Bateman: Living in the age of technology

By Joseph Bateman

The Internet has many faces. It is used for shopping, research and writing, among many other things. These meaningful applications have woven the ‘net into an integral part of our daily lives. But another face reveals a dark and addictive side that can turn ugly.

Just this week, a 15-year-old Arizonian teen murdered his father. His excuse? Because his father took away the Internet and access to the teen’s coveted MySpace page.

The teen told investigators about the feeling of being stripped from the Internet. “It felt like I was stabbed with a knife and it went straight through and…no matter how hard I pulled, I couldn’t pull out the knife,” he said.

This hyperbole would be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious.

In 2006, a Missouri teen committed suicide after a boy befriended her on MySpace. The two communicated often, but the relationship turned sour when the boy spewed insults. It turns out the boy never existed and was the creation of a next-door neighbor.

These are just a few examples of the addictive power of the Internet and the cyber harassment that can plague the ‘net, like spam offering riches from Nigerian Kings. The questions that need to be answered are, when does free speech become harassment and how does a useful tool become addictive? The reality is that simple solutions to complex problems aren’t likely to be found.

For the Missouri State Legislature, the answer is in committee hearings and putting another law on the books. But harassment and stalking are already punishable offenses, as Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is aware. His response to repeated unsolicited pornographic e-mails to his staff was 11 Homeland Security subpoenas to locate the sender. The result was a knock on the door, handcuffs, five counts of stalking and a class A misdemeanor for the alleged sender, Rachel Guyon.

Although Shurtleff can and should be castigated for the questionable tactics of his relentless pursuit, the case raises another Internet complication — that of anonymity — and it can’t be solved simply by Googling.

For some, the anonymous nature of the Internet is appealing. Presidential candidate Barack Obama has been the victim of an e-mail smear campaign identifying him as a Muslim. (Although Obama is a Christian and not a Muslim, this raises questions of the religious bigotry in this country, as if being a Muslim was an insult.)

These smear campaigns have traction beyond the Fox Noise channels and other right-wing megaphones, such as the Drudge Report, that report rumors and innuendo as news. “Barack Obama Muslim,” according to Google, is the third most-searched term in regards to the presidential hopeful.

As Shurtleff found out, tracking down the source can involve extraordinary measures, and even then the veracity of the source can’t be verified. As Paul Smith, a software developer for, told The Nation, “That’s why there is spam. I could construct an e-mail from scratch and deliver it and have it seem like it was coming from Steve Jobs, and for all intents and purpose the receiver would have no way of knowing it wasn’t.”

A simple answer is to take away the anonymous nature and replace it with accountability. This is something from which the journalism industry has already learned.

As journalists, each piece or opinion we write carries a byline that attributes the author and gives accountability as to veracity of the writer. Computer programmers and companies should work on a system or a registry that allows users to track the owners of e-mail accounts, much like works for websites.

As for the addictive nature of the Internet? That’s anyone’s guess.

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