The Land of Digital Space
By Sharon McElhone
Stories of the Wild West have inspired Americans and the world over for centuries. Yet, a land without laws is also dangerous and unsafe. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the time when laws didn’t exist to protect people; and while we cannot go back in time and erase the greed and oppression that rooted itself so deeply into our American way of life, we can enforce our rights with the application of laws after we cross over into any new territory.
We have entered a new land of the Internet and cell phones, which connects us all. It is still virtually a wild land where we are spending so much of our lives. A CNN report dated July 2016 stated “the average American spends nearly half a day staring at a screen.” Moreover, when I asked my friend, Vinaya, how she limits screen time for her children, she responded, “I can’t. It’s where they live now.” While she does not allow her children to have electronics in their bedrooms and charges cell phones and laptops in her room at night, homework is so intricately connected to computer use that they simply must have access to them. Our children share Goggle docs for school, they meet in chat rooms, and they go on Facebook and Twitter and any other array of websites. We, as digital citizens, have begun to make a home online.
If society is beginning to exist in cyberspace then laws protecting individuals should be adapted to cyberspace at a much more rapid pace. Many American citizens have already given up their right to privacy as the price one pays for advancing technologies; and yet, it is only because we have not turned more attention to passing and updating cyber laws that protect users, cyberspace still remains a kind of free for all.
Some believe cyber laws are too tricky to enforce because they “require a unique structure to grapple with the international and ethereal nature of the web,” according to HG.org, one of the very first online law and government information sites founded by Lex Mundi. There are many who believe that the Internet cannot be regulated and yet if we leave it wild, we also leave digital citizens up to a wide array of potential harm.
An article by Andrew Couts titled “State of the Web: 5 Laws Every Internet User Needs to Know” states there are 5 laws a user needs to know when it comes to Internet use: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act enacted in 1998; the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986; the Patriot Act; the FISA Amendments Act passed in 2008; and the Communications Decency Act, which includes Section 230. What is worrisome about these laws is two of them (DMCA & ECPA) were enacted before the World Wide Web came into existence and are out of date. One more law, the Patriot Act, grants permission for the U.S. government to spy on Americans and other countries’ citizens and another law, the CDA, limits the rights of users who are harmed by comments made by other users online so social media can flourish. To me, it seems we are allowing technology to get away from us. Digital Rights Analyst for Electronic Frontier Foundation Rebecca Jeschke has a different outlook though. “This is a list of five important laws for the Internet,” she says, “far more laws than that interact with the Internet, and more are being passed every day.” However, the average digital user knows little about Internet law or even what applies to them. Moreover, a law like the Patriot Act strengthens the government’s spy program using digital technology and does little or nothing to strengthen protection for digital users.
But when does trolling go to far? What should the lawful consequences for cyber bullying and cyber stalking be? Should a President be free to use Twitter to accuse three million American voters of fraud without evidence? What are the penalties for spreading disinformation or for controlling a marketplace? Should lawmakers include a Section that enables users to post recorded videos online as evidence of a hate crime? There is a creepiness to employers being able to view potential employees profiles without identifying themselves; it’s also a bit unnerving to have a travel website post to all your social media friends and colleagues where you took a vacation or what locations you visited recently. Auto-correct may have long-term affects on our mental capacities. Laws that shape the fast growing, often overwhelming, digital world are just as crucial as the ones made for the real world.
Amazon has a “virtual monopoly” on the sale of books and is interfering with a writer’s means to earn a living. We have regulations and laws that protect writers and their work outside the Internet, but those protections need to be upheld online without delay. For example, some years ago, I posted a short story and a couple of poems on my personal webpage for three months only for a handful of friends to read as an example of my work. After three months, I took them down. One day I Goggled my name and was surprised to discover my short story and poems posted on a public website. I never gave permission to post my work there. After multiple attempts requesting that my work be taken down with no reply, I phoned an attorney friend of mine. He sympathized and then I learned that there are software programs that operate behind the scenes to scrape files off sites and dump the data on other sites. ScrapeSentry, a Distil Networks company, defines scraping (also web scraping, screen scraping or data scraping) as “what you do when you copy large amounts of data from a website-manually or with a script or program.” Malicious scraping, according to their definition, is the “theft of intellectual property in the form of data accessible on a website.” The attorney said that probably two individuals in a basement were responsible and would never respond, so that was that. In addition, he recounted a case where a high profile Silicon Valley tech company spent $100,000 in attorney fees to have documents removed from an Internet site that posted them illegally. The end of my story is the work is still up on the website.
America invented the Internet. Now we cannot just throw our hands up and say that what happens on it is out of our control. If we discovered this new land then we are charged with leading and preserving it through the establishment of clearer protections and regulations to enable users–Law of the (Cyber) Land.
Finally, we are leaving too many important questions related to digital citizens unanswered and users are more vulnerable than necessary. Do we give pornography its own channel, separating it completely from the day-to-day flow of information that children easily access? Do we establish separate channels for different countries to create international Internet boundaries to potentially spark better trade markets and perhaps stabilize countries being hit hard after globalization. Making the protection of private information and organizing the vast amounts of information online one of our national objectives will enable us to lead the way. Also, if we are passing new laws every day, then educating users so they know their rights can be entered into the equation.
Laying the right foundation to build safe communities for users online is important, and the organization and regulation of digital space is an avenue to pursue as future generations spend more of their time there. It’s simply a new land, like the lawless West once was, and we, as Americans, are smart enough, diligent enough, and entrepreneurial enough to do what is necessary to find ways of taming it.