The Swiftness of Internet Justice

Philip Berne - Nov 9, 2010
The Swiftness of Internet Justice

In 1988, Michael Dukakis was asked a question at a debate that probably helped end his career. Moderator Bernard Shaw asked him if his wife were raped and murdered, would he favor the death penalty? You can see a video of the exchange on YouTube, but needless to say Dukakis’ answer is completely unsatisfying. He talks about how the death penalty is not a deterrent. He talks about Massachusetts and the drop in crime there. He never talks about his wife, even in the hypothetical. I’ve thought a lot about this question. I am not in favor of the death penalty, and this seems to be the sort of question that always pops up to challenge people who think like me. Here’s how I would have answered:

[Image credit Chris Martin]

“If someone raped and killed my wife, I would want them dead. I would want to kill them with my own bare hands. They deserve nothing less. But thankfully, our government tries to be better than any one individual. Our justice system tries to remain dispassionate. I’m thankful that our country would take the life and death decision out of my hands at that point, because that would be the lowest moment in my life, and our government needs to be better than one citizen at their lowest.”

That pretty much sums up my feelings about the justice system. I want our system to be better than the sum of its parts, and certainly better than any one individual. I want it to transcend a passionate, retaliatory response to criminal actions, because I don’t think retaliation makes society better, and that should be the ultimate goal of the justice system, to make our country a better place. If a man committed such a heinous crime against my wife, I would hunt him down and end his life. Then I would call the police, and after that, my lawyer.

There has been a lot of justice meted out on the Internet recently, especially over the last couple of weeks. It has ranged from the humorous to the alarming to the downright questionable.

Take the Cooks Source debacle, for instance. A magazine nobody had ever heard of set off a firestorm when it ripped off the writing of a food writer nobody had ever heard of. But that didn’t stop the Internet (and it does seem like the entire Internet has chimed in) from dealing a swift and painful blow to the serial plagiarists who run this tiny New England rag. You can, and should, read the entire story on Wired.

Did the Internet response go too far? I don’t think so. From what I’ve read, Cooks Source might be a repeat offender in this plagiarism game. The response from the editor was completely ignorant of Internet laws and customs. The editors have only made things worse in the subsequent days. The writer who was wronged is only demanding a thorough and public apology, and a token donation to a journalism school. But what about all the others Cooks Source might have ripped off? No, I think that if this is a serial problem from an unrepentant content thief, I have no sympathy for what befalls the magazine online. I don’t want to see anyone physically hurt, but a good thrashing on a Facebook wall is merited. Besides, this isn’t a criminal issue, it’s a tort issue.

What happens when it becomes a criminal issue? At a tech conference recently, a woman who works for one major Internet company claims that she was sexually harassed by an employee of another company. I’m not going to name names here, but her blog is public, and she offers explicit details about the alleged attack.

If something happened to her, this is certainly her right to expose her attacker publicly. There have been some disgusting comments left on her blog and elsewhere shaming her for all the usual reasons misogynists try to shame the victim of sexual assault. I’m not one of those, and I’d like to see her take this case to court. From her blog post, it seems she has been in touch with the police.

But what if it isn’t true? Or, what if it didn’t happen the way she said it did? I’m not trying cast doubt on her claims, but before the Internet and blogosphere tries to crucify her attacker, he should at least have his day in court. Then the crucifixion.

I was working at a retail store in a mall once when one employee, an older woman, smacked a younger employee, a college kid, on the butt. He was headed out of the stockroom onto the sales floor, and as a note of encouragement, she gave him a soft whack and said something silly, like: “Go get ’em, tiger!” He complained, she was fired.

This was in the days before the iPhone and most smartphones. But what if he had an app like Hollaback! Hollaback lets a victim report a sexual harassment as it’s happening! If you are walking through Central Park and someone flashes you, you open up the app on your phone, click on the “Flashing” button, and you have instantly reported the time, your location, and a few other details. You can take a picture while it’s happening and send it to Hollaback, who will presumably follow up with an email, and perhaps some legal assistance.

This could be a great tool. If a woman is harassed, it’s great that she can easily and instantly report what happened, especially if it leads to a criminal being caught. If this grows in popularity, the sight of an iPhone or a Droid might be enough deterrent to a would-be assailant, and that would be the best possible scenario.

But let’s say we had such a tool when I was working at the retail store? The young man snaps a picture and uploads his complaint to the Web. Other people can see and read about it, maybe even people who know the older woman. What if she received the same sort of backlash and uproar that Cooks Source generated?

Paul Carr writes an excellent piece on TechCrunch about this sort of incident. I did not realize that in Britain it’s not legal to talk about an alleged criminal’s guilt or innocence before they are tried. It certainly makes sense, though it would never fly in the U.S. because we are, for better and for worse, more enamored with the freedom of speech than we are with a universal sense of fairness. In the Bill of Rights, free speech comes first, but the rights of a person accused of a crime comes fourth, after speech, guns and the right to keep soldiers from living in your house.

I read through many comments on the Cooks Source Facebook page, and though I loathe plagiarists, I did not contribute. People rip off my writing all the time. Some of you may be reading this very story on a site that is not SlashGear, and my name, Philip Berne, might have been removed. Sometimes I go after the people who rip me off, calling them scum and other adjectives of putrification. It never does any good.

There is a difference between retribution and justice. I personally might go after someone who wronged me, and that’s retribution. But I don’t get a large section of society involved in my case. That’s what justice is for. Retribution represents us at our worst moment. It is when we stoop down to meet someone lower than us. Justice cannot be attained by one individual, it has to be earned by society working together to be better than one person is capable of being. I’m glad our country as a whole is sometimes better than me. I wish it always were.

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