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Name: Rex Stetson
Occupation: Masked Avenger Type
Base of Operations: Washington, DC
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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The NYT on CyberVigilantes

The New York Times actually has a fairly evenhanded (if a little bland) writeup on the cybervigilantism covered here in recent weeks. One bright spot in the piece is this passage which highlights the libertarian underpinnings of vigilantism, at least in the online realm if not "IRL":

Along those lines, the very presence of so much vigilantism on the Internet might well suggest that individuals are simply rising up where institutions fall short. Online auction sites, Mr. Kapor said, must clean their houses; Microsoft, he said, has to make its software secure against viruses and hackers. 'Vigilantes are in many cases responses to real problems where you'd like to see a much stronger institutional response - where there has been an institutional failure,' he said.

The lingering worry in all of this, says Jonathan Zittrain, a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, is that if neither institutions nor individuals can adequately police the Net, the government will be forced to step in even more than it already has. The online world, Professor Zittrain says, is in the process of asking Abraham Lincoln's core question in the Gettysburg Address, which he paraphrases as 'are we capable of governing ourselves?"

I presume the Harvard Professor would argue that the answer to Lincoln's question IRL is "No", wheras a libertarian might answer "yes" or "in most cases".

Posted by Rex @ 11:36 AM

Monday, March 29, 2004

The Best Internet Vigilantes Around

Recently, I have documented the eBay Vigilantes, those ebayers who are sick and tired of the fraudulent auctions on eBay and ineffective policing of such by the site's administrators, and seek to expose and thwart these fraudsters.

In "meatspace" or "IRL" as I like to call it, historically vigilantism has been supported by the public only when two conditions are met:

1) The crime must be of a morally unabiguous nature ( where a reasonable person would be instantly able to spot the "bad guy" in the situation.)

2) The existing social and legal structures are ineffective in creating deterrent ( a low risk of negative consequences for the wrongdoer due to poor police prescence, corrupt or incompetent law enforcement, or weak penalties for those convicted.)

Of all the criminals that work the web, probably the most dangerous are pedophiles who use instant messaging and chatrooms to recruit their underage victims. This is about as morally unambigous as you get (Supposedly even the most violent murderers and rapists in prison become indignant and develop a social consicenc when cofronted with a this sort of crime: "you know what they do to kiddie rapists in prison?" and so on). The crime is also difficult to police and prosecute due to the relative anonymity afforded to internet users and the complex logistics of setting up internet stings- so it makes this crime a perfect target for cyber vigilantes.

The police and FBI have long been running sting operations to catch these characters in the act. And I certainly commend them for their work. But now there are internet vigilantes supplementing their efforts.

These guys are just fantastic. They don't form lynch mobs or physically attack anyone. They go for good old fashioned public humiliation. They post the full text of the chats, with the photos and the verified phone numbers of these scumbags, and deliver them to their employers.

They cooperate with police when asked to, but most of the time, they just do their own thing for its own sake. Check out their site and see how much publicity they give these unlucky sleazeballs- getting them fired form their jobs as elementary school teachers and such.

Once this happens, usually the cops give these guys some attention due to community outcry. Minimally, these guys are going to think twice before doing anything like this again. They're effectively registered sex offenders now! You can even search these guys by location and find sleazeballs in your area.

Finally, the Perverted Justice team allows a "Right of Reply" whereby the accused can offer a statement in his defense. These usually involve a lot of shameful apologies and assurances that they are in therapy, or occasionally convluted rationalizations and evasions of responsibility: "i was just roleplaying" or "i wouldn't really have acted on that" ( even though they set up a real life meeting).

In either case, allowing the accused to offer their side of the story is truly a class move, in my opinion. It shows that while they PJ is tough, they are fair.

Keep up the Good Work, Perverted Justice!!

Posted by Rex @ 12:59 PM

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