Free speech

NEW JERSEY - If, even 20 years ago, someone had anonymously snapped pictures of women's breasts, thighs and posteriors and made the pictures public, he would have been ostracized and perhaps arrested, and made the object of a lawsuit. Not so in our brave new age of the internet.

Lee Siegel,

21 de outubro de 2012 | 01h00

No, someone with the alias "Violentacrez" was posting such pictures-along with other photographs of violence, links to stories about dead teen-aged girls, and suggestive pictures of female children-on the social news website, Reddit. But when the gossip website Gawker revealed that "Violentacrez" was a man named Michael Brutsch, a strange thing happened. People sprang to his defense, protesting that by revealing Brutch's identity, Gawker was violating his right to free speech.

Meanwhile, a 15-year-old Canadian girl committed suicide after being bullied on Facebook, and after being stalked online by a man who posted provocative pictures of her on the internet. No doubt the people who claimed that Brutsch's right to free speech was being violated would argue that the bullies and the stalker who drove Amanda Todd to her death were also exercising their right to free speech.

Why is it that such behavior, if it had happened in the pre-internet age, would surely have been punished, yet now is being protected by the First Amendment, which guaranteess freedom of speech? The answer is that the sociopathic behavior is taking place on the internet, and the internet is considered a sacred space for expression. Whatever you do on the internet, no matter how despicable, must be protected for the sake of protecting the internet. The medium is the message, Marshall McCluhan famously wrote. Well, now the message has become irrelevant. The medium is all that matters.

what is even more bizarre about the whole Michael Brutsch incident is that Gawker was a pioneer in internet slander, defamation and humiliation, all for the sake of accumulating "hits" and "page views." Now Gawker has set itself up as some sort of internet policeman. All for the sake of accumulating "hits" and "page views."

Behind every great fortune lies a great crime, wrote Balzac. What is most maddening about nefarious deeds on the internet hiding behind all the lofty rhetoric about freedom of expression is that the internet's dominant ethos and reason for being is to make money. Behind the internet's slow expansion of wealth for certain entities and people lie the great crimes of invasiveness, personal destruction, malice and malevolence.

And yet some of the very same people who become apoplectic when they hear Romney lying about economic policies through his shining rhetoric and dazzling smile rush to the defense of internet entrpreneurs when they defend the "rights" of scoundrels and sociopaths behind shining rhetoric and sunny smiles. When a new flirting app called Skout resulted in three separate rapes of children by adults, the press reported Skout's very public enactment of horror and contrition, and made sure to report Skout's sudden announcement that it would ban minors from the site. But when, a few weeks later, Skout quietly allowed minor backs in-with "new safeguards," said the company-no one reported that at all.

The internet is still in the baby steps of its development and like the infancy of all new social, cultural and economic arrrangements, the tension at the heart of the internet falls into a simple Manichaen division. Just as there was once the crude clash between capital and labor, there is the Bad internet and the Good internet.

The Bad internet is the incredible opportunity for all the ugly aspects of human behavior to magnify themselves with a new technology. Never has it been so easy for one person to hurt so many other people with the flick of a mouse. Human nature doesn't change. Technology amplifies some aspects of human nature and diminshes others. In our time, the internet has given the nasty person the visibility and reach of a prophet.

The Good internet, on the other hand, seems to me merely an evolution of older forms of culture. The newspaper, the book, the literary sensibility, the outraged sensibility: the poet, scholar, and virtuous provocateur now have the technology to battle the new technology of the liar, the maligner, the predator. Before the vulnerable individual and the economic forces driving the web reach a humane equilibrium, things will get much worse. There will be something like a slowly unfolding cyber-Armageddon. And then, voila! Sanity and a sense of proportion will be restored to the internet. People will realize that the First Amendment does not, among other things, protect anonymous speech.

Until then, brace yourselves. Michael Brutsch is scheduled to appear, tonight, on CNN to talk about himself! You can just see what will happen next: fame, too much visibility, a bored public, poverty, obscurity and depression. Maybe it will all drive "Violentacrez" to end his life with a gunshot to the head. If such a sad event did happen, I hope for his family's sake that no one will be there to take his picture.

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Lee Siegel

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