Cyberbullying? No, it's just bullying.
- — 11 May, 2009 08:12
I really, really want to believe that our representatives in the government are smart and always try to make good decisions and behave rationally, but time and again I'm disappointed. And when it comes to the pols dealing with technology and the Internet, it seems like clear thinking will be part of their agendas about the time that Hell freezes over.
For example: Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) along with 14 more of Washington's finest are sponsoring a proposed bill to be called The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. This bill was first proposed a year ago and many of us hoped it would just quietly wither and die. No such luck.
The bill (which, in a curious departure from normal sound bite politicking, does not have a cute or pithy acronym) seeks to criminalize electronic bullying.
UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh sums it up this way in his blog: "Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."
In this bill the term "communication" is defined as "the electronic transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user's choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received". And "electronic means" is articulated as "any equipment dependent on electrical power to access an information service, including e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, Web sites, telephones and text messages." That's rather all encompassing, don't you think?
Now why was this bill proposed? Well, it all hinges on the sad case of Megan Meier, a Missouri teenager, who, in 2006, committed suicide at the age of 13 because of "cyberbullying".
The actual bully in the case turned out to be the mother of a former friend of Meier's (Meier was under psychiatric care at the time, suffering from attention deficit disorder and depression). The vehicle used for the bullying was MySpace.
When this case emerged the media hype machine swung into gear and the "cyber" side of the issue was inflated out of all proportion to reality. And, of course, almost immediately every politico worth their salt was lining up to demand greater controls on social media.
I am constantly amazed at how people -- otherwise sensible, articulate people -- as well as those who should just know better, will preface anything and everything with "cyber" as if it confers more depth and profundity than the unadorned word or phrase.
Take "cyberbullying". How is that factually different from everyday bullying? If you think that this turn of phrase is somehow justified then why don't we start slicing and dicing the contexts even more assiduously? We'd have telephone-bullying, cell phone-bullying, shouting-at-someone-on-the-street-bullying, and staring-in-a-mean-way-bullying. It's the act and its consequences that matter, not the medium.
I'm all for laws that will make our culture safer, particularly where children are concerned, but here we have an attempt to frame a context for dealing with "cyberbullying" that has insane ramifications, making it a classic demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.
As Volokh points out, the bill is "breathtakingly broad ... [and] would criminalize a wide range of speech protected by the First Amendment ... if passed into law (and, if it survives constitutional challenge) it looks almost certain to be misused." To put that another way, by sponsoring this bill Rep. Sanchez and friends have demonstrated a willful indifference to Constitutional law and common sense.
It's time that the whole "cyber" nonsense was retired and lawmakers stopped treating events that aren't unique to the 'Net or computers and communications technology as special cases in what I can only assume to be callous attempts to gain political leverage.
I know, I know, it is ridiculously optimistic to even think this could happen ... at least until Cyber-Hell freezes over.