You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Internet Police: Ethical Imperative or Utopian Ieal?

14 01 2009

With each passing day, the internet bears witness to countless malicious activities which stand in direct contradiction to the most intrinsic of moral standards. Such heinous abuses of the global possibilities afforded by the internet invariably leave most wondering the same question: what can we do to stunt such amoral cyberspace activity?

There exist a plethora of difficulties which have hitherto precluded the establishment of adequate internet laws. Firstly, most malicious internet activity does not entail any physical harm, but is instead of a more intangible nature, often consisting of the crimes of slander and libel. Apart from the inherent difficulties in winning slander and libel cases in the U.S., the internet now has to face yet another challenge to investigating such malevolent verbal abuse: online anonymity. The increasing efficacy with which internet users can successfully mask their identities makes it extremely arduous to even discover who has verbally maligned you, let alone prosecute him or her. Although there do indeed exist a multitude of positive laws addressing internet activity, the widespread abuses which transpire over the internet daily clearly manifest the inadequacy of present legalism.

There have been many methods proposed to aid in the online policing of the internet. Some have argued that a relatively efficient method through which the internet can drastically reduce internet crime is to establish a specific type of self-reporting service which has already been instituted in a number of websites. Under this initiative, those internet users who have been wronged will be able to utilize a certain interface to report such transgressions. Not only is this methodology far from practical due to the inevitably prodigious expenditures it would necessitate in terms of manpower and resources, but this system would probably create more problems than it would rectify. By allowing any internet user to file a complaint against another internet user, wrongful accusations would inevitably come to dominate the internet. Abuses of the system would arise due to real-world conflicts which would in turn prompt users to falsely accuse their peers as just one more method of retribution. As a result, such a self-reporting service is far too imprudent and susceptible to misuse to ever become practical enough to warrant large-scale implementation.

The ideal situation would be to establish an effective means of policing the internet via a single entity which patrols all of cyberspace. The seemingly incomprehensible breadth of the internet, however, makes it virtually impossible to establish one omniscient body to preside over the internet. As a result, the only course of action which is both fiscally feasible and somewhat successful in stunting internet transgressions is the current course of action. Although modern laws should be more frequently updated so as to keep pace with the rapidly changing nature of the internet, the only realistic method of cyberspace policing is to establish positive laws. The only addition I would make to the present legislation in order to increase the efficacy of such regulation is to bolster the severity of punishments which are issued for the violation of internet regulations.

Given the inability of courts to establish entities to constantly purvey the internet, present legislation must act as a deterrent. As we can see via the heinous actions which are committed daily via the internet, such as the actions undertaken by Lori Drew as referenced in an earlier post, current laws do not serve as adequate deterrents. People are not fearful of violating internet protocols and, as a result, often make the conscious decision to violate existent internet legislation. Thus, the best means through which the overall effectiveness of such deterrent laws can be increased is to increase the punishments associated with such transgressions. Through exponentially increasing the fines or punishments doled out to violaters of internet laws, other internet users who are contemplating violating the law will be further dissuaded from doing so after having seen their peers prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I am certainly not purporting that we should use the misdeeds of a few to “set an example” for the rest of the internet world. Rather I am merely contending that through enhancing the punishments of current internet violators, the number of users who commit the same crime in the future will indubitably drop.

For example, the average settlement for an internet user who has illegally pirated music is between two and three thousand dollars. Although this may seem like an aberrantly large sum of money to be paid for the mere downloading of a few songs, this is actually a very small price to pay for an illegal activity. On the contrary, anyone who has ever watched a movie on video or DVD can recall the vibrant blue screen which precedes the previews. This federal disclaimer asserts that “Criminal copyright infringement including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.” Now I am certainly not advocating that the middle-school girl who downloads her favorite Britney Spears song should be indicted or fined $250,000; however, there is no doubt that the movie industry has not fallen victim to piracy to the same devastating extent that the music industry has. Given the ease with which one can replicate both movies and music today, it seems logical to assert that this fundamental discrepancy between the number of songs pirated and the number of movies pirated lies in the inherent risk associated with each illicit activity.

Will increased penalties for violations of internet laws eliminate all illicit cyberspace behavior? Absolutely not. Nevertheless, such increases in the ramifications of illegal activity will invariably prompt many users to reevaluate their actions before acting and in doing so, reduce the amount of illegal activity plaguing the internet. Although this methodology is far from perfect, given the seemingly infinite expanse which the internet encompasses, it is currently the best available method.

Online Gambling: Feast or Famine?

4 01 2009

Casinos and gambling facilities have long been a point of contention in American history. Having always walked the fine line between enjoyable pastime and immoral activity, gambling remains a pressing issue in American society with its legality seemingly being altered daily. Furthermore, in keeping pace with most other tangible pastimes of making the transition into the world of cyberspace, online gambling has recently taken the internet by storm. As online casinos yield unheralded profits, opponents of gambling are desperately seeking to ensure that the law keeps pace with the ever-changing nature of gambling.

As per the Federal Wire Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1084 (1994), it is currently illicit to engage in certain types of gambling via the internet. It is illegal for an internet website providing gambling services to be tangibly located in the United States. Subsequently, many mainstream gambling websites have relocated to nations which have legalized online gambling, most notably islands in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, millions of Americans continue to engage in the illicit act of online gambling. This is due to the fact that it is increasingly difficult to monitor online gambling sites to preclude internet users from engaging in such cyberspace activity.

Many opponents of online gambling have asserted that the perils of gambling in general are exacerbated by the efficiency and immediateness of the internet. They have advocated against online gambling due to the fact that one can instantaneously squander large sums of money with relative ease. Although it is certainly true that online gambling makes it easy for one to rapidly lose prodigious quantities of money, this is true for a multitude of online activities which are perfectly legal. Take the stock market for example. There now exit a plethora of websites which afford users the opportunity to buy, trade, and sell stocks and bonds online. Given the ease with which stock values can fluctuate rapidly, as has certainly been the case recently, one can very easily invest his or her assets into what seems like a relatively secure portfolio only to lose a bulk of their value in a brief period of time. Although online stock trades present the same potential hazards as online gambling, very few moral champions have risen to the forefront of outlawing online fiscal trades.

The legality, or lack thereof, of online gambling holds far-reaching implications. Firstly, many view the outlawing of gambling in general as governmental interference in the fundamental rights and liberties of all people. Similarly, many have argued that it is unjust for citizens living in states which have legalized gambling to be precluded form carrying out the same legal activity over the internet. Such governmental regulations have been denounced as infringements of states’ rights by the federal government.

If the government wants to eliminate gambling as an easily accessible means through which people can rapidly squander money, then it must do so for all similar activities. The purchase of lottery tickets online or the transacting of stocks, all holding the same immediate and financial ramifications as online gambling, must also be denounced as potentially devastating activities. Such far-reaching decisions based primarily on moral and ethical standards require uniformity across all aspects of life. If the current legal system wants to eliminate the potentially evil and disastrous ramifications of online gambling, it must first turn its legalistic focus towards the root evil of online gambling and other similar cyberspace activities: the ease and efficiency with which money can instantly be won or lost on the internet.

United States of America v. Lori Drew

2 01 2009

The internet has given rise to countless innovations which have forever altered societal behavior. Perhaps no modern technological development has had as prodigious of an effect on everyday behavior as that of the many social networking sites which have come to permeate the lives of adolescents and adults alike. Such websites have been adopted by almost all students in the United States ranging from middle school through college. Many adolescents now spend far more time per day purveying websites such as MySpace and Facebook than they do exercising or studying. As a result, many youths are deeply affected by the everyday occurrences which transpire on their social networking sites. As a result, the actions which one takes on the internet often entail substantial implications for the lives of those around him or her. There is perhaps no greater manifestation of this fact than in the life and death of Megan Meier.

Megan Meier was a fifteen year old girl with documented psychiatric problems when she was confronted with the incomprehensible actions of a local mother. Megan Meier attended school with the daughter of Lori Drew and had even lived on the same street as the Drew family. In a purported attempt to find out what Megan Meier truly thought about her daughter, Lori Drew created a fake account using the social networking site in September of 2006. Lori Drew falsely created the MySpace account under the name of Josh Evans. Drew went on to construct a full account using entirely false information including photographs taken by another boy without his consent. On the Josh Evans MySpace page, Drew posted a plethora of fabricated information about Josh’s background including that he was a sixteen-year-old boy living in the same Missouri town as Megan Meier. The Josh Evans account was maintained by Lori Drew and her employee Ashley Grills. Under the façade of Josh Evans, Drew and Grills befriended Meier and gained her confidence by pretending to be quite interested in her. Meier often exchanged intimate messages with the Josh Evans account, clearly manifesting her strong emotional attachment to the fictitious persona of Evans. Suddenly, Drew and Gills began sending malicious messages to Meier stating that they had heard terrible rumors about her. In fact, Drew and Gills went as far as to say, “the world would be a better place without you.” Shortly thereafter, on October 16, 2006, Megan Meier committed suicide.

In February of 2008, Lori Drew was indicted by a U.S. District Attorney in California on four counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. She was recently convicted of three of these counts for having violated the terms of service contract with and for having accessed the MySpace servers without authorization. The jury did rule, however, that Drew was guilty of only misdemeanor crimes and not felonies. Nevertheless, the jury established that it is a federal crime to violate a website’s Terms of Service. This hotly-debated ruling, which finds itself at the forefront of the cyber-bullying dilemma, will entail significant ramifications which will invariably extend far beyond the scope of this trial.

Terms of Service are found on almost all websites, yet more often than not, people choose not to acknowledge them or merely fulfill the necessary steps by clicking through a series of screens containing the terms of service. These terms are often quite lengthy and contain both vital and trivial stipulations. It is for this reason that almost all internet users have at one point in their lives, either unknowingly or consciously, violated a website’s Terms of Service. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the aforementioned ruling in United States v. Lori Drew which makes it a federal crime to violate a website’s Terms of Service.

As much as many websites’ Terms of Service include clauses necessary to ensure the safety and success of their users, there exist many Terms of Service which are so restricting that they would preclude many internet users from carrying out routine and necessary activities. For example, Google prohibits any one who is not of legal age to enter into a contract, usually 18, from using its services. Should a middle-school student be precluded from researching the Civil War for his history class because the Google Terms of Service say that such activity is not allowed? Absolutely not. Even though almost everyone would agree that restricting users under the age of 18 from using Google would be severely detrimental and completely without reason, if the ruling in the Lori Drew case stands, then it will indeed be a federal offense for all users under 18 to employ Google. Furthermore, the Terms of Service which Lori Drew was convicted of breaking are also overly limiting. For example, the Terms of Service assert that one is responsible for the information posted on the MySpace server and must ensure that such information is accurate. Hypothetically speaking then it would be illegal for one to fail to change his or her MySpace page after one ended a relationship or changed schools given that such information had previously been posted. It is because of these inherently limiting stipulations in almost all websites’ Terms of Service that the ruling in the Lori Drew case is so paramount to the future of internet activity.

The actions of Lori Drew and her accomplices is reprehensible. Such action is entirely unethical and stands in direct contradiction to the very “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that our laws are aimed at protecting. As a result, action must be taken to ensure that such heinous crimes do not come to fruition in the future. This can only be accomplished, however, by amending our presently inadequate laws to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of the internet. One cannot rectify the problem of cyber bullying by erroneously employing laws which have been taken out of context. The tragic events which befell Megan Meier have manifested the inherent flaws in the current laws which are used to police the internet. Nevertheless, the laws which presently exist, as intrinsically inadequate as they may be, are the laws by which we are all expected to abide. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was enacted to stunt the growing threat of hackers, not to regulate terms of service. The fundamental principles of jurisprudence cannot be subverted by our desire to manipulate laws, however merited such maneuvering of the law may be.

Many will argue that employing the CFAA in this instance does not establish an overly dangerous precedent because even though it holds that the millions of terms of service violations that occur daily are federal crimes, district attorneys will not bring such violations to court. As true as this may be, it is still not valid to rule out the potential implications of such a slippery-slope precedent based on the assumed actions of future district attorneys. Given the American legal system which closely adheres to the principle of stare decisis in standing by former precedents, establishing a precedent with as much of a chilling effect on the internet as that established by the Lori Drew ruling holds far too dangerous implications.

The ultimate goal of the legal system is justice. In order for justice to be served in this instance, there is no question that Lori Drew and her accomplices must be punished accordingly for their actions. Carrying out such a malicious and deviant course of action, on a depressed fifteen-year old no less, merits the most severe of punishments within the scope of the law. Lori Drew should not, however, be technically punished for a crime which millions of internet users commit daily in breaking terms of service. Apart from opening up a potential Pandora’s Box of legal complications with the slippery-slope precedent established by punishing terms of service violations, the act of convicting Lori Drew as charged is truly a subversion of jurisprudence; a disregard for punitive justice as established. Lori Drew must be punished. Not only children, but all internet users alike must be protected from cyberspace monsters such as Drew and must be afforded some degree of recourse should they be electronically maligned. Nevertheless, the methods of bringing about such necessary reforms in the law are not well suited by the current course of action. As hard as it is to stomach the idea of acquitting a person such as Lori Drew, there is no doubt that in order to maintain the fundamental judicial underpinnings of the United States legal system, there is no other alternative. Some form of retributive legal action must be taken against Lori Drew; unfortunately, this is not it.

Google Book Search: A Literary Revolution?

1 01 2009

Always eager to enhance its cyberspace hegemony, in 2004 the internet Goliath known as Google, Inc. announced its intention to expand its seemingly ubiquitous internet presence into the realm of printed literature. Google resolved to create a fully searchable, digital collection of the literary works it was to be provided by a number of so-called partner libraries which decided to share their collections with Google. The initial contingent of partner libraries included the University of Michigan Library, the New York Public Library, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, the Stanford University Library, and the Harvard University Library.

Google Book Search essentially operates much in the same manner as the present Google search engine does. When one enters a term into the search engine, Google populates a list of relevant search results which are ranked and indexed using specified relevance algorithms. Upon clicking on a search result, one will be directed to a new webpage which can take one of four forms. A webpage will produce a “full view” if the book one is looking for is currently out of copyright or if the publisher of the book asks for the “full view” to be displayed. In this instance, the entire book can be viewed online. Furthermore, if the book is in the public domain, internet users will have access to a PDF version of the book. If the book is still in copyright but the author or publisher gives Google permission, Google will produce a “limited preview” of the book which will allow users to view a limited number of pages from the book. Without permission from the author or publisher of a work, Google will generate either a “snippet view,” which will allow for one to view the sentences surrounding the search term, or the “no preview available view” which only allows one to view the basic bibliographical information about the book.

In recent years Google has come under fire by authors and publishers alike for its Book Search project. Countless parties have claimed that electronically scanning and publishing literary works to which Google does not hold the copyrights constitutes a prima facie infringement of Copyright laws. Furthermore, Google’s new and unprecedented “opt-out” rule has only amplified the outcry of publishers and authors. Instead of expressly seeking permission from copyright holders to scan and digitize their works, Google has instead instituted a policy which allows it to scan all literary works except for those whose copyright holders have consciously acted to preclude Google from doing so.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution affords Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Copyright laws were adopted as an incentive aimed at promoting creativity and ingenuity by allowing authors of original works to realize the full fiscal value of their creations. There is no doubt that such laws are necessary to make the creation of original works financially profitable enough to induce development. Although many authors and publishers have argued that the Google Book Search might hurt their revenue or preclude them from marketing their products on other databases which pay for the rights to list their works, it is actually more likely that copyright holders will indeed profit from Google’s Book Search. Although internet users can view varying amounts of information concerning each work that they search, they cannot access the full work unless it is out of copyright or the copyright holders desire that the full contents be displayed online. As a result, billions of internet users will be exposed to literary works they never would have even known about had it not been for Google Book Search. Furthermore, in an effort to bolster book sales, Google has afforded publishers and authors the option of adding a dedicated link to their Google Book Search page which will take internet users directly from the database book to an online bookstore where they can purchase that book. If publishers and authors choose to employ this marketing technique, they will no longer have to target certain demographics via the internet based on relevancy and profitability. Publishers will now be able to bring knowledge of their products to every inch of the world, an invaluable marketing strategy which is entirely free. In order to further ensure that its project does not financially harm publishers and authors, Google has recently reached a settlement with literary publishers whereby it will create a separate fund aimed specifically at financially assisting the publishers and authors.

In its attempt to make millions of literary works publicly accessibly to all internet users, Google is undoubtedly “promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Google’s Book Search will allow for the more than seven billion people in the world to access literary works which were previously restricted to a relatively small number of people. Google’s database of literary works includes countless books which are either so rare or valuable that the average person would have no means of procuring them. By essentially relocating all literary works to the internet, a seventh grade student looking to investigate the origins of his or her hometown now has at least some degree of access to the same tools employed by esteemed archeologists. Such newfound access to previously inaccessible materials will undoubtedly promote the same growth of scientific and artistic ingenuity which Copyright laws purport to promote. Underprivileged internet users who do not even have the means to visit their public library will be granted access to a card catalog of unheralded proportions.

The Google Book Search does not only aid the inquisitive seventh-grader surveying the internet on his father’s laptop. Private institutions and public libraries will benefit immensely if Google proceeds as planned. Major institutions, such as universities and corporations, would now be able to purchase institutional subscriptions to the Google Book Search service for their students or employees. These subscriptions would allow users to access the full text of in copyright, out of print books simply by browsing the Google Server. The arduous and time-consuming task of surveying databases and downloading painstakingly large files would be supplanted by a mere Google search. Public Libraries would also profit inasmuch as Google has resolved to provide public libraries with limited access to in-copyright, out-of-print books for free, assuming that the library agreed to embrace a few specified stipulations mandated by Google.

Many opponents of the Google Book Search have sited the additional revenue which Google will invariably yield as evidence of its copyright infringement. This argument arises in response to the fact that one of the four factors which must be assessed to determine if work is a fair use of a copyright is whether or not that work will be used for commercial or nonprofit reasons. In this instance, Google’s Book Search holds both commercial and nonprofit implications. The increased volume its search engine will receive will certainly bolster ad revenues. At the same time, however, Google will be aiding public libraries and nonprofit institutions with free subscriptions to its vast databases. Copyright laws aside, the profitability of Google’s product in no way mitigates its benefit to society. Regardless of whether the Book Search server were administered by an altruistic philanthropist or a publicly traded company such as Google which is legally bound to maximize its shareholders’ profits, the opportunities which this database affords to people the world over remain invaluable.

Modern society views the internet first and foremost as a tool; a means to an end. For all internet users seeking to obtain information ranging from middle school students to doctoral candidates, Google Book Search will provide the tools necessary to accomplish their goals. Time-saving, cost-effective, and increasingly efficient, this searchable compilation of literary works does not discriminate amongst its users based on position, wealth, or age. Instead, it offers equal opportunities to all and in doing so, epitomizes the overarching rationale behind current copyright laws which is to promote ingenuity and competition. Just as Google has over the past few years found itself at the forefront of search engines, image databases, and email, Google now finds itself inextricably positioned at the intersection of literature and the internet. Google Book Search represents the expediency and efficiency which we have all come to expect and demand of the internet. As a society which purports to embrace technological innovation as a means of aiding all human beings the world over, we have no choice but to accept Google Book Search as a necessary and inevitable step in the development of intellectual interconnectivity.