Heart of Darkness, by L. Liwag
“I read the news today, oh boy” ~ From “A Day In the Life” by Lennon and McCartney
“And though the news was rather sad”
About a week ago, I read an article in newsweek.com that really bothered me. I keep going back to how I would feel if I were in this family’s position, how I would react, how I would be able to withstand the horrible infamy that has befallen their family.
The gist of the article was that a family had lost their 18-year-old daughter Nikki Catsouris to a horrible car crash, one so bad that the parents were not allowed to view the body. A couple of state troopers took pictures of the scene—the reasons given for such a disrespectful action have included supposedly documenting the crash and wanting to use the photos as a warning to their families—and now those pictures have gone viral on the web (http://www.newsweek.com/id/195073/page/1).
The article, entitled “A Tragedy That Won’t Fade Away,” was written by Jessica Bennett and appeared in the May 4 issue of the news magazine. In it, the Catsouris family speaks about how horrifying this entire ordeal has been for them, and apparently, there is little that can be done to make the pictures go away.
“I saw the photograph.”
But the posting of the pictures wasn’t the only indignity that the family had to endure. The father received a text message after the accident, and when he opened it, there was a horrifying picture of his daughter along with the words “Woohoo Daddy! Hey daddy, I’m still alive.”
Nikki’s three sisters live in dread of happening upon the pictures by accident when they are on the Internet, so much so, that their mother and father, Lesli and Christos, have made disabled popups and have forbidden the three girls from visiting social networking sites such as MySpace.
The entire family is now in therapy, and they continue to fight whoever they can to have the pictures removed from websites. But as you can probably surmise, this is not a fight that can be won easily.
“He didn’t notice that the lights had changed”
Let’s think about this for a minute. Cyberspace has allowed people all over the world to connect in milliseconds. We can e-mail people around the world; we can post blogs that can be read by anyone unless we engage special filters; we type in any word, and a listing of possible connections becomes readily available to us.
But what are the ramifications of such actions? The Catsouris family certainly never wanted the pictures of their daughter to be seen by anyone. They have sued the Caliornia Highway Patrol (CHP), but that action will not stop the spread of these photographs. They have sent cease and desist orders to the sites on which Nikki’s pictures appear, but on the Internet, that action is akin to spitting into the wind.
When I was in my copyright class, we learned all about copyright laws on the Internet and the use of cease and desist orders. The reality is that copyright is more protected than online privacy. Libel and slander laws are hard to prosecute for web-based material. Why?
Quite simply, the laws have not caught up with the technology.
“A crowd of people stood and stared”
Imagine that you have a teen-aged daughter. She takes some suggestive pictures of herself for her boyfriend. She sends these pictures to her boyfriend with a complete expectation that the pictures won’t be shared. (Ah, the naivete of youth.) Two months later, she breaks up with her boyfriend. Within a week, the pictures of her have gone viral.
The scenario as described is not at all far-fetched. It happens everyday, all over the world. People send things via e-mail with certain expectations of privacy. But in fact, this privacy does not exist. E-mail accounts can be hacked into. Databases are being breached continually. Just last week, we learned that the pharmacy database of Virginia was being held for ransom. The hijacker claimed that he had all of the personal information of thousands and thousands of people who use prescription medication, and he was going to sell it if a ransom was not paid.
I’m on that database. All of my personal information is on that database with the exception perhaps of my social security number. Imagine what the distribution of this information could do to individuals. For example, let’s say that someone on the list is taking medication for HIV. The hijacker, whoever he or she is, can disseminate that information and ruin a career in a matter of seconds.
Almost daily, I post information on this site about my family, our living situation, my children, my house, etcetera. I am careful not to post too much information, but I know that at times I have probably been lax. Will this come back to haunt me someday? How? Will I be able to prevent it?
“They’d seen his face before”
The Catsouris family has endured one of the most painful things that a family can endure: the death of a child under horribly gruesome circumstances. Yet they have not been left alone to grieve. Just as they were beginning to deal with the inconceivable truth that their oldest daughter was dead, pictures began to pop up in e-mails. A fake MySpace was created on which people left vitriolic, hateful messages.
Attempts by the family to have the pictures taken down have not succeeded. Their suit against the CHP was dismissed. According to Bennett’s article, a superior-court judge ruled that the CHP dispatcher’s conduct hadn’t violated the law. The judge acknowledged the reprehensible conduct, but the ruling reads that “no duty exists between the surviving family and defendant” because privacy rights don’t extend to the dead.
But what about the living?
“A crowd of people turned away”
However, this is just one case. Last November, a Missouri woman was convicted of three lesser charges in a cyber-bullying case. She faced felony charges on criminal conspiracy, but was only convicted of three lesser misdemeanor offenses of accessing computers without permission. Again, finding the laws to support charges against the woman was the main reason for her lesser conviction.
The woman, Lori Drew, and her daughter and a third woman engaged in cyber-bullying on a horrible scale. They created a fake MySpace account under the name Josh Evans, a supposedly 16-year-old boy. They began correspondence with 13-year-old Megan Meier in an attempt to lead her on and find out what she had been saying about Drew’s daughter. Finally, Drew sent Meier a message stating that “the world would be better off without” her. As a result, Meier, who suffered from depression, hanged herself.
The indictment originally read that Drew “used the information obtained over the MySpace computer system to torment, harass, humiliate, and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member.” Nevertheless, Drew managed to elude prosecution for her role in Meier’s suicide. But there’s more: Megan’s death was originally investigated by Missouri authorities, but no charges were brought because no laws seemed to apply to the case.
Since Megan’s suicide, Missouri has passed a law making it illegal to harass someone online.
“But I just had to look”
In both cases, the incident began as one action that quickly snowballed out of control. But what role do we—as members of cyber-space—actually play in these situations?
Unfortunately, there is plenty of blame to go around. People still search the web for Nikki’s pictures. These individuals actively seek out gruesome photographs of this young woman without any thought as to how their actions might be affecting her family. I think of it as the accident slowdown drive-by, except that it’s on the web.
There are more cases of fictitious MySpace accounts that are out there, even though every member of MySpace signs a “terms of service” agreement that includes “not promoting information they know to be false or misleading; soliciting personal information from anyone under age 18 and not using information gathered from the Web site to ‘harass, abuse or harm other people.'”
“And though the holes were rather small”
Yet reputation-bashing is a commonplace activity in high schools throughout the country. All it takes is one text message or one instant message or one comment on a MySpace page for rumors to become viral. And this isn’t the harmless game we played as children in which we would whisper something about a person in one ear, and then that person would whisper his interpretation in the next ear, and so on, so that the original phrase of “Billy likes Tammy” becomes something mangled to “Meanie bites too hammy.”
There are real consequences to these actions: suicide, depression, alienation, an unwillingness to leave the house, fist fights, and more. But the law that stands behind these actions is the First Amendment, which allows people free speech, including opinions. And there’s the rub: saying “I think that Tammy is a slut” is not that same thing legally as saying “Tammy is a slut.” The first statement is protected as an opinion, the second could be considered defamation.
“They had to count them all”
However, in the U.S., the following are commonly-accepted legal elements for intentional torts (wrongdoing):
“I read the news today, oh boy”
In the end, what we are left with is a tool that is truly wonderful in many, many ways: The Internet provides access to the outside world for people who are home bound. It provides instant medical information for people who are trying to decide whether or not they should seek medical treatment. It offers news from around the world 24/7. It offers a real-time connection to those with with whom we wish to stay in contact.
But the very dark side of this phenomenon, this service, this lifeline, exists in a world that most people do not like to acknowledge: The Internet contains sites that show people being killed, sites that include horrific scenes of torture and mayhem. And for now, it offers people with little conscience a means of extracting their pound of flesh from innocents, whether intentional or not.
“Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”
And that, my friends, is a street full of holes that we cannot possibly fill before more irreparable harm is done to those who do not have the power or the will not to fall or be pushed.
Let us hope that the skies clear soon. There will be more later. Peace.