One of the strange things about the Internet in 2011 is that it merges the wild-west, free expression culture idealized by John Perry Barlow with the professional world, where public image is important.
Moot, founder of 4chan, expressed the importance of anonymity and a safe space to express “wrong” views, without causing harm to society. In contrast, Facebook has attempted to increasingly merge all other websites with Facebook in order to create an online identity for each user. Furthermore, employers often look at a job applicant’s online identity as part of a background check. These websites present the opposite ends of how an individual can interact with others on the Internet and how the individual will be held accountable for those actions. There are many websites that have less anonymity than 4chan yet do not link to an individual’s real name. While these Internet cultures seem to be opposing, the users on websites are not separate. Many Facebook users also use 4chan and there are many sites with similar as these iconic websites. These worlds are not in intense conflict with one another and users often change their behavior based on the website they are on. However, when these cultural norms are broken, and people deviate from the accepted behavior on a given website, the law is often invoked by an individual who feels that his/her rights have been violated.
Most of the anonymity/privacy issues everybody’s talking about boil down to a conflict between the culture of free expression and the professional world. The things we say online and the things people say about us online can both tarnish our reputations in meat-space. As such, this affects anybody who uses the Internet.
However, I think the notion that the Internet is suddenly becoming “srs business,” that real-world laws are increasingly enforceable on the Internet, is highly sensationalized. We are told “Lawsuits against Web Trolls are on the rise,” but what does this mean?
Each individual has a different relationship with the law. Most people (with the exception of legal professionals) rarely come in direct contact with the law, and when they do, it means something is deeply wrong. Individuals interact with the law on a daily basis, but their interactions are based on their conception of the law, not the actual written law. A person’s legal consciousness is based on their conception of what the law can do for them and when it is applicable. This varies immensely amongst individuals. When someone experiences hateful comments on the Internet, the law may be the last thing that comes to their mind. But there are some people who view the law differently — as a tool for control, a way to squeeze personal benefit out of any situation.
These are the people that sue YouTube commenters. Therefore, these widely publicized cases don’t necessarily reflect anything about the Internet itself changing. The cases do set a precedent for future cases but they do not mean that everybody on the Internet is going to start lawsuits. Many people do not have the financial means, time, desire or investment to sue. All that this means is that certain types of people have discovered new opportunities to exercise their power. This is especially true in the case of CyberSLAPPs.
Efforts to “civilize the Internet” through litigation seem impotent for another reason — anonymous comments online carry little weight. If a newspaper ran articles containing the kind of defamatory language blogs and forums habitually use, the potential damage to the victim’s reputation would be much higher. People trust newspapers more. As result, the chaotic nature of the Internet is to an extent self-contained: if spewing violent and hateful speech is the norm in an Internet community, defamatory comments made in that community have little power to damage one’s real reputation.
Therefore, it seems that these cases have perhaps over-sensationalized an interesting phenomenon, which does indicate a change occurring: the Internet is the process of becoming more regulated. However, the extent to which regulation will be successful both in regards to privacy and anonymity as well as issues of piracy among other things is unclear.