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Friday, June 24, 2011



First, there was “Internet bullying.” Now, increasingly, we are facing "Internet mobbing." After the riots that followed the Vancouver Canucks defeat in the Stanley Cup hockey finals, a plethora of still pictures, home movies and cell phone snapshots posted on the Internet gave everyone the opportunity to be a detective. Who did it? Look, I know him! He's the water polo guy! And look over there, she's my office mate from work!

There is no denying that the rise of cell phone cameras, Tweets on Twitter and Facebook postings has given law enforcement new and invaluable tools for discovery and tabloid newspapers an unending source of material (just ask the disgraced Anthony Wiener), but you have to ask yourself, are we witnessing the return of a primitive, even barbaric, form of justice, one that provides plenty of satisfaction to those who enjoy watching public humiliations but which feels more like an electronic version of an Iranian town square stoning in the way that it skirts the principles of fairness and decency?

It's not that I think that looters should not be identified and punished, but we used to rely on the law enforcement agencies and courts to do that. Now, in an age of access, who wants to wait for all that deliberation? When Nathan Katylak, the Canadian Olympic water polo hopeful, was spotted on video postings lighting a police car on fire, he came forward publicly and asked for forgiveness. Now the Internet is filled with postings scoffing at the motives for his apology ("he's just trying to save his career"). Similarly, a blog post by Camile Cacnio, a student, acknowledges -- even re-posts! -- a Youtube video containing, literally, three seconds of video in which you see her running from a looted store, holding a stolen sweater. She introduces it with a 428 word apology that begins, "Vancouver, I am sorry..."

The Internet is such a strange phenomenon and, as with all technologies in the first years, even decades, after they have been introduced, society needs awhile to get adjusted to it. Think of how Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" radio fiction stunned listeners into thinking there had been a Martian invasion back in 1938, so trusting were they of this new source of news that came directly into their living rooms, or, in a completely different technological surprise, how televised reports on the war in Vietnam during the 1960s brought home the realities of combat as never before to give us new and visceral sense of the horror of war -- one we never had, for instance, of World War II or, for that matter, the Civil War, even though those wars were just as brutal, if not more so -- with a crippling effect on foreign policy, one that could be debated as healthy or unhealthy, depending on your perspective.

In the case of “Internet law enforcement,” I am struck by the way that this dramatic new communications medium demonstrates the extremes of both "public-ness" and anonymity at the same time. Back in July, 1993, when the Internet was really new and the anonymity seemed to pose all kinds of exciting opportunities to say things you would not be held accountable for, The New Yorker published a Peter Steiner cartoon of a hound sitting at a chair in front of a computer, explaining to a canine companion, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog..." while he presumably was posing in a chat room as something he is not. Very funny. But if the Internet is about some innocent kick provided by anonymity, tell that to Kotylak and Cacnia or anyone else who has been "outed" from some old pictures posted somewhere unbeknownst to the subject or by unsubstantiated attacks posted by a disgruntled worker or client. When prospective employers can peek in on your on-line profile, true or false, reputations can go up in smoke in nanoseconds.

As a system of justice, the Internet fails just about every standard of Western law. But perhaps the most critical one is the constitutional protections afforded by the Sixth Amendment. There it says, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” Putting aside the fact that Vancouver is in Canada, not the United States, one may rest assured that there will eventually be trials for those caught looting there, but the punishment will pale next to what they experienced on the Internet where their infractions and anonymous reactions to them will be portrayed in vivid color for time in perpetuity.


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