Monday, October 16, 2006

Big Brother's Bots

Part of the fallout of the Mark Foley scandal has been increasing (although, I'd wager, temporary) awareness of the Internet as a means for people to talk to each other, largely under a veil of anonymity, about sex.

This comes at the same time that social networking sites -- MySpace, Facebook, and others -- are coming under increased scrutiny because of the role they have played in a handful of criminal cases. Compared to the hundreds of millions of messages sent via these sites each day and the tens of millions of members they have, the criminal presence on them is minuscule. Still, since many people are both tech- and sex-phobic, the headline-grabbing cases emerging from MySpace and other social networking sites tend to generate hysteria beyond what they deserve.

As someone who has been using instant-messaging technology (that is, IMs) for more than 13 years, I was both bemused and befuddled by the reaction to the instant messages that allegedly were sent by then-Congressman Foley to former congressional pages. It's like millions of Americans had never seen "LOL" or "ttyl" before. (And if they think Foley's language or tone was salacious, these people really need to spend some time on line to find out what lewd is.)

The overreaction, however, came not just from the Foley incident(s). Fear of the Internet has already worked its way into the law of several states and the federal criminal code.

What I was not aware of, in this regard, was the Orwellian nature of the laws that have been put on the books already. This point was really brought home to me in an article by William Saletan, who writes about science and technology for Slate, which appeared in Sunday's Washington Post. Saletan's last few paragraphs are really chilling:

Some states pursue adults with underage sex in mind into cyberspace and outlaw dirty messages. Georgia, for instance, forbids any "Internet contact" with minors involving "explicit verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexually explicit nudity" or even of "sexual excitement." The recipient doesn't have to be a minor. He can be anyone "believed . . . to be a child residing in this state." Someone could be charged under this law even if he never went to Georgia or wrote to anyone there. All you would have to do is meet him in a chat room, pose as an Atlanta teenager and wait for him to say something gross.

If a pervert won't act on his words, you can criminalize the words. If he won't utter them, you can prosecute him for writing them. If he won't come to your state, you can go get him. If he has no victim, you can invent one. This is no joke. In almost every state, laws specify that you can be convicted of an Internet sex offense against a child even if you contact no child and commit no physical crime. In fact, the most recently analyzed data, published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, suggest that more people are arrested on suspicion of using the Internet to solicit what turn out to be cops posing as kids than for using it to initiate relationships with real kids. The unnatural has been surpassed by the artificial.

Cybersex is only getting weirder. Most Canadian college students surveyed by a dating Web site say they've already had sex via instant messages. By year's end, more than 100 million people will be playing online games. Fifteen million webcams are in use; hundreds can be viewed for a fee, and many are pornographic. You can even interact with a "virtual girlfriend" on your cellphone. It's a creepy world of imaginary meetings and deeds. The only thing creepier, perhaps, is to prosecute them like the real thing.

Winston Smith, call your office.

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