The UK has recently seen its first prison sentence handed out for cyber-bullying, as an 18 year old girl was sentenced to three months in a young offenders’ institution. The sentence follows death threats that were made in a status update, the defendant – Keeley Houghton – has also been given a restraining order; which includes banning her from even mentioning the victims name on any social networking site.
Although the first jail term handed out in the UK for cyber-bullying on a social network site, there have been numerous cases involving online threats and harassment (including the recent four year jail term given to Alexander Reeve for his abuse of two ITV presenters) that have resulted in legal action.
It brings up an important ethical issue, which is the need for us to understand the boundaries of identity that are created online and how they are changing. Abuse and outrageous behaviour on the internet are not a new occurrence, and anybody who has spent any amount of time on online forums will have been on the receiving end of some particularly nasty flaming at some point.
However, what we are starting to see now is a real shift towards an open and honest online identity. Now, with the very recent social media boom, we are seeing people embrace their online personas and in many ways make them indistinguishable from their day-to-day identity. Indeed, for many of us our day-to-day identity is changed and influenced quite dramatically by our online presence.
With this shift towards a ‘real identity’ online culture the boundaries for abuse and harassment need to be the same as they are in ‘real’ life. Our online identity is now for many of us synonymous with our offline identity. Whilst this shift is self-evident to most, what hasn’t changed is our acceptance and participation in online humiliation and questionable behaviour that we would not consider were it in an offline context.
There are many examples of this, from the mundane to the despicable (check out Encyclopedia Dramatica – NSFW! – if you want to test just where your ethical boundaries lie in this matter) – but the fact is that we can no longer hide behind the ‘anonymous internet is harmless fun’ excuse, particularly in these online arenas that promote honest and open identity. We need to be aware of the social repercussions of our online activities.
In an offline context, there are very few of us who would consider starting up a physical newsletter devoted to slating a particular individual. Imagine for a moment just how much spiteful effort would have to be put into such a project. Now consider the fact that there are dozens of groups created online every day that do exactly this. It is worrying that when the ability to humiliate and insult individuals becomes as easy as a few keystrokes there are many of us who would participate in such behaviour. Do we even consider the offline implications for any possible victims?
This issue is taken even further when we consider the recent case in which Google, Inc. was forced to reveal the identity of one of its bloggers who was responsible for the ‘Skanks of NYC’ blog. It is becoming clear that as a society we will not tolerate targeted online attempts at humiliation for much longer. The unfortunate aspect of this is that in some instances this may impinge on our right to freedom of speech – whether constitutional or implied.
Having said this, there are obviously boundaries that can be crossed when using speech online or off; which is why we have laws surrounding such behaviour. It is important that we apply those boundaries to the online realm as stringently as we do offline – because the two worlds are no longer separated by a different sense of identity, but have now become a single arena of human expression. Where the offline world ends and the online begins is now almost impossible to define, and our behaviour must adapt accordingly.