If a crime doesn’t result in actual physical damage or loss, can it be considered a crime? Or is any act that leaves a victim feeling violated a punishable crime? One way to look at the issue is through the approach that yes, cyber rape and other crimes are punishable. This can be argued through the fact that these crimes effect “real” life and stir up “real” emotion. It is a punishable violation because it involves actual victims and makes them feel violated.
Another position is that because these violations can be avoided by the press of a button or the click of a mouse, they are in no way punishable and are more of a game than anything. The internet is something that effects most people, and anyone who logs onto it can become a victim to cyber crime. If found in the situation, users should know what exactly is at stake. In this essay I will examine both sides of the argument, and explain why I personally feel that cyber crimes cannot be prosecuted as actual crimes.
First of all, if a crime doesn’t result in a physical loss, can it even be considered a crime? Theft on the web is, in actuality, the theft of an idea. If an idea is placed on the web, is it not open for everyone to see, experience, or even take? Is a rape in cyberspace really a rape if there is no physical contact? Author James Harrington says “This attempt to censor cyberspeech raises two major constitutional problems: Can the government limit access to sexually explicit information on the internet to adults who want it, and, if so, who decides what is ‘offensive’ and thus punishable? Harrington 157).
It is true that these cyber crimes and their outcomes cross the line from VR to RL in the sense of emotion for many. People have been made to feel violated by other users many times, and one good example of this is shown in Julian Dibbell’s essay “A Rape in Cyberspace”. Criminals, such as Mr. Bungle, have their fun and log off, leaving other users in a state of victimization. These virtual criminals should be punished, but how can users defend themselves until a means of punishment is decided upon?
Wizards on the web can take control at any moment and the force they use against those less experienced on the web is manipulative of their rights. These users are forced to do things against their will. Any form of force and any violation of privacy is a crime, therefore these criminals need to be punished. Anne Wells Branscomb of Harvard University’s Resource Information Program explains the concept that people today expect the laws of real life to carry over into cyber reality.
She states “Very simply, laws and lawyers are important because whan something goes wrong aggreived parties turn to lawyers for help… Users too rely upon the existing law, because they carry their expectations from one environment to another” (Barnscomb 6). Although at one time users of this new terrain felt laws would only hurt and restrain the new freedoms that came along with it, it seems that after having experienced the crimes they are beginning to contradict themselves.
Author Julian Dibbell states “The more seriously I took the notion of virtual rape, the less seriously I was able to take the notion of freedom of speech, with its tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real” (Dibbell 2). On the other hand, it seems that the simple act of not logging off, in a sense, is the parallel to allowing a stranger to inflict harm on your character. It’s up to us to protect ourselves. If we are willing to let our virtual selves go through a terrifying experience, we seem to have played a part in the whole thing.
The fact that cyber crime is really only words on a computer screen makes the entire thing seem ridiculous. But is it that simple? Is it just words? How can words alone hurt so much, especially those of a stranger that knows nothing about their victim? Because it is obvious that they can, why do we continue to allow ourselves to read these hurtful things? Perhaps the words are simply misunderstood. One critic states “It should be clear to the reader that the meaning of words can change based on the context” ( Unknown 1 ).
How are we, as readers, to know exactly what the author of the words is trying to say when we receive no tone or facial expression with the words we read? The fact of the matter is, however, that people do feel hurt and violated by others on the web all the time. These people are so hurt they have had to seek help outside VR and in RL. They want the criminals to be punished for putting them through the feelings of hurt, and their feelings are real in every sense possible. Their feelings are real, and so therefore the crime is real.
Words can be the equivalent to crime in the real world, so why not in VR? Aren’t some forms of harassment simply words? What is the difference in spoken and written words? Because this issue is so hard to determine, there is no positive side I can take. I cannot fully understand the feelings of the victims, so I cannot minimize their claims to the reality of the crime. I also feel that their voluntary witnessing of or role in the crime makes it, to an extent, their fault. The internet requires interaction, and without the voluntary interaction of the victim crimes would never happen.
If the victims didn’t react to the crime but simply logged off, the virtual criminal would most likely receive no satisfaction from committing the crime. His/her gains are not tangible, and without the satisfaction of coming off the web with a sense of control or power, the criminal would have no reason to create crime. If the victims would ignore the criminals, wouldn’t they just eventually go away? Surrendering your character to a wizard by logging off would seems to be surrendering your entire reputation as well, but wouldn’t it be worth it for the saved emotions and hurt?
The worst that could happen through logging off would be the loss of your perhaps well established character; the worst that could happen from witnessing the forced crime upon your virtual character could be life long emotional scars and possible counseling. I, however, have never been the victim of a cyber crime, and until I experience the feelings of a true victim, I cannot say that they have no good position in wanting to prosecute. I, however, can assure you that I will not allow myself to witness a cyber crime. The entire idea now scares me, and the second I were to see something going wrong I would log off.
If I am for some reason intrigued enough by what is going on to watch what is happening on my screen, I will consider myself at fault for the feelings I encounter as a result. I gave the criminal exactly what he/she wanted-an audience. I will most likely feel it is not my place to feel completely violated, because I chose to let myself. After watching a scary movie that results in nightmares, how many people run to sue the movie producers? They realize that it was their choice to watch the movie in the first place and therefore take responsibility for the emotions it provokes.
It is clear that this issue could be debated for a long time to come, but it seems to me that to turn the web into yet another from of democracy is a step in the wrong direction. To punish someone for their words seems irrational, and it will only set off another from of a legal system that often is thought to restrictive as it is in real life. By taking responsibility for our own characters and responsibilities on the web, in the long run we will benefit from the new freedom we waited so long to obtain. By protecting ourselves, we protect our best interests, and that is what freedom is all about.