Thursday, November 01, 2012

‘Cyber Sinai’? Does our world need of a code of ‘cyberethics’?

In the wake of the gut-wrenching episode orbiting around the death of Amanda Todd, there is much leftover in the proverbial pot to stew in our minds. For one thing, what about regulation in the cyber sphere? The conflicts that used to be confined to after-school hours have moved to a whole new dimension – playground bullying has escalated to the point where the battleground is literally everywhere in range; the jungle gym has become a fully-fledged and merciless (proverbial) jungle.

“It’s not that bad,” you might respond. I would say for many it is. Yes, those pockets of safety exist in and out of schools and that is to be praised. But I would not want to imply that technology is solely to blame for rises in rates of suicide among teens (that would be much to simplistic). But I do think it is a good time to discuss the plausibility and nature of what can be done to harness the cyber world’s power for good instead of harm. Social theorists and philosophers at the turn of the century were already wary of the effects that the surge of power brought on by the Enlightenment would have in the age to come. And they made predications that are now coming true. So while yes, there has been an explosive amount of work done related to this issue, I suggest modern phenomena have resulted that these theorists were not able to predict. The responsibility remains ours to think through the pervasive effects of technology on individuals and society at large.

Perhaps because it is still such a relatively new object of research, findings have yet to be confirmed by long-term studies. This status of being “still-in-the-works” means that important information has yet to be dispersed to the wider public and in the meantime, we have the obligation to think through these issues ourselves. I certainly have tried in my own personal life to establish a healthy relationship to the Internet (I’ve had quite the love-hate relationship with Facebook, “breaking-up” with it one too many times only to come crawling back months later).

A friend of mine who games online once commented on the sickening amount of harassment that coexists alongside other contrastingly positive effects of online community. Much of the harassment is misogynistic. It is much more difficult for anyone to hold the offender accountable for the words that they can so effortlessly spew onscreen. In a comfortable alienation from their words and “online actions,” the offender is protected by the medium of technology separating them from their peers and own productivity. Fundamentally, human rights don’t change online; and yet, they become easier to violate as the humanity of the other person diminishes onscreen.

What can we do, if anything, to protect our whole selves, our children, and each other from ‘cybersins’, (for lack of a better word)?


  1. Unfortunately I don't think there are any effective ways of policing the internet, nor do I think it's necessary. It would be impossible to monitor the goings-on of the net and who would be in charge of drawing the line in the sand between free speech and a criminal act? People are already able to report harassment or illegal activities to their local officials.

    Instead, I think education is the key. People need to be educated on how to use the internet in a respectful manner, which should transfer over from their regular day-to-day lives. It is unfortunate that people become tough bullies with the mask of the internet in front of them. However, I don't think policing the net is the right way to go (or even possible).

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  3. It seems like two issues are at stake here. The first is the changing character of who ought to be on the lookout for bullying. Previously bullying could normally only occur away from home (usually at school) where students were amongst their peers. Now cellphones and the internet have made peer interaction possible anywhere, and parents need to be aware of what their children are doing and experiencing in that space. They are the only really really equipped to find out what is going on in their children's electronic lives. (I am not tying to blame Amanda Todd's family as I really know nothing about that case. Rather I'm speaking from my own experience as a teen, and from what I've heard from teachers and parents).

    As for criminal activity occurring online (I am also responding to "mogglesby" here) I don't think "drawing the line in the sand between free speech and a criminal act" is an issue that needs to be discussed here at all, as Canada has a number of very long standing speech laws already in place which go largely unenforced online (like defamation and incitement laws). Furthermore, there are many serious non-speech laws which are broken over the internet all the time (forms of fraud, for example). However, as mogglesby rightly notes, enforcing these laws on the internet is very difficult, not just because of the technical issues at stake, but also especially because the internet is an "international space," where jurisdiction becomes difficult to determine.

  4. First, I do think the majority of the responsibility should fall upon parents to monitor what they're children are doing online.

    Second, I'd disagree, Stefan, as the limiting of free speech online has been a major concern to many people. For example, see the protests over SOPA (US) and Bill C-30 (Canada). The major reason these bills failed, or are being rewritten, is because people feared they would infringe upon the people's free speech. For example, see this Harvard Professor of Constitutional Law's paper arguing that SOPA violated the First Amendment ( I could find many others far more knowledgeable than myself who argued SOPA was an infringement on free speech. And Bill C-30 saw similar backlash here in Canada.

    When you write that "I don't think drawing the line in the sand between free speech and a criminal act' is an issue that needs to be discussed here at all," I and many others would wholly disagree. And I'm not even touching on the privacy issues and improper use of government powers that would come with these types of bills.

    Lastly, monitoring and enforcing laws online is not only difficult to enforce because of the scope of the net, but because it can be difficult to prove it was that specific person doing the questionable act.

    You can also refer to me as Matt, if you like. It's probably easier. I just used that name because it's my Wordpress account. :)

  5. You guys have good points and raise a wider range of important issues (such as free speech/constitutional law and external law enforcement).

    What I'm actually wondering is not whom we can call upon to fix everything for us; my most pressing question is what our own responsibility can enact - for ourselves and for those of us who have children. Maybe I can phrase it like this: given the 'dangers' online, how can one conceive of a balance in terms of internet-use that allows us to reap the benefits of interactive technology while curbing the toll it can take on our lives/children's lives.

    For example, Matt sent me an article written by a female gamer not unfamiliar with online sexual harassment: In it she states, "I just want to play my game." Psychologically, being exposed to repeated harassment (of any kind) can greatly affect a person's psyche, subconsciously at the bare minimum.

    Is it worth it? Perhaps this could engage the Reformational philosopher's debate in regards to isolation vs engagement with 'culture'.

    1. Hi Sarah. It strikes me that the article you refer to about Xbox gaming is not a good example because of two things. First, the direct financial interests of both customers and corporation are involved. If I pay for a service only to have it poisoned for me by other customers, I will expect the service provider to control that. Or, if I pay for the service and am inclined to view my payment as a licence for me to express my aggression any way I want, I am likely to do exactly that.

      I think a better example is to be found in the "original social media" of Usenet. It is a completely anarchic no-holds-barred cyberspace where people with mental problems of all kinds can spew as they wish almost without restraint and with complete anonymity if they so wish. Anything short of hatching a terrorist plot is likely to be unnoticed by the authorities, and there is no central management. It has been largely but not completely abandoned by women, because even without sexual harrassment the ravings of young male idiots, and male social aggression in general, make it uninteresting to most women. Despite its out-of-control character, I cannot remember any reports of harrassment-induced suicides, though I do remember some very ugly and powerful emotional entanglements taking place.

      I would submit that the difference with Facebook (et al) is that it exploits a particular social vulnerability amongst the young, the desperate need have a large social life and to be "liked", combined with the inclusion of one's meatspace aquaintances, usually schoolmates, which adds the element of not being able to escape from those social relations anywhere. This makes it an amplifier of bullying, but the core problem in my examination so far is still bullying not something new introduced by the technology. We already have the legal framework to deal with bullying. We don't need anything new related to cyberspace to deal with that, except perhaps the will to pay attention to it.

      What I think is genuinely new is the experience of what McLuhan would have called a "hot medium" in a near-realtime social setting. The considerable mental effects of this kind of messaging are not something that we are going to mitigate by control efforts, but, I think, by experience alone. I would wager that with children now getting this experience at a very young age such experience will be commonplace within a generation, and we won't be seeing this kind of story in the media anymore.

  6. Thanks for your response, Daryl. Yes, you are right, paid-membership games and services do present us with concerns that are not within our capacity as internet users to control, and therefore it is not the choicest of examples. However, it does contribute by showing not only how complex the issue is, but also highlights my main question (which perhaps I have not stated clearly enough): what ought we to do (ourselves) for ourselves (and/or our children). Not, "how can we go out and reform the entire virtual lifeworld." As you said, "most women" have become uninterested because of the hostile space created by misogynist men in certain domains. What troubled me about the article Matt referred me to was primarily that the author had to remain 'silent'.

    Your insights into the Facebook (et al) state of affairs is right on, I'd say. And I'd agree - we need the will and the character to deny participation in slander and gossip (old-fashioned morals, but a new application - no pun intended). There is no top-down solution. But there is the need to reflect on this phenomenon, because 'online reality' is not our experience offline, entirely. Yes, within a generation there may be hardly a distinction, but as we transition, we have to remember and compel others to fight vivaciously against harmful acts that can spread like chlamydia online.

    McLuhan's term 'hot medium' I think expresses what I mean by this distance from self and others. Only time will tell what effects these tools will have (and whether or not those who practice self-control with online-time remain saner). Yes, a lot of what I say is conjecture, but just putting it in the think-tank!


    Interesting article today!