Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Cyber Bullies

I can think of no word of the digital age that captures both the wonderment and the decline into absurdism of the internet better than cyber. It was wildly popular in the dawn of the internet as we know it today: you know, back when we put “www.” in front of website addresses, and animated .gifs roamed the terrain like herds of ancient dinosaurs. I have nothing but the fondest memories of those sepia-toned days of yore. (Fun fact: everything downloaded through a 28.8k modem is tinted brown.) But today, “cyber-“ is primarily used when you intend to signal to everyone else in the room that you haven’t touched a mouse since the Dot Com Bubble burst. (see also: “information superhighway”)

Which is why I’m not terribly surprised to see “cyber-“ used by Senators (who, by and large, have better things to do with their time than keeping track of the latest internet-related slang). Yes, a proposed new cyber bullying act would make it a federal crime to (for example) leave a series of insulting comments on a blog. It sounds like a silly law, but it has the best of intentions; further, there is some discussion of some handy ideas. From the article:

…teens also said they want new and better tools to stop harassment on cell phones. That would include buddy lists that block anyone besides approved senders from reaching their text message in-box.

I’m not exactly in a high-risk cyber-bullying demographic, but everyone has a lapse in judgment now and again. You give your number out to the wrong guy/girl at a party, and suddenly every highway rest stop from here to Vermont has your number carved into a bathroom stall.

Of course, I can rarely agree with anything completely.

Both state and federal laws were prompted by the suicide of Missouri 13-year-old Megan Meier, who was the victim of repeated harassment on MySpace.com. An adult neighbor was indicted in the case last month by a grand jury in Los Angeles not on charges of cyberbullying, but on charges of unauthorized access of a computer system with intent to harm another person. (Missouri litigators said they didn’t have a law to prosecute the case at the time.)

This is the bit that I don’t get. On the one hand, we need a special new law for cyber bullying because we don’t have a law to prosecute otherwise; but on the other hand, this woman has been indicted for a law that seems to let prosecutors prosecute. It’s either a typo or a subtle jab at the DA who proffered such a delectable quote.

Additionally, I fail to see why if Cyber Bullying is a federal crime (punishable by up to two years in prison), Bullying is not necessarily a federal crime with the same penalty. Is the trauma of being insulted over the internet that much more severe than the traditional schoolyard variety? Does the digital age allow for so many more “yo mama” jokes per second than an unaided human?

In all honesty, given the name of the act (the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act), bullying over the internet is probably perceived as more reprehensible because adults can get in on the act. While adults generally can’t go to a schoolyard and insult the kids, the former and the latter can mingle freely on various websites. In Megan’s case, it was on MySpace.com - though this is arguably no different from allowing your child to freely interact with complete strangers who may or may not be adults. The internet is full of weird people.

The internet is a tool that facilitates communication. While the same thing could have happened (and does, I’m certain) without the internet, the harsh penalty for bullying of one sort compared to the other seems either (a) completely unfounded, and a result of the “computers are reality-distorting devices with arbitrary laws” school of thought, or (b) indicative of our society’s strong belief that the internet is tremendously useful, and any attempt to abuse it by frightening children away from it will be severely rebuked. Although the second option would seem to veer closely into censorship territory: unpopular or even offensive speech is still speech. But that’s another essay entirely.