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Webcasting tragedy

Plain awful, from The Guardian:

“Police in Florida are investigating the death of an American teenager after he appeared to take an overdose and die while broadcasting on video website Justin.tv.”

The 19-year-old left a message on another website in which he described his mental anguish and was encouraged to end his life by a number of other web users.”

Apparently, more than 180 people watched this kid OD and fall unconscious on his bed.  After he had stopped moving, someone called the cops.  Some reports claim that the viewers continued to taunt him.  The victim had previously described his feelings and the possibility of suicide on both justin.tv and another website, where users egged him on:

“You want to kill yourself?” said one. “Do it, do the world a favour and stop wasting our time with your mindless self-pity.”

This case is not unprecedented, nor is this a simple indictment of the internet.  Impersonal groups pressure jumpers.  It’s the “baiting crowd” phenomenon.  Research on the topic suggests that the following variables contribute to baiting: size of the crowd (larger is worse), the cover of nighttime, and physical distance.  These are all de-individuation factors, as members of the crowd abdicate their ethical obligations.

That said, the internet is a uniquely powerful medium for this sort of behavior.  Crowds of thousands can gather in seconds on message boards, populated by nameless individuals hiding behind user-tags.  It’s best summed by the now-famous New Yorker cartoon: “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog.”  The problem is not just the anonymity; it’s also the distance.  At least in person, crowds can physically see their targets.  The internet adds a level of disconnect.  Even if the victim is on a webcam, there’s an element of unreality to the situation – you can minimize the window and they’re gone.  This is worsened by the frequency of internet hoaxes.  A man on a ledge in front of you is awfully real; “DpressedDave7,” holding a bottle of nondescript pills on a Wichita webcam, might just be putting you on.

None of the nearly 200 people who witnessed this, including those who baited the victim, are legally culpable.  (One hopes that they’ll get their ethical rewards through sleepless lifetimes.)  But what of the justin.tv people?  While there’s no reason to believe they’ll face any legal sanction, the question of whether they should is a little more complex.  On one hand, the website was simply a location where the acts took place.  Mayor Fenty wouldn’t be responsible for a nasty Washington crowd talking someone into leaping onto L Street.  However, an internet message board is a controlled environment.  People apply for user names, submitting their email addresses (and sometimes more) to aquire them.  Websites are private domains with discretionary power over messaging – it’s usually called “Terms of Use.”  After hesitating on free speech grounds, Facebook recently pulled several neo-Nazi pages.

The purveyors of the website are not criminals because there is no underlying criminal act.  Groups baiting suicides is repulsive, but won’t send anyone to jail.  What I don’t know, because I am completely out of my depth on internet law, is this:  If message board participants had plotted and then carried out murder, would the message board hosts be culpable?  And if so, for what crime?

Internet law is a fresh and evolving field, with cases from horrific to laughable arising every day.  If there’s any law students with insight on this topic, any comments on the matter would be appreciated — both legal examples and subjective opinions welcome.

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