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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Internet Vigilantism

A Korean woman is now infamous after refusing to clean up her dog's mess on the train.  (Via Boing Boing).  A quote from the Docuverse story about her:

It began in a subway train with a girl whose dog made a mess on the train floor. When nearby elders told her to clean up the mess, she basically told them to fuck off. A nearby enraged netizen then took pictures of her and posted it, without any masking, on a popular website which started a nationwide witchhunt.  Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-shit-girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed.

This is disturbing.  I'm as in favor of clean subway cars as the next guy.  But internet vigilantism raises a host of serious ethical questions.  This woman has, at worst, violated a minor municipal ordinance.  The resulting huge publicity is probably far in excess of her offense. 

However, internet vigilantism is on the rise.  Some of it is probably relatively harmless, such as 419-baiting.  Other instances, such as the public exposure of "Laura K. Krishna" (later changed to a pseudonym) as a plagiarism-seeking student, are more troubling.  Internet vigilantism may seem cute, and it certainly satisfies the tastes of web surfers who are always eager to watch a villian get his comeuppance.  But it manifests all of the problems of the classic lynch mob, including lack of appeal, lack of impartial hearing, and a definite possibility of excessive punishment.  (Plus, in a world of photoshopped pictures, the possibility of an unjust conviction seems intolerably high).

I suspect that there are a lot more issues relating to the question of internet vigilantism.  If only I knew of any experts in, say, privacy, or shaming punishments, who could comment further about this topic . . .

UPDATE:  I need to do better pre-emption checks.  Dan Solove already posted some great comments on this topic, over at Balkinazation.  Dan's comments on the topic are spot-on, as expected.  And Marcy Peek, here at Prawfsblawg, has a nice follow-up as well.

Posted by Kaimi Wenger on June 30, 2005 at 06:30 PM in Information and Technology, Odd World | Permalink


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It is true that things are more capable of being made more public now than ever before. But if the possibility of public shaming prevents people from doing, well, shameful things, then I don't see the great harm.

Now, if we were talking about something that is just embarassing, rather than socially (and legally) prohibited, then that's a different story. For instance, if someone takes a picture of you sitting on the crapper, that really seems to be an invasion.

But a person really shouldn't leave dog shit on the floor or plagiarize. In both cases, the behavior is probably illegal, not to mention socially unacceptable. I'll bet this girl--and a bunch of others--won't leave dog shit on the subway again.

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Jun 30, 2005 7:13:45 PM

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