The internet’s status as an ethical wasteland cannot last

Last week saw one of the world’s first convictions in a case of “cyber exploitation”. Kevin Bollaert was charged with 21 counts of identity theft and six counts of extortion by a California court last Friday. He had been accused of running a website which extorted victims of “revenge pornography” and was sentenced with 18 years in prison under a ruling that represents progress for a growing international effort to address internet crime.

According to The Independent, “Bollaert is thought to have posted 10,000 explicit images between December 2012 and September 2013 submitted by ex-partners to embarrass victims for revenge.” He then extorted victims, charging them “up to $350 (£234)” to have the photos removed, ultimately “making around $30,000 (£24,000)” in profit.

Cyber exploitation is illegal in 17 U.S. states, Israel, and Germany, and has been deemed a criminal offense in the UK as of this year. Successes in criminalizing non-consensual pornography are landmark developments in media ethics and the history of the internet. But there remain critical questions and obstacles to address, including a lack of consistent legislation and our anarchic approach to internet use.

In a February interview with The Telegraph, former Conservative cabinet minister Maria Miller said, “We still have a great deal to do to ensure that people are aware of the fact that their behaviour online is subject to the law of the land.” Although crucially true, this highlights a problem. According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, offenders “are, in essence, protected by the lack of laws in place.” The inconsistency or total absence of laws against the distribution of non-consensual pornography disables many efforts made to prosecute it. The process toward effective prevention of internet crime must, therefore, begin with policy.

Cyber exploitation within the United States falls under several titles ranging from invasion of privacy, to dissemination of private images, voyeurism, harassment or disorderly conduct, and is often only considered criminal when combined with extortion. This inconsistency creates loopholes and new legislation is often severely delayed, both in the U.S. and internationally, by disagreement regarding the role of government in responding to internet crime. This leaves victims vulnerable to continued abuse and ultimately represents a deeper flaw in our approach to the internet.

The lack of direction in responses to internet crime can be traced to our lack of understanding of the internet as a medium. Far too many users treat the internet like an ethical wasteland where standards for acceptable behavior do not apply and consequences are non-existent. This is perpetuated by the practical and legal difficulties of regulating internet behavior and the perception of the internet as a new and hopelessly complex medium.

User privacy and the freedom of expression must both be protected, but there is a perception that each comes at the cost of the other which is not relevant to cases involving non-consensual pornography. In cases like that of Kevin Bollard, invasion of the victim’s privacy is the offence and cannot conceivably be considered free speech. Several high-profile hacking scandals in recent years have forced us to redefine our understanding of media ethics and recognize the complexities of these issues in an online context.

In an interview with The New York Times, Reddit’s executive chairman, Alexis Ohanian, said that recent reforms to the site’s privacy policy banning non-consensual pornography represent an effort “…to think more deeply about the future of how Reddit will look in the years ahead.” This type of foresight is strikingly absent from the internet policies of many companies. Although controversial, it is a necessary step forward.

If crimes like cyber exploitation and the distribution of non-consensual pornography are to be prevented, policy must exist which recognizes them as crimes and presents consistent systems of punishment. However, our collective attitudes toward internet use must also be re-examined. Convictions like Bollaert’s will only continue to demonstrate the potential that internet use has to impact our lives.

[Image: Brian Turner, Flickr]

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