Should the Police Be Involved in the Web?

On the 19th of April, 2009, Senator Ted Lieu from California was surprised to find that a team of armed policemen were surrounding his home with reports that he had shot his wife. The anonymous report, of course, was false, but the police needed to do their jobs and check on the situation. Senator Lieu was a victim of a practice known as “swatting” which involves sending police after individuals on a false report. It’s an intimidation tactic that is very popular among miscreants on the Internet who want a good laugh or to teach someone a lesson. More recently there are cases in which individuals are harassed or threatened on the Internet through Twitter. Many of them are calling for judicial involvement on this medium. Should this be done?

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Unfortunately there is no legal instrument that can be used to stop someone from dialing an emergency number and saying that you’re strangling someone in your house as long as they know your address. The police have a duty to respond to these calls and investigate the scene. Sure, the experience can be horrifying, but involving the police on the Internet is not going to solve the problem.

Swatting can be stopped by verifying information prior to investigating the area in question. Is the person calling really the victim’s neighbor? You can check this through the database. Is the person a passerby? Then the cellular phone’s location should be within the range of one of the antennas serving the neighborhood. A large amount of these incidents happen to have a 9-1-1 caller who is several miles away from the location and therefore could not be witnessing anything at the moment that the report is made.

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At best, if you’re harassed, you’re at least a bit uncomfortable if not terrified, especially if it never happened to you before. It’s happened to me a hefty number of times, and it can be draining depending on the situation. There are, however, negative consequences to regulating harassment on the Internet. How do you define it? If the definition is too broad, anything you say can be scrutinized and picked apart, which curbs the free speech of a very large number of individuals (this has happened before). If the definition is too narrow, it will at best have no effect.

Slowly, companies are starting to create algorithms and human intervention techniques that curb the worst harassment (both the kind that affects people in real life and the digital kind that really causes you no potential physical harm). If someone fears for their life, there are already ways to present this to a bureau from the police, and they will be more willing to provide assistance as the phenomenon receives more attention. There’s really no reason to have a law that will, in all likelihood, do more harm than good. The infrastructure itself is evolving, and some of the ways in which it is evolving is already creating concerns.

In an age where students can be charged with harassment for saying a joke and a professor can be charged with sexual harassment for criticizing someone, it has become quite clear that any additional law that covers the Internet exclusively would risk upsetting the balance that this form of communication has between freedom of expression and personal safety. It can already be provided for in the present legal system, at least in the European, North American, and most Asian-Pacific legal realms.

So, do we need new laws to police the Internet for harassment? Tell us your opinion in a comment!