Friday, March 30, 2007

The Threat is the Message

Last week there was an incident involving a tech blogger receiving anonymous death threats. The incident itself is not really what I’m concerned with at this point. If you want to read about you can find information here. What really concerns me is something I read in this BBC article commenting on the aftermath of the events. It appears that the things that this anonymous individual or individuals did were pretty over the top.

In what seems to be a rush to preempt the calls for regulation of the medium Tim O’Reilly said the following:

The fact that there's all these really messed-up people on the internet is not a statement about the internet. It is a statement about those people and what they do and we need to basically say that you guys are doing something unacceptable and not generalise it into a comment about this is what's happening to the blogosphere.

The first thing I thought of here was the McLuhan reaction to David Sarnoff saying “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value.” I would repeat McLuhan’s thoughts when he said “there is simply nothing in the [O’Reilly] statement that will bear scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form.”

Isn’t the Sierra incident a consequence of the nature of the medium? The anonymity allowed by blogging makes it a perfect medium for this kind of harassment. It’s better than a threatening phone call or an angry note. There is a difference between mailing someone a picture of their face with some change made in pen as opposed to the things that Photoshop will allow you to do. Digital media, especially blogging, takes bullying to a new level and that is part of the nature of the medium.

Now this doesn’t mean that there aren’t good things about the nature of blogging, or the web in general. It does create greater access to information. The problem is that it also allows for a new kind of bullying that may have an impact on people that is different from other media. Some of the images that Sierra included on her website that were created by individuals who were harassing her are disturbing. It would not have been possible to create those images without digital media (i.e. Photoshop).

The question now is whether or not this should be grounds for government action. In cases of speech I tend to come down on the libertarian side. What I would say is that no special legislation is needed or, even if it was needed, possible. First, there are laws against harassment or fighting words. We don’t really need a special set of laws that explicitly mention blogs.

Additionally, the problem of defining what content should be regulating creates an array of legal questions to complex and numerous to even begin to discuss in one blog post.

All that said, I think it is safe to say that these threatening posts are not
protected by freedom of speech. They are clearly threatening remarks. Freedom of speech is not at issue in this situation. It will be at issue with attempts at regulating speech in the future.

Simply put:

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”