen, a crowd that feels permanently and to the soul misunderstood and cheated, and expresses this as loudly as possible. The digital culture has given this crowd a voice [H.J.A. Hofland, NRC, 7.12.2008].
Agression on internet
It is often said that it is not that bad with indecency and threats on the internet. After all only virtual events are involved that do not really affect us. In this view internet is seen as an outlet for feelings of hatred and suppressed aggression. Behind it lies a well-known common-or-garden theory of aggression. In this theory aggression is seen as an amount of energy confined in a pressure-cooker. In order not to let the barrel full of aggression explode, the valve has to be opened once in a while. This allows the persons involved to express violent feelings of hatred and revenge and decreases the boiler pressure.
But this presents a distorted and simplified picture of how aggression operates. People who regularly express themselves aggressively are more inclined to show violent aggressive behaviour. And therefore aggressive behaviour is usually preceded by verbal aggression. People who are in a state of great uncertainty and emotional excitement are more easily inclined to tumble over each other in bold utterances and extreme proposals. Sentiments that arise on internet can quickly transfer to the local world. It is impossible to physically abuse or to kill people on internet. But it is possible that such a threatening atmosphere comes up that the boundary between the virtual and the local vaporises, and the threat moves on to the private and work domain of the victim.
Shift in private and public domain
With the help of cheap sensors (mobile phones with camera) and networks citizens can distribute something they have recorded on their pavement or in a restaurant extremely fast all over the world. Nearly all our activities can be broadcast. Search YouTube for angry teacher and you will find hundreds of videos of teachers hitting the roof. Peoples lives can be ruined in a split second, even if the reason is just a lapse or small mistake.
Closer research, however, shows that something else is going on. Most (also young) people take rather rational decisions about sharing their personal information. But they underestimate what may happen when this information is massively indexed, re-used, and used by strangers for other goals.
Most young people now growing up with the internet accept that they can give a public dimension to their personal life online. They even find it attractive to present themselves in the enormous publicity of cyberspace. Who are you when you are still not present on internet? Internet is a place where youngsters can show their identity (they have moved their threshold of shame and embarrassment out of the way). The great charm of profile and friends-of-friends sites is not secrecy, but autonomy: you keep control of your own profile and only engage in relations with friends of your own choice [Zittran 2008:233].
In agrarian village communities the citizens knew a lot less privacy than in a modern urban community and in small rural communities they still have less privacy than in a big city. The life of people in small communities or villages is an open book compared to the anonymous existence of people living in cities. The other side is that someone who lives in a village is better able to keep his secrets, because he has a better control over them. A villager lives in a society that is built on personal, face to face contacts. This makes it much easier to identify irresponsible or anti social behaviour and accelerates calling people to account for this behaviour.
In cyberspace we operate in a strongly impersonal information and communication system. Our fellow citizens are faceless users of information and we can often only recognise our discussion partners by their pseudonym or avatar. Online they are only formally approachable on their utterances and acts: in practice they are for a greater part immune to the sanctions someone would like to impose on them.
|Virtualisation of the pillory|
Pleasant and digital gossip
blacken someones reputation
and launder onseself.
Defamation is blackening someones good name by accusing this person of facts he or she is guilty of. He or she who commits this, can be sentenced unless (i) the general interest requires that the facts are exposed, (ii) the action was undertaken as a necessary defence, (iii) or it could be assumed in good faith that these facts are true. The goal of defamation is ruining the victims reputation. Contrary to slander defamation is not about accusations of which one knows they are untrue. Often the accusations are exaggerated as much as possible to pillory someone as much as possible. Besides, the facts of which the victim is accused need not necessarily be punishable. Adultery or deviant sexual preferences are extremely suitable for defamation. Slander is blackening someone by publicly accusing him or her of facts that are generally known not to be true.
We have seen before that defamation and slander are forms of public gossiping. Gossiping is permitted, although indecent, as long as you do not gossip publicly. This has far-reaching consequences. Who gossips in the public domain of the internet, is therefore virtually by definition guilty of defamation or slander. However, there are still few judges who have included this consequence in their judgements. Yet, the number of cases in which people are pilloried increases alarmingly.
The classic pillory, used until the late middle ages, was a pole to which somebody was tied and exposed, as a punitive measure. According to the ruling laws sentenced criminals were literally exposed. The audience played an active role in it and was permitted to curse the punished person and throw rotten eggs or street rubbish at him or her. The goal of this punitive ritual was to brand the perpetrator as a criminal: he lost his face precisely because his face became known all over the town. A person guilty of serious crimes at the time, lost his right to privacy (which evidently was not recognised as a right in the middle ages). Who was tied to the pillory by the court of justice might be so lucky that the audience did not agree with the sentence, which often led to a demonstration against those in power. When Daniel Defoe author of Robinson Crusoe was tied to the pillory in 1703 for writing a subversive pamphlet (The Shortest Way with the Dissenters), the crowd covered the pillory with flowers and gave him an ovation when he arrived at Charing Cross (London). In the Netherlands the pillory remained popular well into the 18th century. Not until mid 19th century it was officially abolished as a punitive measure.
In case of digital lynching people are slandered via internet. Often, but not always, it is about personal settlements: accounts are settled between former lovers who divorce the hard way, between employees who feel treated badly by their (former) boss or employer, between students who fancy the same girl, or between neighbours who begrudge each other the light of day. Nationally well known persons politicians, judges, actors, pop stars and other Well Known Dutch Persons form the second category of potential victims. Insulting, slandering and even virtually threatening well known Dutch persons seems to have become a national sport on internet. By means of a digital lynching they are outlawed. In all these cases the goal is exactly the same again: damaging the reputation of either or not well known private persons or of the image of institutions or companies. In many cases revenge seems to be the chief motive. Public humiliation is the predominant goal.
Do you look around first nowadays when you pick your nose, or straighten your underwear? We are increasingly aware of possibly being watched. Apparently the authorities think they have a right to place surveying cameras anywhere, allowing them to improve safety. To what extent is peoples behaviour in public spaces influenced by the implicit potential of people in your neighbourhood who register your good and bad deeds? How do you prevent private conversations in public domains (as in a restaurant) from becoming public?
Bus Uncle - Hong Kong, 2006
Bus Uncle flies off the handle
This scene is recorded by a third person who published it on internet afterwards. This video was published on YouTube by beautyjeojihyun and was watched by 1.7 million people in the first three weeks of that month. Then several derived versions were made of it, such as a ring tone, a rap, a disco remix and a karaoke version. Via internet Bus Uncle suddenly got the status of an online celebrity. Local reporters went after him, and pursued him he became front page news.
Strikingly enough Bus Uncle became very popular. He became a sort of hero who expressed the true feelings of ordinary people living closely together in a hectic city where you do not talk to strangers. Chan went berserk and many fellow citizens recognised that moment of failing aggression management. I am Bus Uncle, potentially, and so are you. Each of us has a tiny, raging Bus Uncle buried deep within, just waiting to burst free. One tap on the shoulder is all it takes [Eugine Robinson, Washinton Post].
Chan tried to cash in on his status of YouTube celebrity and has regularly been spotted with charming young women in nightclubs since then. A few weeks after the video appeared on internet, Chan was beaten up during a targeted attack on the restaurant where he worked. In Hong Kong the video became a cultural sensation and a source of inspiration for discussions on life style, etiquette and media ethics. Particularly young people use Chans meanwhile famous quotations and make parodies of these quotes [YouTube: Bus Uncle; Wikipedia:The Bus Uncle; Zittrain 2008:211].
Dog Poop Girl
In de Washington Post beschreef Jonathan Krim dit incident als een test van het schaamtevermogen van het internet [Krim 2005]. Het is niet nieuw dat het internet gebruikt wordt om rekeningen te vereffenen. Natuurlijk is het onfatsoenlijk als hondenbezitters de poep van hun hond in openbare ruimtes niet verwijderen. Maar was het fair om de dog poop girl te transformeren in een schurk die over de hele wereld bekend is? Was de internetmeute hier niet te ver gegaan? Kan de digitale razernij niet meer worden afgeremd? Gaat deze vorm van publieke vernedering niet veel te ver? In the Washington Post Jonathan Krim described this incident as a test of the internets power to shame [Krim 2005]. Using the internet to settle scores is not new. Of course it is indecent when dog possessors do not remove their dogs shit in public spaces. But was it fair to transform the dog poop girl into a villain who is known all over the world? Didnt the internet crowd go over the top in this case? Is it impossible to curb the digital rage? Doesnt this form of public humiliation go way too far?
Several people from all over the world used this incident as an example for their own actions. They record their neighbours anti-social behaviour, who let their dogs empty their bowels on the pavement without cleaning it. They post pictures in the neighbourhood and put them on internet. They use the power of internet to push a norm: you are morally obliged to clean your dogs shit in public spaces, you cannot dump rubbish on your neighbours pavement, you cannot pee in the street, you cannot jump the queue, and so on. By means of a cyber hunt in the blogosphere norm violators are traced and digitally branded [Solove 2007]. In this process their right of privacy is drastically violated the bloggers believe they have lost this right because they have behaved indecently.
Star Wars Kid: Ghyslain Raza
We want privacy for ourselves, but are very curious about the foolishness of others. In 2006 the StarWars Kid was the most popular viral video on internet. The film was downloaded 900 million times [BBC 27 November 2006]. Several parodies were made of it, of which some were shown on the American television at prime time. The StarWars Kid himself was traumatised by it and did not make any attempt to cash in on his involuntary fame. Raza became a welebrity against his will. He himself only wanted one thing: I want my life back.
In 2005 the boys family took legal proceedings against the families of his school friends and claimed a large compensation. Due to the unasked-for media attention the boy would suffer moral damage. He had to endure, and still endures today, harassment and derision from his high-school mates and the public at large. Besides, he had to undergo psychiatric treatment for an indefinite period of time. The case was settled. The StarWars Kid was not the first case of cyber bullying, but it was on of the best known one, because the video images were linked to the popular film series Star Wars [Wikipedia: Star_Wars_kid; idem_nl].
Searching for affaires
Jason received 178 reactions to his personal ad and published them on his own website: craigslist-perverts.org (now offline). As he had pretended to be a woman looking for a dominant sex partner the reactions were all mens. Jason not only published the names of the men who had reacted to his advertisement, but also their nude pictures and the names of their wives (there were, by the way, also reactions from single males). This way he destroyed their reputations, careers and marriages at one go.
It was meant to be a joke. But in reality it was an unsavoury, reprehensible and harmful joke. Generally people with a little decency do not publish private e-mails, unless there are very good reasons to do so. But the men who had reacted to his advertisement had not done anything illegal at the very most something indecent. Jason only demonstrated that someone is capable of ruining lives online. We have known for a while that this is also possible in local communities and networks. With the largest megaphone in the world fairly random individuals are publicly humiliated and digitally branded. The privacy of the victim is pushed aside by virtual popular tribunal (such a person forfeits his right to privacy) and the ritual sacrifice of the witch may begin.
In the debate ensuing from Jasons initiative on internet he was celebrated as an agent provocateur by some, whereas others discarded him as a sociopath. As a result of his experiment two men lost their jobs. When he was indicted by John Doe in April 2008, Jason quickly eased off and removed all references to the lawsuit. On 18 April 2009 Jason Fortuny lost his court case and was ordered to pay $74,252.56 to the anonymous plaintiff [Wikipedia: Jason_Fortuny; Jesdanum 2006; Chonin 2006; Doe v. Fortuny 2008].
Julies verkrachter - U.S.A., 2005
In the summer of 2005 Julie published a remarkable and repulsive story on dontdatehimgirl.com (DDHG). On this web forum abused women are encouraged to open up their hearts about the outrageous behaviour of their ex-boyfriends. Julies story was as plain as day: she indicted a man named Guido, who had plied her with liquor and then raped here (also anally). Besides, he had given her a sexually transmitted disease with this misdeed. The whole time the greasy Italian piece of shit raped me, he kept on saying he had genital warts and that I deserved to have them, too, because I was a slut. She felt humiliated, got depressed and tried to commit suicide. The story was accompanied by a photo of the perpetrator. The reactions are obvious: That filthy bastard belongs in prison. We should put up his photo everywhere and show everyone what he has done.
But Julies story was a total pack of lies. In reality Guido was Erik, a friend of Julies. Eventually she admitted that the horrible story was only a joke [Green 2006].
On internet there is nothing apart from a personal moral stopping someone from slandering another person without going unpunished. Nobody knows to what extent all those stories in dontdatehimgirl have been made up [Keen 2007:91]. None of the allegations on DDHG requires any proof. All charges are posted anonymously on the site: rape, paedophilia, manslaughter, addiction. From behind the wall of virtual anonymity harmful harangues are fired without any correction of the truth. Defamation and slander can be disseminated directly into the public space of the virtual world, without interference of selective mechanisms.
There is, by the way, also a counterpart of DontDateHimGirl. On the site GreatBoyfriends.com women can recommend their ex-boyfriends to other women. Who doesnt know a great guy (or girl) who is shockingly, still single? Maybe its your best friend, your not-for-me ex, your adorable brother you get it. Er bestaat overigens ook een tegenhanger van DontDateHimGirl. Op de site GreatBoyfriends.com kunnen vrouwen hun exen aanbevelen bij andere vrouwen. Who doesnt know a great guy (or girl) who is shockingly, still single? Maybe its your best friend, your not-for-me ex, your adorable brother you get it.
Sex diary of students - The Netherlands, 2002
In November 2002 there was commotion in the student world of Utrecht, because a sex diary of two students circulated on the internet. The diary was stolen from the room of one of the students, scanned and posted on the exchange programme KaZaA. In the diary the two psychology students exchange their sexual experiences, describing the boys and rating them with stars and marks. The students describe their conquests with the most intimate details. They tell about torn condoms, how they wake up beside a young man and do not know who he is anymore, how he ended up there and what they have done.
The interest in the sites which published the sex diary was huge. The boys mentioned in the diary (by name, phone number and sexual achievements in bed) were swamped with torrents of abuse and badgering. A number of the twelve young men disconnected their phone numbers. According to student magazine Smoel printed copies of the sex diary circulated in Zwolle, in full colour and stapled. A website was put on air for the two students: the Sanne and Lesley Fanclub, selling T-shirts and other paraphernalia.
The students were shocked, but did not take it lying down. Their lawyer required all sites that published their diary or referred to it to stop this immediately. The police investigated the way in which the diary had become public. Hosting providers were frequently called with the request to remove the diary files from the internet. Website owners were called as well. Nearly all providers and website owners complied with the request. This is the reason why the diary is hard to find now. Publication of the diary falls within article 31 of the Dutch copyright act. This act states that publication of a copyright protected document is punishable. A diary is a copyright protected document, particularly because it is an exchange of letters.
When reducing the case to theft of copyright protected documents it seems to be a simple one. Such a violation of privacy and copyright can be fought with the normal legal means. Yet, these and similar sex diary hypes remain remarkable phenomena. Can you imagine anything more unusual? In an environment where sexual material is available on a scale mankind has never seen before, a hardly titillating story of two young girls experiencing rather innocent sex is the great sensation. Only because it was real [Francisco van Jole, NRC 2.12.2002].
Diary of a coke officer - Nederland, 2006
On 11 May 2006 the populist web forum GeenStijl published intimate details from the diary of Ernst Wesselius, public prosecutor on Bonaire. Wesselius had accidentally made his diary accessible on internet, together with 448 confidential documents with information on bodypackers, money laundering practices and petty crime. For fear of legal prosecution these documents were not published, but the weblog does quote some intimate sexual scenes from his private life story. These are candid stories about his sexual fantasies, his experiences with prostitutes, his sneaky visits to porno cinemas and about masturbation. He also describes how, during a police investigation into a large-scale car theft, his business card suddenly showed up via a prostitute. I will never forget my feeling of that moment, it was as if my whole world completely collapsed, I wished I could have disappeared through a large hole in the ground forever.
The shock was even bigger when he noticed that GeenStijl and also the newspaper the Telegraaf started quoting from his personal story, which was only meant for his own eyes. I wanted to sort my life out. The fact that this has reached other people is the worst thing that could have happened [Telegraaf]. The confidential documents, together with his life story, had been put in a file on his computer, which was accessible to the outside world via LimeWare (a music exchange programme). At least, that was the statement given by GeenStijl and the Telegraaf. But investigation of Wesselius computer showed that this could not be the case, because no LimeWare software had been installed on it [Elsevier 17.5.2006]. Wesselius himself said to have no idea how these documents could have gone public. I only know how to switch the computer on and off. It is terrible. I have never exchanged music on that computer, I only write texts and send emails [Telegraaf 13.5.2006]. Therefore, the confidential information that ended up in the street via the computer of the public prosecutor may have been stolen.
Together with the Telegraaf GeenStijl succeeded in badly damaging someone by quoting from personal documents which had been obtained in a dubious way. Exposing that criminal investigation documents are freely available via internet, due to incompetent acting of a public prosecutor, serves a social interest. But this does not apply to damaging the private person this has no other purpose than offering sensation by trampling on someone else. This is not funny and has nothing to do with the exploration of frontiers, and everything with passing elementary moral limits and defying forms of civilization. Wesselius reacted furiously: It is awful that your private life is thrown away. Your feelings are torn in all directions. Fortunately I only received good reactions: one hundred percent of the people thinks it is an outrageous disgrace.
Teacher loses patience - The Netherlands, 2008
It happened earlier before and elsewhere, but in November 2008 a video appears in which a teacher of the municipal grammar school in the city of Utrecht hard-handedly removes one of his pupils from the classroom. A pupil has to leave the classroom without his bag. Another pupil tries to make off with the bag. But he is roughly removed from the classroom, bag and all, by economics teacher Jongerius. Another person filmed the incident on his mobile, provided it with text and music at home, and dumped in on GeenStijl.
The principal of the school, Hanneke Taat, emphasised that the film only reveals part of the truth. A teacher should not lose his patience, but sometimes they make it very hard for him. This film only shows one side of the case. We do not exactly know what preceded it. We are trying to find this out. Three students of the comprehensive school in Utrecht were suspended. But the damage had already been done and the film can still be watched on internet. A small film on internet and the school reputation is busted. At some schools mobiles are forbidden in class and must be put away in lockers.
Prins on the journalistic pillory - The Netherlands, 2004
One of the first victims of the Dutch shocklogs was Trudy Prins, manager of Stivoro (information organisation in the field of smoking). It started on 2 January 2004 with an editorial published in GeenStijl, in which the number of people intending to stop smoking according to Stivoro was contested. The editorial staff of GeenStijl then asked its visitors to send e-cards to Prins or to call her. She was flooded with hate mails, publication of personal details and threats. There was even the suggestion of sending a paedophile to her house to rape her children anally. The editorial staff of GeenStijl initiated it, but declines any responsibility for what their visitors (Dutch: reaguurders, something like reacreeps) write down in the weblog.
Due to appropriate instigations of the editors of GeenStijl the rage became more and more threatening:
Prins considered reporting this hate campaign. But the digital police informed her that the chance of catching them was very small, that an investigation into the origin of these texts would probably generate new hate messages again and that the perpetrator would probably get no more than a light community service. She eventually refrained from legally defending herself. But the Stivoro foundation succeeded in putting so much pressure on the provider of GeenStijl, that the company ended its cooperation with the web log. As a result of Trudy Prins threats GeenStijl temporarily went off the air, but appeared online again a few months later. GeenStijl was temporarily off the air, in order to cling fiercely growling to Stivoros trouser-leg again via another hosting provider [WebWereld].
Although GeenStijl still fulfils its raving role within journalism, nearly all reactions relating to the manager of Stivora have meanwhile been removed. Even the reference to the Stivora story in Unseemly classics has been removed from the opening page in the meantime. Besides, the house rules were tightened up as well. Racism, anti-semitism, rabid ultra-right language and threats are no longer allowed. The explanation adds to this: With shots in the back of the neck and (fictitious) death threats you walk on thin ice. Yes, we know it is meant to be funny. Your fellow commentators presumably have a good laugh as well. But the reality is that the judge only looks at how your victim feels and not how your death threat was intended. So, if you really have to do it, only do it with mutual consent, if so desired while enjoying a beer. [...] Never ever never threat prominent persons or subjects we deal with on GeenStijl. In the worst case this will lead to your arrest! In the meantime Stivoro has advertised on GeenStijl again with paid banners since December 2007: quitting reacreeping is a piece of cake, quitting smoking is harder, dump your quit film, click here... Money can buy almost anything.
|Theft of virtual goods|
Can theft of digital goods be regarded as a criminal offence, or is it merely an indecent act deserving moral disapproval? The answer to this question remained unanswered in the Netherlands for years. Before October 2008 the thieves of digital goods were acquitted by the court. Judges did not consider digital objects to be goods that could be misappropriated. Artikel 310 of the criminal code phrases it as follows: He who takes away goods that partly or totally belong to someone else, with the intention to unlawfully appropriate these goods, will be punished for theft with imprisonment of four years at the most or a fine of the fourth category. Due to the increased economic importance of online gaming and the trade of virtual objects used by gamers in online games, the question of the legal status of these objects becomes increasingly pressing. Can virtual goods be object of ownership?
Thieves in Habbo Hotel
Someone who enters his or her house and discovers that all furniture has suddenly disappeared immediately reports a theft. If the perpetrator(s) of this theft can be traced, they will be sentenced by the judge for misappropriation. After all, the furniture thieves have illegally obtained power of disposal of goods that are my property. But what is the situation in the virtual world? Can you steal virtual goods? The furniture, clothes, houses, pets and gadgets in the 3D virtual worlds are indeed not real in the sense that they are tangible objects. But the objects one can have at ones disposal are of great significance to their users, and they have invested a lot of time and sometimes also many real euros in them. Who wants to have these objects has to pay for them in real euros or develop the skills to make them oneself. Who steals such objects from others is therefore guilty of theft or violation of intellectual property (theft of home-made digital objects).
For stealing digital goods on Habbo Hotel several tactics were used. To find out the usernames and passwords for Habbo Hotel, hotmail accounts of other youngsters were hacked and fake websites were made use of. In the TV programme Nova [13 November 2007] this virtual theft was shown.
Nevertheless, the thief of the digital objects was not convicted [Newspaper DAG - 14.11.2007].
The judge motivated his sentence as follows:
First of all it is important if goods are of value to the owner. This value need not be expressed in money. In our present society the virtual goods from the online computer game RuneScape have become very important. To a great number of online gamers these goods are valuable. The more virtual goods a gamer has, the stronger he is in the game.
Besides, the virtual goods are bought and sold for money, for example via internet or in the schoolyard. There already exists a lively trade on eBay in game objects and even complete accounts for big games such as World of Warcraft. The case at issue shows that the mask and amulet were valuable to both declarant and to suspect and co-suspect.
In 1918 a dentist in The Hague taps electricity from the electricity grid for a few months. Without paying, for he was able to stop the energy metre by inserting a pen. At the time one did not immediately agree that this was theft. After all, article 310 of the penal code defined theft as stealing some property belonging to somebody else. The defence said: you cannot see or grasp electric current, it is not tangible. It is not a matter of some property in case of electric current and therefore you cannot take it away illegally. The case was discussed for a long time. Eventually the Supreme Court gave a decisive answer in 1921. It decided that electric energy is property that can be taken away with the intention to appropriate it illegally [Electricity decree, HR 23 May 1921, NJ, 564]. Anyway, already in 1851 the Supreme Court had decided that gas was property that can be stolen [HR 22 April 1851, W. 1394].
Equally, it has been determined that transferable money is also property or property object that can be stolen. A bank balance is a virtual object it does not matter if the balance is kept up to date in a card-index box or in an electronic database. In 1982 the Supreme Court judged that an amount of transferable money that has been mistakenly transferred to someones account, can be regarded as property that as belonging to this other person, is susceptible to appropriation by the account holder [HR 11 mei 1982, NJ 1982, 584].
The virtual amulet and the virtual mask [...] are no material goods, although they are perceptible. In view of the jurisprudence alluded to this is no impediment to regard them as goods as alluded to in article 310 of the penal code.
Moreover, the jurisprudence implies that an important characteristic of goods in a criminal sense is, that in case of theft the burglar obtains the actual power over the stolen goods and the person robbed loses the actual power by this theft.
Possession of property must be transferable from one person to the other. Criminal possession means having actual power. Jurisprudence has decided that the foregoing is not the case when a pin code, computer data and time units of a telephone subscription are concerned.
The designated virtual goods in the present case, i.e. a virtual amulet and a virtual mask, were in the possession of the declarant. Only he actually possessed these goods. Possession of these virtual goods can be passed on, for example by transferring the goods from one account to another.
In the present case the goods have been transferred as well, i.e. from the actual control of the declarant to the control of the suspect and co-suspect. Suspect and co-suspect have transferred the goods from the declarants account to the suspects account. Therefore declarant has lost the actual control of the goods and have suspect and co-suspect gained power over the actual control.
Now that the virtual amulet and virtual mask [...] have met the above-mentioned criteria, the court judges that these virtual goods fall within the concept goods as intended in article 310 of the penal code and belonged to declarant.
Digital goods are objects that have obtained their meaning and value primarily in the virtual world and hence can also become object of theft. The status of a player in an online game has been established by this player himself and generally requires a great time investment. Access to this virtual wealth and the formal power of disposal to manipulate with it online are protected by the unique log-in data (user name and password), allowing access to the game. They who have control of these log-in data are able to perform all sorts of actions that belong to an owner, such as transferring, excluding third parties, destroying and abandoning (as a rule the users acquire these rights based on the users agreement with the provider). And so users sell virtual goods as if they are their rightful property (although this is sometimes in contradiction with a contractual ban on transference, as in the case of Second Life). Someone who illegally appropriates this access key does, in fact, exactly the same as a thief who forces the bank manager to hand over the code of the safe.
The verdict of the Court in Leeuwarden results in interesting jurisprudence: from now on stealing virtual goods is punishable in the Netherlands.
When her former virtual husband, a 33-year old office employee, discovered that his beloved avatar had been killed he reported it to the police. He had raised his avatar for more than a year [Sky News]. The piano teacher was arrested in her home on 22 October 2008 and locked up 1,000 kilometres away from her home in Sapporo.
This example not only shows how the borderline between reality and fantasy can fade, but also and especially how internet can be used to settle personal accounts. When the herenext of the virtual world mingles with the herenow of the local world, how great is the distance between a virtual murder on a carefully cherished avatar and a physical murder on the body of his creator?
Experimental research shows that the personality of someones Second Life character can affect a players local life. Yee & Bailenson [2007, 2008] called this the Proteus effect (the Greek god Proteus could assume a great diversity of self representations. He had the rude habit of showing up at the oddest moments, every time in a different shape. If someone for example has a more attractive avatar, this person does not only act in a more extrovert way than normally in an online game, but this extrovert behaviour can also be transferred to local life. When we design our avatars there is also a subtle change in the way in which we behave. Individuals act more assertively and more aggressively when they play with a big avatar, even when they are not big in reality. You can also reverse it, as Kristina Dell of Time magazine suggested: Im considering giving my avatar a cottage by the sea and a job doing charitable work. Maybe some of the positive vibes will rub off into my real life. It might work, because self perception influences our behaviour.
|Internet as watch group and thief catcher|
We have seen how internet is not only used to settle personal accounts, to ridicule embarrassing behaviour of individuals and to broach norm exceeding behaviour. Here internet functions as a prism in which individuals are suddenly and involuntarily placed in the spotlights of cyberspace. In principle everyone has to do with it: including adolescents, divorced women, teachers, politicians and managers of large companies. In many cases private material is published on internet without the owners permission (in case of extortion this is the threat). According to the Dutch Board of Journalists this is prohibited. But the internet publicists do not adhere to this journalistic code.
Internet is increasingly also used to trace real offenders. Alleged perpetrators of a crime are shown recognisably and mentioned by name. Sometimes this is done by private persons, but this means is increasingly employed by the government itself.
A chemist from Nieuwegein had been robbed in his store by a young man. The chemist, Aart van Tellingen, took revenge on the shop-lifter early March 2006: he put a video of the stealing young man online. In the video we can see how the young man shamelessly fills his bag with dozens of mascara roller brushes worth 1,400 euro. When he reported the crime, the chemist offered the surveillance pictures to the police as well. In the newspaper AD [3 March 2006] the chemist stated:
Watchdogging and branding
There are several private sites informing citizens about whether or not convicted crooks, cheats and paedophiles. With the help of internet citizens are summoned to be watchful and agile. Examples are mokka.punt.nl (until March 2007) and ListEnBedrog.nl (Cunning and Guile, a public charge against abuse), which publishes names of crooks. One of them is Sebastian B.  who got deep into debt with a number of people and companies, which he never paid back. He was convicted for it and does not take his case to a higher court. Since 2004 B. has been threatened on several websites and has been accused of all sorts of affairs. The consequences are incalculable: B. has made two suicide attempts and is still threatened and insulted. According to his lawyer the owners of the weblog are guilty of defamation, slander and threat. B. recognised that he was wrong and accepted his conviction. His problem is not the conviction, but his prospect of a second start: Owing to the publications on internet I never get the opportunity to start again. It keeps pursuing me. No limitations apply for internet it can pursue you your whole life. In criminal law the starting point is the presumption of innocence (you are innocent, unless you are convicted by the judge) and after having served a certain time of imprisonment, you get a new chance to integrate in society. Who has been exposed as a criminal on internet is branded for life and runs the risk of being permanently discriminated against as an ex-prisoner.
The maker of ListenBedrog, Martin van Kampen, believes it is nonsense that the perpetrator cannot be mentioned by name and that the victim can. He started the site as a warning against this kind of people. Besides, he collects most publications from the newspapers: I merely compile them. But Bs lawyer challenges this: ListenBedrog mixes journalistic facts with its own colouring and therefore borders slander and defamation [AD - 3.6.2006].
Chasing convicted criminals
Chasing after men who, with a false identity, try to get in touch with children and try to seduce them to perform sexual acts. This is allowed, and may even have a preventive effect. But chasing after convicted paedosexuals who have served their time? This is inappropriately taking the law in ones own hands. On the site Stopkindersex (Stopchildsex), launched on 31 May 2006, there is a list of postal codes of districts in which a convicted paedophile lives. This way anybody can check if a convicted paedophile lives in his or her postal code area. The site was initiated to warn people against men who operate on internet and want to have sexual contact with children, says initiator Yvonne van Hertum. She had been convicted by the judge before, because she had mentioned paedophiles by name on her website. In the TV programme Pauw & Witteman [26.2.2007] van Hertum explains that she and her volunteers draw men out who try to have sexual contact with minors on several chat sites. If someone responds to these advances, the individual in question is publicly pilloried: they are put on the site with a picture and are mentioned by name [see also: EénVandaag - 26.9.2007].
The logic of naming and shaming is that sex offenders who have served their time are punished once more by society. They are virtually and unconditionally pilloried, without the perspective of prescription. This mode of exposing convicts does not agree with the Dutch legal order, Minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin wrote in his reply to parliamentary questions [source]. Who wants to report child pornography and sexual approach of children on or via internet, had better report this to the MeldpuntCyberCrime (MCC), (Complaints Office Cybercrime), the official police complaints office on internet.
Police are looking for extra eyes
In his new years speech of 2004 superintendant Peter Vogelzang of the province of Utrecht suggested publishing pictures of recidivists on internet and to distribute them in the areas where they commit their crimes. By pilloring criminals in public the police hope to inform citizens more efficiently about the safety and criminality in their area. Citizens themselves are mainly responsible for the safety in their area. Accordingly they have the right to know who continuously commits crimes in their area. Vogelzang knew that by doing this he nearly crossed the borders of the privacy law, but he believes that social interests prevail over the privacy interests of criminals. He received little support from politics and the Public Prosecutor, especially because of the risk of taking the law into ones own hands. The legal spokesman of the Dutch Labour Party Wolfson remarked: It looks like going for a ride with a condemned person on the dung cart, just like in the Middle Ages. Actually, the superintendants proposal was even more drastic. After all, in case of breaking the anonymity of recidivists it is not a matter of tracing suspects or exposing convicts, but of warning the public against ex-convicts at large. And so ex-prisoners are withheld the chance of returning in society without being abused, ridiculed or menaced.
In 2005 the police of Rotterdam Rijnmond dropped a bombshell and published the pictures of suspects of suspects of the riots of the football match Feyenoord-Ajax on 17 April 2005 on internet. The service sent 17,000 text messages to anyone whose mobile was around at the moment of the riots. With these modern investigation techniques a lot of people were reached (nearly 80,000 hits on the site), which led to the arrest of a number of suspects and football banning orders. The Dutch Data Protection Authority, the privacy watch dog, investigated the publication of the pictures, but concluded that this had been done conscientiously. Publishing pictures of suspects is allowed, if done with moderation and fairness. In these cases the Public Prosecutor and the police always need to balance the interests: of privacy versus punishment and prevention. Publication is only permitted in case of suspects of crimes resulting in preventive custody. And in case of escaped, violent prisoners, missed persons and unknown deaths. The Dutch DPA demands that the decision to publish should be taken for each suspicious individual. Special notice should be taken of damaging and irreversible side effects of publication on internet on first offenders, people who have never been in contact with the police. Publishing police pictures should comply with the demands of proportionality and subsidiarity. On the one hand the publication should be in reasonable proportion to the goal (preventing criminal facts) and on the other hand should only be allowed when no other, less extreme means is at hand [NRC 1.2.2008].
In January 2008 the town council of Rotterdam accepted a proposal to publish pictures and camera shots of Rotterdam troublemakers, trolls and hooligans on internet. In this case an escalation model is used, first showing agitators and hooligans with their eyes covered, but eventually fully recognisable. He who misbehaves loses his right to privacy, said Labour Party leader Peter van Heemst. He believes that politics should buy political broadcast time from the local TV station and if need be show weekly pictures of characters that evidently screw up the liveability of this area. The Rotterdam ombudsman, Migiel van Kinderen, calls it a draconian measure, which seems to spring from output thinking and appeals to gut feelings [NRC 1.2.2008].
After the American example a large alarm system, Amber Alert, also became operative in the Netherlands in 2008. This system allows the police to raise red alert as soon as a child is missing. Via text messages, e-mail and screens on stations and airports the details of a missing child can be made public. This way a lot of people can look out for a missing or kidnapped child.
Amber Alert was developed by the software company Netpresenter, together with the National Police Services Agency (KLPD). In the United States the system has been operative since 1996. In that year the 9-year old girl Amber Hagerman was kidnapped in Arlington (Texas). She was pulled off her bicycle into a lorry on 13 January and found dead four days later.
According to the administrators hundreds of childrens lives have been saved since the introduction of the American system. But there are investigators that contest such numbers. The criminologist Timothy Griffin (University of Nevada, Reno) investigated hundreds of kidnap cases between 2003 and 2006. He concluded that Amber Alert actually played no role whatsoever in the possible return of the kidnapped children. In the rare cases in which kidnappers planned to rape or kill the child, Amber Albert usually did not succeed in saving lives. The successes of Amber Alert mostly concerned guardianship disputes that were of no risk to the kidnapped children. Most kidnappings of children are carried out by a family member (usually a parent who was rejected for guardianship) or a good acquaintance of the victim (often a baby sitter). Besides, most of these children would have been saved as well without Amber Alert. Griffin sees Amber Alert as a crime control theater and fears that the system is more based on emotions than on actions that are actually effective. Amber Alerts are least successful in the most dangerous cases, when the child has been kidnapped by a stranger.
The multimedia alarm system offers citizens the opportunity to receive request for information via the PC (e-mail, pop-up screen, screensaver or instant messenger), via the mobile phone or PDA (text messages), via ones own website (website alert pop-ups, RSS-newsfeed), or via screen newspapers on well visible places in petrol stations, town halls, libraries, supermarkets, trams, trains, undergrounds, football stadiums, waiting rooms in train stations, airports or hospitals. Amber Alerts are only sent when one fears the life or health of the child is in danger. The expectation is that this is the case maximally 10 times per year. The messages exist of a picture, the name and other important information about the child. When the child has been abducted by an unknown person information is given about his car, its colour or licence plate.
Criminal investigation sites
Every day numerous crimes take place in the Netherlands for which the police need the help of people who, for example, were a witness to the crime or who have valuable information. By means of requests for information the Public Prosecutor and police ask the public for help in solving the crimes. This already took place via television, radio and newspapers, and now takes place via internet. Both on a national and on regional and local level there are several criminal investigation sites, on which police and the judicial authorities ask ordinary citizens to contribute to crime prevention. Sometimes these sites have been set up by the police, sometimes by private persons in collaboration with the qualified authorities.
There are a number of complaints offices in the Netherlands where people can report criminal behaviour on internet. On Meldpunt Cybercrime (Cyber Crime Reporting Website), initiated by the Ministries of Justice and the Interior, all forms of cyber criminality (child pornography, terrorism) can be reported. The Meldpunt Discriminatie Internet (Dutch Complaints Office for Discrimination on the Internet, MDI) was established to help prevent and combat discrimination on the Dutch part of the internet. The MDI closely cooperates with several organisations, such as Art.1, politics, Public Prosecutor and several foreign organisations that are involved in fighting discrimination on internet.
Guusje ter Horst
Minister van Binnenlandse Zaken
In the numerous reactions on internet the distrust of the interference and patronising by the government was paramount. Let the government behave decently first followed by a lot of examples of indecent government behaviour. Or the other way around: Let us citizens first establish what decent politicians are. For that matter, good citizenship also means: dont drive and drink and then try to wriggle out of the fine (even if you are the mayor of Nijmegen). In brief: Improve the world and start with yourself.
Do all these decency initiatives make any sense at all? A lot of people doubt it.
Insult and discrimination
In the course of years varied proposals have been made to regulate the internet legally. One of the most drastic ones is forbidding anonymity on internet. Apart from the principal objections mentioned before, such a prohibition is practically impossible. It would limit freedom of speech in any case.
However, the free word is only really free when it complies with the boundaries of respect and reasonableness. These boundaries are set by the ban on insult and discrimination of groups of people and inciting to hatred or violence against certain sections of the population. This is also the case in the Dutch legislation. The main boundaries of the free word have been established in the Penal Law.
In 2008 Minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin proposed to cancel the penalty clause concerning blasphemy. With this he finally seemed to meet the wish of the parliamentary majority. But at the same time he proposed to extend the working of the anti-hatred clause of article 137c, so as to protect religious feelings as well. Moreover, the minister wants to insert the words immediately or circumstantially after the word deliberately in the text of article 137c. This is how he wanted to point out that minority groups should remain protected against needlessly offensive utterances.
Rather Turkish than papistic
|Self regulation of virtual communities|
Utopia of open communities
In the first generations of internet users a utopian vision on the future of online communities dominated. In this vision internet technology would more or less automatically lead to breaking down all boundaries and reducing the power of nation states. In the idyllic vision internet appears as a new frontier where people live in peace, with their own rules, liberated from the compulsiveness of an oppressive society and free from government interference. Internet was seen as an unstoppable moloch, turning the whole social and political organisation of society upside down. Instead of industrial capitalism with its exploitation, concentration and rigid hierarchies, a completely lateral network society would rise, in which the freely associated citizens share all knowledge and insights with each other (open source) and while deliberating make participatory democratic decisions on the future of mankind, united via internet. The utopian vision on internet was nourished by the hope of a substantial improvement of the world if any individual is able to communicate with every other random individual.
Behind these rather naive expectations a way of thinking is hidden, which is known in technique sociology as technological determinism. This way of thinking can be summarised in two propositions. First of all, the technological development is seen as a fact that generates itself and follows only one trajectory. Technological innovations would take place according to a logic of their own and according to developmental laws that are merely technical and not socially restricted. Secondly, it is assumed that the technological process has univocally external or social effects. Internet technology would, by definition, bring along more or less automatically emancipating and democratising effects.
The ideal of the virtual community was that it would be completely free and disorganised:
This is not the place to write the history and the learning processes of virtual communities. But it is clear that the notions about a completely autonomous and self-regulating virtual second life have by now lost a lot of their fresh colours and have been heavily discredited. Already in 1998 internet was highly commercialised, in a way its inventors and founders had believed to be impossible. By the commercialisation and pornofication of the internet chat rooms, web forums and other virtual associations have often learned the hard way that they need rules of conduct to maintain and manage themselves as a community.
Self-regulation and virtual socialisation
To fight criminal behaviour on internet there is need for a policy for criminal investigation and prosecution by the government, facilitating identification of the villains in cyberspace. This monitoring of criminal behaviour has got off the ground with difficulty and still lacks sufficient capacity to search for digital traces that can lead to perpetrators in the very large and complex virtual world, and to collect sufficient reliable information to bring a successful charge to court.
But no matter how well the official criminal investigation and prosecution authorities do their work, they can never do this alone they badly need the help of the internet citizens. Besides, this way only the major excrescences that are already legally forbidden are tackled. The lesser evil of indecency and of the culture of the loudmouths stays out of reach of the strong arm of the law. This evil should be fought by the net citizens themselves.
The most important lesson from the history of virtual communities is that they have to arm themselves more effectively against internal balance disruptions and malicious attacks from the outside. The virtual communities will have to regulate themselves and invent strategies to set off processes of virtual socialisation.
The first step in this process is the development of common values and behavioural norms and recording them in the house rules. The basic idea of each netiquette is simple: Behave yourself, also on internet. But as we have seen, the social conventions that are applied are not always very clear and sometimes highly contested. Everyone should say what he or she wants to say, but it is not very wise and usually also very indecent to type on internet what comes to ones head. Discriminating, insulting or threatening utterances are not only indecent and/or punishable, but harm the fundamental conditions of a truly free discussion in web forums. Internet communities that cherish freedom of speech should see to it that the democratic conditions for a free exchange of opinion are respected. This is not a restriction of freedom of speech, but the first step to enable this freedom.
Saying straightforwardly what one thinks, without the possibility of communicating tone and facial expression, rapidly leads to misunderstandings and sometimes to fierce anger. Experiences with this have led to the ethical norm: Be broad-minded in receiving and reticent in sending. Such a moral guideline does not exactly prescribe what one can and cannot do, but does offer something to hold on to in critical discussions on the democratic culture of a virtual community.
In the larger web forums people are recruited from the membership file, who are assigned the task of moderating the contributions to the discussions. Moderators are the gatekeepers of virtual communities who monitor the development of the discussions daily. Because they closely follow the postings, they can act right away when they get the impression that things are happening that do not fit in with the community in case. Often urging people to remain calm is already sufficient, plus pointing out the house rules to them. But sometimes moderators need to interfere more strongly. This is the case when a participant perseveres in his or her indecent behaviour and deliberately tries to ruin the atmosphere in a community. Then moderators can decide to remove postings from the forum or to exclude the person in question temporarily or permanently from the community. Exclusion is that last remedy to keep a community resistant against going to the dogs.
Over the years more and more and widely divergent large online communities have come into being, in which thousands of people participate daily. In the most popular web forms the tasks and responsibilities of the moderators have been greatly expanded. They play an increasingly vital role in the protection of their community against miscreants, vandals, troublemakers and trolls and in the stimulation of an atmosphere that is required for candid exchange of opinions. Originally the moderators were mainly volunteers who undertook the task of regulating their community without being paid for it. The increasing awareness of the importance of self-regulation by moderation has led to initiatives to qualify their moderators in a better way in a lot of virtual communities. It is time to set up learning trajectories in regular education that can support the professionalisation of the moderators. Improving the expertise of moderators is a crucial link in realising a non-repressive social control within online communities.
At first sight the self-cleaning ability of online communities seems to be strongly restricted by the anonymous or pseudonymous behaviour of the participants. But the lack of local mechanisms of social control can be compensated online by virtual socialisation. This allows for reinforcement of the social cohesion and sense of social belonging of virtual communities, leaving no (or at least a lot less) room for extreme reactions. Eventually this is what is at stake in this virtual decency offensive Decency: also online.
The law of retention of much goes as follows: Whatever you do online as a medium, you will always find your part of the muck on your doormat, your part of crude racism, of the stupid nonsense, of anonymous badgering and senseless tormenting. Because muck remains, a number of interactive experiments failed, forums were closed and chat sessions ended in sad tragedies [idem, Herbert en het behoud van bagger]. In other words: If you invite the whole world to your party, you can be sure that someone pees in your beer [Wired]. Moderation of weblogs is an effective instrument to curb virtual indecency. But there will always be muck. If only because most web forums do not have the means to moderate all contributions in real time.
Responsibility for postings
A crucial question is: to what extent is (the administrator of) a weblog responsible for the postings of others? Who is responsible when something is posted on a weblog by a visitor, which can be qualified as an insult, a threat, violation of privacy and publishing right of pictures, and so on? When an internet provider in the Netherlands is warned by the judiciary about the nasty content of websites on its network/servers, it is assumed to do something about it. Providers are not responsible for publishing illegal material, but they are indeed responsible for removing it. This principle can be extended to weblogs themselves, forcing webmasters to keep discussions within the boundaries of the law. And preferably also within the boundaries of social decency. But by now we know that you cannot impose decency, or only with great difficulty, and certainly not with legal means. What is decent to one person, is indecent to the other. What is rude to one person, is sharp-witted or funny to the other. And being indecent is not punishable.
Tempt to decency: netiquette
In the complaints brought forward about internet criminality and decency (intolerance and rough manners) play a prominent role. How can people be inspired to behave decently in a digital environment too? Civilised behaviour cannot be enforced online either. It is inevitable that the indecency we meet in the streets has its effects in popular web forums as well. If you administer an open web forum that becomes very popular, you should keep in mind that indecent postings will be published. A weblog or forum owner cannot hide from the law behind a disclaimer: criminal offences are also punishable by law when they are committed online. But within this boundary administrators of web forums are not responsible for what people post on their forum. He does not have to apologise for indecent language. But administrators of web forums and their visitors can set up and guard rules of conduct that draw a clear line. This has nothing to do with restricting freedom of speech. On the contrary, developing a private netiquette is a vital condition for any online community to enable freedom of speech.
A lot of web forums have had years experience with drawing up and maintaining internet rules of conduct. This experience teaches us that it is often not useful to set up very detailed rules of conduct. If you try to set explicit norms people will look for holes. (...) A lot of people like to explore the frontiers, says Johan Heslinga of Fok. The FOK!forum makes use of a simple rule of conduct: The main thing is that we expect you to behave decently towards your co-posters, that you stick to the Dutch legislation and that you follow the instructions of moderators and (forum)admins [Fok Policy].
Apart from drawing up rules of conduct and appointing moderators, online communities can use a number of other means to ensure that people communicate with each other in a more careful and friendly way. By means of a rating system participants are enabled give each others reactions a higher or lower rate. This is how the contributions that are highly valued by a lot of people end up on top of the list of reactions. You can also offer visitors the possibility to decide for themselves if they only view reactions with a high rating. Apart from rating the individual contributions, the participant himself can also be rated by means of a reputation system. This is how decent behaviour is rewarded with a positive premium. The reputation system anticipates the need for recognition. Besides, all members of the community can include the reputation score in their judgment of contradictory opinions published by other members. By the way, in practice we can see that a lot of rating and reputation systems can relatively easily be manipulated.
Finally, web forums can also make use of a click-complain-button, allowing visitors of the site to register discriminating, hatred-sowing and slanderous or other legally forbidden utterances and to send them to the police with one click. With the software of Chat-Security, for example, one can make a screenshot in one go, after which the details of the participant involved are registered and put in a database. The police have access to this information and can take steps, depending on the seriousness of the offence. Marokko.nl is the first site in the Netherlands that will make use of this software. Marokko.nl was discredited in December 2008, after Minister Van der Laan (Integration) had been shocked by provocative texts on the forums of the website, amongst others against gays and jews. According to one of the founders, Khalid Mahdaoui, it is nearly impossible for the 30 moderators of Marokko.nl to check all tens of thousands messages that come in daily themselves.
Moderator: the digital hydra
The good moderators of web forums are versatile people. For the upkeep of larger communities several important functions were already created earlier. People who were capable of helping newcomers to determine their position within the community. People who took care that no things occurred in the community that could endanger the continuity of the community. People who were capable of intervening in discussions that were deadlocked or got out of hand. The modern moderator of popular web forums not only has all these functions at the same time, but also in communities that are often much more extensive than all local communities that we have known so far.
With these house rules or netiquette in their hands preferably as the result of a discussion with visitors or community members moderators can act in order to protect the basic conditions of a free discussion. A moderator can caution an offender of the communication rules in a friendly way or warn to stop the undesired behaviour. He can remove the posting in question, close a whole discussion line (thread), or ultimately remove this person temporarily or permanently from the system and block his IP-number. Practically each form of local social control can be copied online.
Civilisation as composed self-control
Civilisation is a complex concept with a very long, but also a contradictory history. From its origin it was a term with which social elites presented themselves in relation to people who were in their eyes simpler and more primitive. Civilisation has always been a concept with which the ruling elites tried to convince themselves and others that they were superior to the common people [Elias 1939/82: (1) 62]. This is why there is a superior overtone to the concept of civilisation (similar to decency). However, it is quite well possible, and in my view also essential, to disengage the concept of civilisation from its elitist cocoon.
Civilisation is regulating our desires and emotional life by means of a lasting self-control. This self-control is an indispensible condition of human coexistence. In case of a fully uncontrolled expression of our desires and emotional life, coexistence becomes impossible, in any case very unpleasant. Our whole process of upbringing is dominated by learning to have self-control, in combination with independence and empowerment. The art is to pursue this learning process in our virtual second life.
dr. Albert Benschop