Internet suicide and a call for decency

What is our moral responsibility? posted many weeks ago about the charges against Lori Drew related to the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier in 2006. In the post, which has the subhead that being a jerk isn't illegal, Mike Masnick argues that there is an attempt to prosecute Drew for "something, even if there's little evidence she actually broke the law." In the case, the prosecutors say Drew is responsible for Internet fraud by using a fake MySpace name. It got me thinking: what should be the consequences for Internet use in this way?

Take the example of Paul Tilly, the ad exec who committed suicide earlier this year. A New York Times piece noted how the blog sites AgencySpy and AdScam had posted scathing criticisms of Tilly, and that one source said he was bothered by the accusations and insults. Site visitors took up the cause, posting some scathing indictments of their own. Other blogs - ValleyWag, for one - regularly post harsh diatribes of the most popular celebrities and their antics - the more popular the better. Dan Lyons, who now posts in a Real Dan blog, has certainly had his share of harsh criticisms against industry execs like Steve Ballmer. They are consistently funny and highly vitriolic at the same time.

So, what is our responsibility? Should the Internet be a "nice" place to visit, or is it okay to speak your mind about whatever subject you want, regardless of the consequences?

In my view, the "anything goes" mentality is dangerous. I think the Web should mirror the rules and guidelines we have in real life. For example, in my corporate days, it was never advised to say anything harsh or humiliating about anyone during a meeting. Obviously, depending on what you say in real life, it is rare to approach anything like libel or slander. I can call someone an idiot in a moment of anger and not expect to be sued every time my tongue gets out of control.

At the same time, I am an advocate for Internet decency. I'm not saying there should be "tiers" of Internet traffic (for safe and unsafe travels), and I am not advocating censorship. In America, I think people have the right to post their views on any topic. Yet, decency implies a code of ethics - a moral compass - that I think is sorely lacking because we rarely have to face up to the consequences or actually meet any of the people we are criticizing. It is easy to hide behind a keyboard and say whatever comes to mind without thinking whether someone might be offended. We need to think, then type.

In the end, it is a battle that will likely never end. I think, as in real life, it takes small steps and each person thinking through the consequences of what they write before they say it.

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John Brandon

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