Peculiarities of Cyberspace

With its chat rooms, online discussion groups, blogs, profile pages and web forums internet offers formerly unknown possibilities for communication and personal expression. Every new technology that passes by also brings along the shadow of criminality and indecency that follows. We are living in an era in which anybody can publish anything about all the others. It is hard to remain individually in control of your own reputation. On internet a trace of information fragments about us is saved, which are accessible to anyone via a Google query. The possibility of saying ‘anything’ under the protection of a pseudonym may lead to viral forms of public humiliation and the dissemination of malicious gossip. It leads to a permanent chronicle of our private lives (sometimes not very reliable and sometimes completely false). This chronicle pursues us wherever we go, and is accessible to friends, strangers, potential lovers, neighbours, relatives and so on. According to general consensus, decency on internet is in a sorry state of affairs. Internet seems to be an accumulation of gossip and backbiting, of rumours and slander. This has far-reaching consequences for the online clash between freedom of speech and privacy. According to the Amsterdam superintendant Bernard Welten the right of privacy has always been “the shelter of evil” [Bernard Welten - Superintendant Amsterdam].

A new kind of digital panopticon has come into being. This is a system no longer requiring a ‘Big Brother’ to watch over our shoulders, because we keep an eye on each other constantly anyhow. The internet creates an environment in which someone can become famous in the blink of an eye, only usually this fame is based on something the person in question would like to forget as soon as possible.

We need to protect our privacy to ensure that the freedom of internet does not make us less free. But we also have to find a balance between the protection of privacy and the freedom of speech. Common cultural norms should be developed to deal with private information on internet. And legal remedies should be established for people whose rights have been violated. But —as we could have learned from the past and as will be demonstrated for recent years below— the law is an insignificant instrument compared to social norms.

Identity and civilization

Social control and decency
When participating in public life —at work, at school, in the neighbourhood, in politics or just in the streets— we participate as ourselves. We do not wear balaclavas (unless we camp on the North Pole), no masks (unless we celebrate carnival), and no clothes concealing our personal features (unless we are devoted orthodox muslim women). We show who we are. Even if people do not know exactly who we are, they can still recognise us by our external features at our next meeting. This authentic identity makes us approachable as far as our deeds are concerned: what we do and what we say can be connected to a specifically identifiable person by our fellow citizens. They can praise or criticise us for this, because they know who they are dealing with. This does not only create clarity (because we act openly), but also trust.

We operate in a public order in which irresponsible or antisocial behaviour can be identified, in which the individuals showing this behaviour can be called to account, and in which they can be disciplined, if necessary.

Undesired behaviour can be corrected in several ways: by a reproachful look, by a friendly request (‘please don’t stroke my buttocks anymore’), by public admonition (letting everyone know: ‘he is battering his children’), by conditioned threat (‘if you ..... once more, I will .....’), or by social exclusion. If all this does not work, and the violation of the social order is serious, we always have the possibility in democratic constitutional states to appeal to the even stronger arm of police and justice. We then report illegal or criminal behaviour. But in general deviation from social norms is suppressed by social sanctions. The social order is not only maintained by negative consequences to the violation of norms in force, but also by rewarding consequences to norm conformity. Opposed to negative sanctions (means of coercion), such as reticence in contact, contempt and antipathy, we find positive sanctions (inducements), such as attention, responsiveness, respect and sympathy. In varying combinations and sequences both means of coercion and inducements are used to prevent or redress violations of norms.

Obviously opinions differ on what ‘socially undesired’ behaviour is. What is ‘undesired’, ‘indecent’ or ‘rude’ to one person, can be quite ‘normal’ to another. This depends on our upbringing and the values and behavioural norms that we consider ours. But it particularly depends on the nationally and locally strongly varying cultures, and on the social, ethnic or religious background. While in some cultures it is ‘decent’ to cover your whole body, in other countries both sexes walk around almost naked. Besides, the social conventions differ according to specific situations: clothing that is correct on the beach, is indecent in town or at a funeral. Therefore undesired behaviour is behaviour that deviates from our subjective and situationally varying norms and values.

Norms and values
‘Values’ are universal moral standards allowing us to judge human behaviour: justice, freedom, charity, honesty, and so on. These starting points are the basis of the definition of specific agreements about certain behaviour in specific situations. Norms are mutual behavioural expectations charged with values. Or, in classic sociological terms: “The normative complexes that are concentrated around certain values stabilise the processes of interaction and communication; the goals direct the collective behaviours; together the expectations form a pattern, offering fixed frames of references to the interacting persons” [Van Doorn/ Lammers, Moderne Sociologie1976:270]. 

Reproduction by socialisation
Guarantee by social control: Norms and values are reproduced from generation to generation by upbringing, socialisation and ‘the strength of the example’ (role models) and are guaranteed by social control. Social control sees to it that a certain balanced situation in the community is maintained or regained, which is of vital importance to its stability. A community unable to deal with internal and external balance disturbances will not survive long. This also goes for online communities and networks, and perhaps even to a greater extent.

Some norms and values are considered to be so vital that we have established them in laws: our fundamental norms and values have been objectified and codified in laws that are safeguarded by the government:

  • citizens cannot use violence towards each other: no killing, battering or raping (protection of integrity of the body).
  • citizens cannot appropriate the properties of other citizens: no theft, fraud or swindle.
  • citizens cannot violate the privacy of other citizens: I am the only one to determine who enters my house through the front door.
  • citizens cannot insult or slander each other in public: no ‘gossiping’ in public.

We find them so important that we have established special bodies to maintain these objectified norms and values: the police see to it that the laws are complied with, and the judiciary punishes those who break the laws. Citizens violating the objectified norms of good behaviour are called to account and are punished by the government. In order to do this, the government needs to know ‘who’ has violated which law in which way. As long as the identity of the murderer, thief or rapist is not known yet, the government cannot arrest this person, nor bring him or her to court. In principle the government ‘knows’ all citizens. Each citizen has a passport (identity card) and the government knows where we live. If this is not the case it will be difficult: perpetrators often operate with fake identity cards or back out of the Dutch jurisdiction.

Social conventions and manners
Apart from the norms and values established in laws and official regulations, there are numerous other social conventions and manners that are of the utmost importance to the social cohesion in society and also to the safe and pleasant livability. They are elementary preconditions for a peaceful and livable society.

The way you hear it, ....
The way you hear is, ...

Social conventions and civilising norms: we all know them. I make no claim to be exhaustive in the following list:

  • It is indecent not to greet each other when we meet (hello, shake hands, kiss).
  • Approach each other with respect.
  • Thank someone when someone does you a favour.
  • Apologise when you accidentally stepped on someone’s toes.
  • Do not resent someone’s space in the public domain.
  • Respect the privacy of other citizens.
  • Do not speak ill of someone behind his or her back.
  • Give an honest answer when you are asked a question.
  • Do not throw your rubbish in your neighbour’s garden.

All these acts are not done, because they humiliate fellow citizens [Margalit 1996]. In a civilised society we say: ‘you don’t do this’. These norms of decency cannot or only to a very small extent be enforced or guaranteed by the government. They must be applied and maintained by the citizens themselves. A government can propagate these norms, but not prescribe them. You do not have to shake hands with or kiss each other while greeting, you cannot be punished for not apologising for stepping on someone’s toes or accidentally bump into someone; you are not put in prison when you shout ‘filthy whore’ to a woman in the street, and no police will come at your door when you did not get up for an elderly or disabled fellow citizen in the train. It is up to society itself, that is up to us, civilised citizens, to adhere to these norms of decency and to see to it that other fellow citizens do the same thing. It is not as easy at that.

..., is the way you sing it.
..., is the way you sing it.

We all know the examples. Who has enough courage to say something when a muscular bully barks at his wife and children? When a child is bullied at school by a ‘tough’ guy, which fellow student protects the victim? Who says something when someone is disrespectful about someone else? Who takes action when someone jumps the queue at the checkout of a supermarket? If someone indifferently passes someone who has fallen down on the street, what do you say? If someone calls a group of homosexuals ‘filthy faggots’, who calls something back? If someone runs down other people in public spaces, who shouts ‘mind your detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure’?

In all these cases it often is difficult for individual citizens to undertake something – even if they perfectly sense that something is happening they strongly disapprove of and even if they feel morally obliged to act against this indecent behaviour. But still they do not do it, because they fear the consequences. You are at risk when you call the indecent (‘the scum’, ‘the loud mouths’, ‘the anti-socials’) to order. Also in this respect —and often rightly so— we are calculating citizens balancing risks against each other. But that is also why we have such great respect for Joes Kloppenburg († 1996), Mijndert Tjoelker († 1997) and René Steegmans († 2002), who did act against assholes, but who paid for it with their lives.

We cannot delegate pushing back the ‘culture of the loud mouths’ to the government. Citizens themselves have to resist indecency, civil aggression and ‘meaningless violence’. This requires self regulation and self organisation from society.

The musty smell of decency

Imposed absolute norms from above

Formerly norms valid for behaviour and binding in the solution of conflicts were not considered to be human products. Rather, their legitimacy was based on the absolute sanctity of commandments (such as the ten commandments Moses received from God on Mount Sinai). Those who deviated from it would be punished by devilish magical effects, by restlessness of the spirits, or by the revenge of the gods. These norms were constant and omnipresent. They had to be learned and interpreted correctly, in compliance with the reigning religion, but they could not be created. Interpreting the norms was the exclusive task of those who were most familiar with them: the village senior or the oldest of a kinship group, and very often the magicians and priests. As a consequence of their specialised knowledge of the magical powers they knew how to interact with supernatural powers. Yet, also new norms came up, imposed from above by a new charismatic revelation [Weber, Economy & Society, p. 760]. So, a norm does not always have a rational justification or origin. In the course of time some norms lose their original context because society changes.

Decency is complying with unwritten yet empirically valid norms and values. The validity of a norm becomes apparent in its current influence on our actual deeds. By sticking to norms of decency our social actions become predictable. When, in our daily lives, we take dominant social conventions into account, we act in a decent way.

To many people ‘decency’ has acquired a negative undertone, because it is compared with narrow-mindedness, pettiness, conceit and lack of tolerance for other behaviour. With an appeal to decency, for example, the discrimination of homosexuals had been maintained for years. The mistrust of norms of decency is mainly a result of experiences with authoritarian formalities (intended to enforce respect for non-democratically legitimised authority), and with restrictive norms of morality and chastity (no sex before or outside of marriage and of course the heterosexual norm).

This mistrust has turned into aversion with some people. “The concept of decency is so multi interpretable and has so often been deployed as a political weapon that I have taken a strong aversion to it. So I will not be guided by it” [Marcel Vreemans in Het Vrije Volk - 1.6.2008]. When the Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende tried to breathe new life into the concept of decency (on the pretext of: Decency should be practised) most critics immediately smelled an irritating musty smell — the smell sticking to every attempt to restore old norms and values. The mistrust of conservative or restoring pleas for decency is understandable — they usually lead to a restriction of our liberties. The ‘moral censors’ and ‘moralists’ nostalgically longing for the good old days are history.

There is another reason why decency has acquired such a negative undertone. Decency is often compared to enforcing accepted behaviour from above. However, this is not necessary. Under certain conditions common behavioural norms can also be established in a deliberating-democratic way. The social norms regulating our behaviour are usually based on consensus to a certain extent and are reproduced via social sanctions.

Nevertheless, decent manners are indispensible to a civilised society. Manners are formalised forms of self-control. And especially this self-control often seems to be lacking on internet.

Anonymity as shield and weapon

Freedom and disinhibition
When we participate in public life in cyberspace the case is even more complicated at first sight. On internet we usually operate anonymously or under a pseudonym. This anonymity is a blessing and a curse, a shield and a weapon at the same time.

a.    Freedom of speech

PseudonymPseudonymity on internet does not mean being without an identity. With a pseudonym you are still a person, with an identity and a past recorded in a database, with an IP-number and an e-mail address. So you can be retrieved, but not for anybody. Only the website owner or forum manager can, if necessary, find out who you really are. They are also capable of excluding troublemakers by blocking their IP-number. However, you remain anonymous to the ordinary members of virtual communities.

On internet everyone can shout as loudly as desired. Thanks to the internet everyone is able to express her or his opinion plainly at present. Outside the internet this was and still is completely different. They who want to air their opinion via the ‘old’ media, are stopped by gatekeepers who select what will and will not be published. Based on their own journalistic norms newspapers, magazines and publishers decide if and how they publish something. Radio and television editors themselves determine who can talk about which issues. On internet these filters can be skirted. The constitutional right of freedom of the press was always restricted to those who possessed a press (or a radio or television station, or communication satellites). On internet everyone not only has a press of one’s own, but also a radio and television station of one’s own. Internet has brought the constitutional right to freedom of the press within anyone’s reach. Anyone can make use of weblogs, discussion forums, instant messaging and database on internet, to express their opinions and judgements, analyses and illusions, frustrations and hope, experiences and fantasies.

In the virtual world one can move more freely than in local society. The main reason for this is that on internet one can operate mostly anonymously or under a pseudonym. On internet it is possible to operate under a pseudonym (a pseudo identity) without giving up one’s true identity. Only in very specific circumstances the government can force providers or administrators of web forums to reveal the identity of a user. Eventually nearly all utterances or actions of internet users can be traced. Yet, internet allows for a feeling of unknown freedom.

People are reticent to say what they really think when they stand face-to-face in front of an authority. They fear disapproval and punishment. However, online people are more inclined to express themselves in no uncertain terms or to misbehave. They imagine they are invisible and are tempted to do things they normally are afraid to do, or are not allowed to do. The anonymous nature of internet communication gives the participants a great feeling of freedom. Due to this disinhibition people are inclined to express themselves more directly, emotionally and disinhibitedly about the most intimate and ultimate subjects. Anonymity enables people to hide behind their computers and to say anything they have on their minds, without fear of immediate repercussions for the local social lives. Consequently virtual communities normally display a much more disinhibited —if not rougher— communication culture than in local face-to-face communication.

Anonymous communication as a right?

Historically anonymous communication has always been at stake in the power struggle between governments that wanted to restrict the dissemination of political and religious ideas and authors who were unconcerned about the ban on anonymity. The essential question at issue to this day is: does the right to publish anonymously result from freedom of speech?

The founders of the American constitution embraced anonymous communication in the political domain as a way of putting forward unpopular, contrary opinions without experiencing personal drawbacks. The founders themselves also made use of this. The essays in the Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym ‘Publius’ [Zittran 2008:316, note 67]. They opposed the attempts to force anonymous authors to reveal their identity. Their main argument was that forced revelation damages the freedom of press. But in the Netherlands anonymity is no such constitutional right as the right to privacy.

In 1525 Charles V banned the books of Martin Luther and his followers and all books without title and sender. In case of violation, without showing remorse, men had to be put to death by the sword, and women were buried alive. This strict prohibition had little effect though. Luther kept publishing nearly all his treatises anonymously. In 1559 this was followed by the papal ban on all anonymous publications written by heretics. From the end of the 18th century on the French occupier continued the prohibition of anonymous publications. In 1789 this is laid down in law: “Every citizen can express and distribute his feelings, in such a way as he pleases; if not contrary to the purpose of society. The freedom of press is sacred; if and only if the writings are provided with the name of the publisher, printer or author [Article 16 of the Civil and Political Basic Principles]. Not until 1886, through intercession of professor Simons from Leyden, did anonymous publishing become a right. According to him freedom of expression could only be optimal if there is no obligation to signing. The right to anonymous publication was only nullified by the German occupier during World War II, as was also done earlier by the Spanish and French occupier [Ekker 2008].

Magic of the ring of GygesPlatoThose who are invisible cannot be called to account for the consequences of their own behaviour. In book 2 of Politeia the classical Greek philosopher Plato tells the story of the magic ring of Gyges. This ring offers the owner the power to become invisible at any desired moment. To Plato this is the best way to establish if someone is morally good: when you do not have to be afraid of the consequences of your own actions and yet act morally responsible. The moral of Plato’s story is that nobody is so virtuous to resist the temptation to steal, thanks to the power of the ring to make someone invisible. In other words: morality is a social construction. The source of it is the desire to maintain one’s own reputation of virtuousness and honesty. However, when the social and legal sanctions that keep up virtuousness are not effective anymore (because one is invisible, anonymous), the moral character evaporates. Wie onzichtbaar is kan niet worden aangesproken op de gevolgen van zijn eigen gedrag. In boek 2 van Politeiavertelt de klassieke Griekse filosoof Plato het verhaal over de magische ring van Gyges. Deze ring biedt de eigenaar de macht om op elk gewenst moment onzichtbaar te worden. Voor Plato is het de beste manier om vast te stellen of iemand in moreel opzicht goed is: als je niet bang hoeft te zijn voor de consequenties van je eigen handelen en toch moreel verantwoord handelt. De moraal van het verhaal van Plato is dat niemand zo deugdzaam is dat hij de verleiding kan weerstaan om te kunnen stelen dankzij de onzichtbaarmakende kracht van de ring. Met andere woorden: moraliteit is een sociale constructie. De bron daarvan is het verlangen om de eigen reputatie van deugdzaamheid en eerlijkheid te handhaven. Wanneer de sociale en juridische sancties die de deugdzaamheid in stand houden niet meer effectief werkzaam zijn (omdat men onzichtbaar, anoniem is), verdampt echter het morele karakter.
  • “Suppose there were two rings to make us invisible, one for the just and one for the unjust, then it is apparent that nobody could be found with such an infallible character to stick to his integrity and keep away from other people’s possessions and not appropriate them. After all, he would have the power to take anything he wanted from the market. He would also be able to enter each and every house to have intercourse with any woman he desired, and also kill or set free any random person. In short: he could live like a god among the people. In this respect someone would not act differently from the unjust person with the other ring, so both would behave in the same way” [Plato’s Politeia, book 2].
The Invisible ManAccording to Plato this is convincing evidence “that one is not righteous of one’s own free will, but only if it is the only thing to do.” The same theme returns in The invisible man by H.G. Wells [1887]. This science fiction novel is a critical demonstration of the human inclination to become immoral as soon as one is in power. Due to his invisibility he acquires an enormous power: he can steal, kill and abuse anybody without fear of being caught. Voor Plato is dit een overtuigend bewijs “dat men niet uit vrije wil rechtvaardig is, maar slechts als het niet anders kan.” Hetzelfde thema keert terug in The invisible manvan H.G. Wells uit 1887. Deze sciencefictionroman is een kritische demonstratie van de menselijke neiging om immoreel te worden zodra men macht verwerft. Door zijn onzichtbaarheid verwerft hij enorme macht: hij kan stelen, doden en iedereen misbruiken zonder angst om gepakt te worden.
  • “It’s useful in getting away, it’s useful in approaching. It’s particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like. Dodge as I like. Escape as I like.”
The invisible man burgles, steals money and eventually turns to physical abuse and murder. As soon as someone believes to be almighty by invisibility, he becomes immoral and is prepared to do anything for personal gain and pleasure. The Invisible Man is a warning against the individual’s desire to exceed human boundaries in the name of science.

b. Identifying online criminals and miscreants

On the internet nobody knows you are a dog
“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”
Peter Steiner, in: The New Yorker, 6 juli 1993

Anonymity allows us to discuss more freely and disinhibitedly about embarrassing or stigmatising subjects, but can also be a community’s biggest enemy. The anonymity of online communication is a blessing for those who attempt to deregulate the network itself and its operating virtual communities. It does not only offer a mask to online frauds and thieves, but also to hate mongers, preachers of violence, violators of reputations, child pornographers, paedophiles and terrorists. The most diverse types of criminals have settled on the internet to enrich themselves illegally. Extremist political factions use internet to disseminate their discriminating and hatred-sowing propaganda. But this analysis is not about cybercrime, but about virtual indecency, public humiliation and vicious gossip, which is —as we will show at great length later on— in itself a very complex problem to begin with.

Indecency on internet cannot be curbed by legal measures or criminal sanctions. They who become the victims of malignant, reputation-destructing gossip on internet often do not know who is responsible and have, on the face of it, few means at hand to effectively defend themselves on internet.

NetSluts and NetBastards
Internet is a place where we can articulate our own identity, and at the same time a place where we can operate anonymously. After all, anonymity means hiding one’s identity. In cyberspace people say and do things they would normally not say or do in the local world. We have seen that people feel less inhibited and express themselves more openly, because they can operate anonymously or under a pseudonym. This anonymous conversation is the result of (a) idle mechanisms of local social control and (b) a low risk of legal prosecution. As long as nobody knows your name is ‘Cinderella’, you need not fear that you are personally confronted with the consequences of your online behaviour.

The civilisation of a society primarily reproduces itself by the operation of customs, morals, solidarities and common interests. So a society stabilises more or less unconsciously, as a non-desired and unintended side effect of our traditional, affective and utilitarian orientations and actions [Bader/Benschop 1988:265 ff]. Social control and legislation are the two basic mechanisms warranting the preservation of this society, and under certain circumstances its transformation as well. The elimination of these two guarantee mechanisms seems to lead to a premium on extreme forms of social actions. The disinhibition ensuing from anonymous communication is therefore a two-edged sword.

On the one hand we see that people share very personal and intimate stories about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears and desires. Or they show exceptionally friendly and generous behaviour. But apart from this amiable, good-natured disinhibition there is also a vicious disinhibition, expressing itself in profusely gross language, rude criticism, fear, blind hatred and even in threats. It is a raging catharsis in which the most revolting desires are indulged.

As soon as the mechanisms of social and legal control have been suspended — or at least pushed into the background — a premium is put on excessive and obtrusive flirting (netslutting) on the one hand, and on grossly provoking and insulting (netshitting) on the other. Netslutting is harassing people (mainly women) with unwanted attention, with propositions for undesired sexual intimacies and sometimes with credible threats too. You can also call it a form of online stalking, cyberstalking [in Cyberstalking this phenomenon is analysed extensively]. Netshitting is the dissemination of blunt criticism, gross insults and often also threats. When enough netshits gather in certain internet locations, they can orchestrate digital hanging parties (‘flame wars’), in which the victims are persecuted by a raging mob. This does not only take place by organising a witch hunt on internet. Frequently the dividing lines between the virtual and the local are broken and the victims are also threatened in their private lives, in the streets or at work. A number of examples are discussed below.

Culture of the loud mouths: crying for attention

Exponential reinforcement of the extreme“Everywhere there is a growing number of confrontations, and they become harder, in real life and also on internet. Multiply this with the growth of the number of people on internet, and the time they spend there, and with the safe distance from which opinions can be expressed. This will lead to a considerable reinforcement of the power of the extreme of online expressions” [Johan Heslinga, Fok].

The combination of netslutting and netshitting results in a venomous mixture that can best be described as the culture of the loud mouths. This is a culture with a specific group dynamic of its own, and in which the participants try to outdo each other in unvarnished, unseemly big and strong talk. As a result of its detachment and anonymity, internet is a unique vehicle for unleashing hidden rage. Virtual communication is a disinhibited form of communication and is much rougher in the expression of dissatisfaction and aggression. In particular shocklogs or provoking blogs (with GeenStijl as no.1 in the Netherlands) offer a platform for this phenomenon. They express a more or less strongly organised popular rage against anything that is left-wing or multicultural. In the web forums of Geen Stijl, Elsevier and the Telegraaf the abdomen of the Dutch civilisation rules.

Hidden rage (click to enlarge)
Unchained rage
Behind the unchained rage in cyberspace lies resentment: the deep-rooted, and thus not indulged feelings of revenge of the powerless towards the powerful.

“All sick, dirty hate fantasies devised during many nights of drunken excitement was exposed in full rage in full daylight” [Stefan Zweig].

There used to be the ‘silent majority’, but thanks to the internet a platform was found for this silent majority. “This silence has come to an end once and for all. Now we discover that a new, prosperous lumpenproletariat has risen, a crowd that feels permanently and to the soul misunderstood and cheated, and expresses this as loudly as possible. The digital culture has given this crowd a voice” [H.J.A. Hofland, NRC, 7.12.2008].

In local live people are forced to show consideration for others and to meet the ‘normal’ expectations. Internet forums are sanctuaries with little social control. Participants who voice extreme opinions ask for attention. If they do not get it, they are tempted to express themselves in an even more extreme way. Forums unable to regulate themselves run the risk of being undermined. They go down in an uncontrollable jumble of bombastic, resentful muscular language. The risks grow even more when the boundary between virtual and local expressions fades.

  • OnlineThe participants of anonymous conversations predominantly use informal language: street and pub language. As soon as this language is used and recorded in the publicity of cyberspace, its significance changes drastically. The difference is not only that in internet conversations the digital signals spread much faster over large groups of people, but also that they stick much longer. When, in a neighbourhood pub, someone indicates that he does not agree with the previous speaker by saying ‘drop dead’, this is only heard by the people standing close to the speaker. The utterance fades away as soon as the air vibrations transporting this message through the air die out. In the seclusion of the neighbourhood pub such an utterance usually means no more than that the speaker doubts the words of the previous speaker; in the full publicity of the internet such an expression quickly acts as a threat.

Agression on internet
It is often said that it is not that bad with indecency and threats on the internet. After all only virtual events are involved that do not really affect us. In this view internet is seen as an outlet for feelings of hatred and suppressed aggression. Behind it lies a well-known common-or-garden theory of aggression. In this theory aggression is seen as an amount of energy confined in a pressure-cooker. In order not to let the ‘barrel full of aggression’ explode, the valve has to be opened once in a while. This allows the persons involved to express violent feelings of hatred and revenge and decreases the boiler pressure.

But this presents a distorted and simplified picture of how aggression operates. People who regularly express themselves aggressively are more inclined to show violent aggressive behaviour. And therefore aggressive behaviour is usually preceded by verbal aggression. People who are in a state of great uncertainty and emotional excitement are more easily inclined to tumble over each other in bold utterances and extreme proposals. Sentiments that arise on internet can quickly transfer to the local world. It is impossible to physically abuse or to kill people on internet. But it is possible that such a threatening atmosphere comes up that the boundary between the virtual and the local vaporises, and the threat moves on to the private and work domain of the victim.

Shift in private and public domain
With the help of cheap sensors (mobile phones with camera) and networks citizens can distribute something they have recorded on their pavement or in a restaurant extremely fast all over the world. Nearly all our activities can be broadcast. Search YouTube for ‘angry teacher’ and you will find hundreds of videos of teachers hitting the roof. People’s lives can be ruined in a split second, even if the reason is just a lapse or small mistake.

  • “Thanks to internet you need not be a famous Dutch person anymore to become the talk of the town. Gossip magazines used to have the exclusive rights on this, but now anyone can write anything about anyone else. With a few combinations on the keyboard you can make anything known on the web, be it a lie or the truth” [Van Wijk 2007].

At present almost everybody is able to register your good and bad deeds in sound and picture. Before you know you are an involuntary well-known Dutch person, or even an involuntary YouTube celebrity (‘welebrity’). If someone wants to prevent this from happening he or she is wise not only to check if Heleen van Royen (a Dutch author with a reputation for gossip) is near. It becomes increasingly difficult to prevent private conversations in the public domain —for example in a restaurant— from becoming public. The once so apparently clear borderline between private and public domain seems to blur. This is only facilitated by modern registration technologies, but is above all the result of people using these technologies in an irresponsible and indecent way.

Friendlier with friends
There is a striking difference between the internet locations where people operate under their own name and under pseudonym. On profile sites such as Hyves and Orkut, for example, the atmosphere is generally a lot better than on web forums allowing people to react anonymously. The reason is very simple: everyone publishes and reacts under their own name. People would not even think of irresponsible or rude behaviour there. Who goes beyond the limit is removed from the group of friends (in publicly accessible blogs where also non-friends are allowed, dissidents can be blocked by the user). “Reliability and quality are not enforced by lofty codes, but are realised by perfectly simple social control” [Stronks 2007b].

So specific use of the modern registration technologies can contribute to the blurring of the borderlines between the private and public domain. But also the values underlying the protection of our privacy have shifted in the course of time. In particular youngsters are keen on sharing personal information online via profile sites and friends-of-friends sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Orkut or Hyves. They share their everyday and special learning experiences and discuss them extremely openly. Many elderly and educators react rather paternalistically: children do not (yet) possess the judgement to know what they can and cannot share and therefore have an irresponsibly liberal or even narcistic way of dealing with their personal information. From this point of view young people should be protected against fast decisions which may lead to the loss of their privacy.

Closer research, however, shows that something else is going on. Most (also young) people take rather rational decisions about sharing their personal information. But they underestimate what may happen when this information is massively indexed, re-used, and used by strangers for other goals.

Most young people now growing up with the internet accept that they can give a public dimension to their personal life online. They even find it attractive to present themselves in the enormous publicity of cyberspace. “Who are you when you are still not present on internet?” Internet is a place where youngsters can show their identity (they have moved their threshold of shame and embarrassment out of the way). The great charm of profile and friends-of-friends sites is not secrecy, but autonomy: you keep control of your own profile and only engage in relations with friends of your own choice [Zittran 2008:233].

In agrarian village communities the citizens knew a lot less privacy than in a modern urban community — and in small rural communities they still have less privacy than in a big city. The life of people in small communities or villages is an open book compared to the anonymous existence of people living in cities. The other side is that someone who lives in a village is better able to keep his secrets, because he has a better control over them. A villager lives in a society that is built on personal, face to face contacts. This makes it much easier to identify irresponsible or anti social behaviour and accelerates calling people to account for this behaviour.

In cyberspace we operate in a strongly impersonal information and communication system. Our fellow citizens are faceless users of information and we can often only recognise our discussion partners by their pseudonym or avatar. Online they are only formally approachable on their utterances and acts: in practice they are for a greater part immune to the sanctions someone would like to impose on them.

Virtualisation of the pillory

Pleasant and digital gossip

Pleasant gossip
Gossip =blacken someone’s 
reputation and launder onseself.

Everybody talks about other people. In itself there is nothing wrong with that. It is even healthy to talk about people in a group in which one participates – it creates a bond [Barkow 1995; Dunbar 1996; Baumeister e.o 2004; McAndrew 2008]. Gossiping is a completely different form of communication. Gossiping or backbiting is talking about someone in an unfavourable way when the person in question is not present. Therefore this person cannot defend himself against possible untruths or allegations. Gossip is passed from mouth to mouth and eventually assume a life of their own because people invent and add new things to this gossip. This way gossip can ruin reputations. The traditional or benign gossiping is usually restricted to a limited network of direct relations (circle of friends, colleagues, family, club) and usually stops before the boundary of the public domain. When the gossip enters the public domain, it transforms into defamation and slander (toxic gossip).

Defamation is blackening someone’s good name by accusing this person of facts he or she is guilty of. He or she who commits this, can be sentenced unless (i) the general interest requires that the facts are exposed, (ii) the action was undertaken as a necessary defence, (iii) or it could be assumed in good faith that these facts are true. The goal of defamation is ruining the victim’s reputation. Contrary to slander defamation is not about accusations of which one knows they are untrue. Often the accusations are exaggerated as much as possible to pillory someone as much as possible. Besides, the facts of which the victim is accused need not necessarily be punishable. Adultery or deviant sexual preferences are extremely suitable for defamation. Slander is blackening someone by publicly accusing him or her of facts that are generally known not to be true.

Viral gossip

Homo Anonymus

In case of the old gossiping people talk unfavourably about someone who is not present. In case of cyber gossiping people gossip about you while you are there. Unlike the old gossiping the gossip on internet is mainly disseminated online. The gossip is not whispered into your ear by someone you know, but is written down in the virtual publicity of cyberspace by an unknown person, hidden behind a pseudonym. The gossip in cyberspace spreads at supersonic speed and on the largest imaginable scale — world wide. Because the gossip is written down on internet, it stays there for years to come. In addition, it cannot or hardly be contradicted, even if the victim knows the nature of the circulating gossip. The only thing the old and the new gossiping have in common is their purpose: destroying the victim’s reputation.

We have seen before that defamation and slander are forms of “public gossiping.” Gossiping is permitted, although indecent, as long as you do not gossip publicly. This has far-reaching consequences. Who gossips in the public domain of the internet, is therefore virtually by definition guilty of defamation or slander. However, there are still few judges who have included this consequence in their judgements. Yet, the number of cases in which people are pilloried increases alarmingly.

Digital lynching
Classical pilloryThe classic pillory, used until the late middle ages, was a pole to which somebody was tied and exposed, as a punitive measure. According to the ruling laws sentenced criminals were literally exposed. The audience played an active role in it and was permitted to curse the punished person and throw rotten eggs or street rubbish at him or her. The goal of this punitive ritual was to brand the perpetrator as a criminal: he lost his face precisely because his face became known all over the town. A person guilty of serious crimes at the time, lost his ‘right to privacy’ (which evidently was not recognised as a right in the middle ages). Who was tied to the pillory by the court of justice might be so lucky that the audience did not agree with the sentence, which often led to a demonstration against those in power. When Daniel Defoe —author of Robinson Crusoe— was tied to the pillory in 1703 for writing a ‘subversive’ pamphlet (The Shortest Way with the Dissenters), the crowd covered the pillory with flowers and gave him an ovation when he arrived at Charing Cross (London). In the Netherlands the pillory remained popular well into the 18th century. Not until mid 19th century it was officially abolished as a punitive measure.

In case of digital lynching people are slandered via internet. Often, but not always, it is about personal settlements: accounts are settled between former lovers who divorce the hard way, between employees who feel treated badly by their (former) boss or employer, between students who fancy the same girl, or between neighbours who begrudge each other the light of day. Nationally well known persons —politicians, judges, actors, pop stars and other Well Known Dutch Persons— form the second category of potential victims. Insulting, slandering and even virtually threatening well known Dutch persons seems to have become a national sport on internet. By means of a digital lynching they are outlawed. In all these cases the goal is exactly the same again: damaging the reputation of either or not well known private persons or of the image of institutions or companies. In many cases revenge seems to be the chief motive. Public humiliation is the predominant goal.

Digital pillory

Internet is used to settle outstanding personal accounts and to expose and redress exceeding of moral standards. These sanctions for improper behaviour are lifted to a new level by the internet: a permanent file of someone’s norm violation is established; internet users start behaving like cyber bloodhounds tracing norm violators (manhunt) and brand them with digital letters. The media and the legal system cannot and should not participate in the organisation of digital manhunts on individuals. The public nature of the internet has given birth to a new instrument for social control. This is the dark side of ‘empowerment’. As Howard Rheingold said, we used to worry about big brother, but now we should worry about our neighbours, our fellow passengers in the train, tram and underground, and arbitrary people living in our street. The online neighbourhood watch groups and vigilant committees are numerous.

Do you look around first nowadays when you pick your nose, or straighten your underwear? We are increasingly aware of possibly being watched. Apparently the authorities think they have a right to place surveying cameras anywhere, allowing them to improve safety. To what extent is people’s behaviour in public spaces influenced by the implicit potential of people in your neighbourhood who register your good and bad deeds? How do you prevent private conversations in public domains (as in a restaurant) from becoming public?

Worst cases

Bus Uncle - Hong Kong, 2006

Bus UncleBus Uncle flies off the handle

On 27 April 2006 a young man with glasses taps a fellow passenger on the back, friendly requesting him to speak a little bit more softly in his mobile phone. The young man is Elvis Ho, 23 years old, real-estate agent. The man standing in front of him is Roger Chan, 51 years old, working in a restaurant and living with 6 cats. He turns around and reacts violently and threateningly. Chan, known as ‘Bus Uncle’ since the video has been published, starts ranting which lasts for about six minutes. His language use is extremely coarse. Hanging over the back of the seat with his fingers only a few inches away from Elvis’ nose, he screams: “I am under pressure. You are under pressure. Why are you provoking me?”

This scene is recorded by a third person who published it on internet afterwards. This video was published on YouTube by ‘beautyjeojihyun’ and was watched by 1.7 million people in the first three weeks of that month. Then several derived versions were made of it, such as a ring tone, a rap, a disco remix and a karaoke version. Via internet ‘Bus Uncle’ suddenly got the status of an online celebrity. Local reporters went after him, and pursued him – he became front page news.

Strikingly enough ‘Bus Uncle’ became very popular. He became a sort of hero who expressed the true feelings of ordinary people living closely together in a hectic city where you do not talk to strangers. Chan went berserk and many fellow citizens recognised that moment of failing aggression management. “I am Bus Uncle, potentially, and so are you. Each of us has a tiny, raging Bus Uncle buried deep within, just waiting to burst free. One tap on the shoulder is all it takes” [Eugine Robinson, Washinton Post].

Chan tried to cash in on his status of YouTube celebrity and has regularly been spotted with charming young women in nightclubs since then. A few weeks after the video appeared on internet, Chan was beaten up during a targeted attack on the restaurant where he worked. In Hong Kong the video became a cultural sensation and a source of inspiration for discussions on life style, etiquette and media ethics. Particularly young people use Chan’s meanwhile famous quotations and make parodies of these quotes [YouTube: Bus UncleWikipedia:The Bus Uncle; Zittrain 2008:211].

Dog Poop Girl - South-Korea, 2002

Dog Poop Girl
Dog Poop Girl

In 2002 a remarkable demonstration of the power of internet occurred in South-Korea. In the underground a woman’s dog shits on the floor. She refuses to clean it – even when she is offered a tissue – but she does clean her dog. Several fellow passengers get very upset, but the woman’s reactions become increasingly assertive. She gets off at the next stop. A picture was taken of this incident and published on internet with the title ‘gae-ttong-nyue’ (dog shit girl). The person who did this incited everyone to collect information on this dog possessor, her family and her work. She was identified by others who had seen her dog before. In no time her identity and her past were revealed; every single detail of her life could be watched by anyone on internet. The incident was national news in South-Korea and she was even topic of discussion in churches. The subsequent avalanche of criticism and public humiliation led to the loss of her job at the university. ‘Dog poop girl’ became the most wanted search term among South-Korean internet users.

In de Washington Post beschreef Jonathan Krim dit incident als een test van het schaamtevermogen van het internet [Krim 2005]. Het is niet nieuw dat het internet gebruikt wordt om rekeningen te vereffenen. Natuurlijk is het onfatsoenlijk als hondenbezitters de poep van hun hond in openbare ruimtes niet verwijderen. Maar was het fair om de ‘dog poop girl’ te transformeren in een schurk die over de hele wereld bekend is? Was de internetmeute hier niet te ver gegaan? Kan de digitale razernij niet meer worden afgeremd? Gaat deze vorm van publieke vernedering niet veel te ver? In the Washington Post Jonathan Krim described this incident as a test of the internet’s power to shame [Krim 2005]. Using the internet to settle scores is not new. Of course it is indecent when dog possessors do not remove their dog’s shit in public spaces. But was it fair to transform the ‘dog poop girl’ into a villain who is known all over the world? Didn’t the internet crowd go over the top in this case? Is it impossible to curb the digital rage? Doesn’t this form of public humiliation go way too far?

Several people from all over the world used this incident as an example for their own actions. They record their neighbours’ anti-social behaviour, who let their dogs empty their bowels on the pavement without cleaning it. They post pictures in the neighbourhood and put them on internet. They use the power of internet to push a norm: you are morally obliged to clean your dog’s shit in public spaces, you cannot dump rubbish on your neighbours’ pavement, you cannot pee in the street, you cannot jump the queue, and so on. By means of a cyber hunt in the blogosphere norm violators are traced and digitally branded [Solove 2007]. In this process their right of privacy is drastically violated — the bloggers believe they have lost this right because they have behaved indecently.

Star Wars Kid - Canada, 2002

Star Wars Kid: Ghyslain Raza
Star Wars Kid: Ghyslain Raza

On 4 November 2002 a Canadian teenager, Ghyslain Raza (1988), used the video camera of his grammar school to record himself on video while he is clumsily swinging a golf ball scoop as if it is a light sword from the Star Wars films. Raza only did this to amuse himself, but he forgot to erase the rather awkward mock fight. In the spring of the following year the recording was discovered by somebody else. He first distributed the recording among his friends and then published it on internet [YouTube: Star Wars kid].

We want privacy for ourselves, but are very curious about the foolishness of others. In 2006 the ‘StarWars Kid’ was the most popular viral video on internet. The film was downloaded 900 million times [BBC 27 November 2006]. Several parodies were made of it, of which some were shown on the American television at ‘prime time’. The ‘StarWars Kid’ himself was traumatised by it and did not make any attempt to cash in on his involuntary fame. Raza became a ‘welebrity’ against his will. He himself only wanted one thing: “I want my life back”.

In 2005 the boy’s family took legal proceedings against the families of his school friends and claimed a large compensation. Due to the unasked-for media attention the boy would suffer moral damage. “He had to endure, and still endures today, harassment and derision from his high-school mates and the public at large”. Besides, he had to undergo psychiatric treatment for an indefinite period of time. The case was settled. The StarWars Kid was not the first case of cyber bullying, but it was on of the best known one, because the video images were linked to the popular film series Star Wars [Wikipedia: Star_Wars_kididem_nl].

Blinded date: you’re on candid internet - U.S.A., 2006

Early September 2006 Jason Fortuny, a freelance graphic designer and network administrator from Seattle, published an advertisement in the section ‘Casual contacts’ of According to Craiglist was ranked no. 10 on the list of most popular sites in the USA in 2007 (ranked no. 11 at the end of 2008). The section ‘Casual contacts’ is a virtual market for people looking for once-only adventures and anonymous sex partners.

Jason received 178 reactions to his personal ad and published them on his own website: (now offline). As he had pretended to be a woman looking for a dominant sex partner the reactions were all men’s. Jason not only published the names of the men who had reacted to his advertisement, but also their nude pictures and the names of their wives (there were, by the way, also reactions from single males). This way he destroyed their reputations, careers and marriages at one go.

It was meant to be a ‘joke’. But in reality it was an unsavoury, reprehensible and harmful joke. Generally people with a little decency do not publish private e-mails, unless there are very good reasons to do so. But the men who had reacted to his advertisement had not done anything illegal – at the very most something ‘indecent’. Jason only demonstrated that someone is capable of ruining lives online. We have known for a while that this is also possible in local communities and networks. With the largest megaphone in the world fairly random individuals are publicly humiliated and digitally branded. The privacy of the victim is pushed aside by virtual popular tribunal (“such a person forfeits his right to privacy”) and the ritual sacrifice of the witch may begin.

In the debate ensuing from Jason’s initiative on internet he was celebrated as an agent provocateur by some, whereas others discarded him as a sociopath. As a result of his experiment two men lost their jobs. When he was indicted by John Doe in April 2008, Jason quickly eased off and removed all references to the lawsuit. On 18 April 2009 Jason Fortuny lost his court case and was ordered to pay $74,252.56 to the anonymous plaintiff [Wikipedia: Jason_Fortuny; Jesdanum 2006; Chonin 2006; Doe v. Fortuny 2008].

Julie’s verkrachter - U.S.A., 2005
In the summer of 2005 ‘Julie’ published a remarkable and repulsive story on (DDHG). On this web forum abused women are encouraged to open up their hearts about the outrageous behaviour of their ex-boyfriends. Julie’s story was as plain as day: she indicted a man named Guido, who had plied her with liquor and then raped here (also anally). Besides, he had given her a sexually transmitted disease with this misdeed. “The whole time the greasy Italian piece of shit raped me, he kept on saying he had genital warts and that I deserved to have them, too, because I was a slut.” She felt humiliated, got depressed and tried to commit suicide. The story was accompanied by a photo of the perpetrator. The reactions are obvious: “That filthy bastard belongs in prison. We should put up his photo everywhere and show everyone what he has done.”

But Julie’s story was a total pack of lies. In reality ‘Guido’ was Erik, a friend of ‘Julie’s’. Eventually she admitted that the horrible story was only a joke [Green 2006].

Vermijd de bedriegers
“To post a cheating man to our easy-to-use search engine, tell us about him by sending an e-mail to [email protected]! Give us his name, age, and tell us where he lives as well. If you have a photograph, we’ll post that, too! By e-mailing a request to post a cheater, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.”

Which woman hasn’t ever warned another woman about one of her ex-boyfriends? This form of informal social control has always existed and has certainly been successful: people may be warned for men who abuse their beloved, in order to prevent recidivism. But with the site DDHG the classic informal mechanism is formalised and blown up out of all proportions worldwide. The men appearing on DDHG are branded as ‘rotten apples’ – regardless of whether the message that is published about them is true or not. Even if they have not committed a crime – apart from a few exceptions – and even if someone tries to better his life after a slip made in the past. Of course the indicted men have the opportunity to sue the woman who published this information. But in that case they first have to find out who this woman is. The postings on DDHG are usually published anonymously.

Another option is indicting the site itself. Can the DDHG be held liable for posting a fake message or a message that invades the privacy of the indicted men? The owner of DDHG, Tasha Joseph, believes she is not responsible for the comments written by others. She appeals to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, offering specific protection to administrators of interactive internet services. Moreover, the Terms of Use of DDHG disclose that the user is “solely responsible” for what she sends to the site. But, as Julie Hilden [2006] remarked, it is still the law and not the site which determines who is responsible.

On internet there is nothing —apart from a personal moral— stopping someone from slandering another person without going unpunished. Nobody knows to what extent all those stories in dontdatehimgirl have been made up [Keen 2007:91]. None of the allegations on DDHG requires any proof. All charges are posted anonymously on the site: rape, paedophilia, manslaughter, addiction. From behind the wall of virtual anonymity harmful harangues are fired without any correction of the truth. Defamation and slander can be disseminated directly into the public space of the virtual world, without interference of selective mechanisms.

There is, by the way, also a counterpart of Don’tDateHimGirl. On the site GreatBoyfriends.comwomen can recommend their ex-boyfriends to other women. “Who doesn’t know a great guy (or girl) who is shockingly, still single? Maybe it’s your best friend, your not-for-me ex, your adorable brother — you get it.” Er bestaat overigens ook een tegenhanger van Don’tDateHimGirl. Op de site kunnen vrouwen hun exen aanbevelen bij andere vrouwen. “Who doesn’t know a great guy (or girl) who is shockingly, still single? Maybe it’s your best friend, your not-for-me ex, your adorable brother — you get it.”

Sex diary of students - The Netherlands, 2002
The diary of Sanne & LesleyIn November 2002 there was commotion in the student world of Utrecht, because a ‘sex diary’ of two students circulated on the internet. The diary was stolen from the room of one of the students, scanned and posted on the exchange programme KaZaA. In the diary the two psychology students exchange their sexual experiences, describing the boys and rating them with stars and marks. The students describe their conquests with the most intimate details. They tell about torn condoms, how they wake up beside a young man and do not know who he is anymore, how he ended up there and what they have done.

The interest in the sites which published the sex diary was huge. The boys mentioned in the diary (by name, phone number and sexual achievements in bed) were swamped with torrents of abuse and badgering. A number of the twelve young men disconnected their phone numbers. According to student magazine Smoel printed copies of the sex diary circulated in Zwolle, in full colour and stapled. A website was put on air for the two students: the Sanne and Lesley Fanclub, selling T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

Diary shirtThe students were shocked, but did not take it lying down. Their lawyer required all sites that published their diary or referred to it to stop this immediately. The police investigated the way in which the diary had become public. Hosting providers were frequently called with the request to remove the diary files from the internet. Website owners were called as well. Nearly all providers and website owners complied with the request. This is the reason why the diary is hard to find now. Publication of the diary falls within article 31 of the Dutch copyright act. This act states that publication of a copyright protected document is punishable. A diary is a copyright protected document, particularly because it is an exchange of letters.

When reducing the case to theft of copyright protected documents it seems to be a simple one. Such a violation of privacy and copyright can be fought with the normal legal means. Yet, these and similar sex diary hypes remain remarkable phenomena. “Can you imagine anything more unusual? In an environment where sexual material is available on a scale mankind has never seen before, a hardly titillating story of two young girls experiencing rather innocent sex is the great sensation. Only because it was real” [Francisco van Jole, NRC 2.12.2002].

Diary of a coke officer - Nederland, 2006
On 11 May 2006 the populist web forum GeenStijl published intimate details from the diary of Ernst Wesselius, public prosecutor on Bonaire. Wesselius had accidentally made his diary accessible on internet, together with 448 confidential documents with information on bodypackers, money laundering practices and petty crime. For fear of legal prosecution these documents were not published, but the weblog does quote some intimate sexual scenes from his private life story. These are candid stories about his sexual fantasies, his experiences with prostitutes, his sneaky visits to porno cinemas and about masturbation. He also describes how, during a police investigation into a large-scale car theft, his business card suddenly showed up via a prostitute. “I will never forget my feeling of that moment, it was as if my whole world completely collapsed, I wished I could have disappeared through a large hole in the ground forever.”

The shock was even bigger when he noticed that GeenStijl and also the newspaper the Telegraaf started quoting from his ‘personal story’, which was only meant for his own eyes. “I wanted to sort my life out. The fact that this has reached other people is the worst thing that could have happened” [Telegraaf]. The confidential documents, together with his life story, had been put in a file on his computer, which was accessible to the outside world via LimeWare (a music exchange programme). At least, that was the statement given by GeenStijl and the Telegraaf. But investigation of Wesselius’ computer showed that this could not be the case, because no LimeWare software had been installed on it [Elsevier 17.5.2006]. Wesselius himself said to have ‘no idea’ how these documents could have gone public. “I only know how to switch the computer on and off. It is terrible. I have never exchanged music on that computer, I only write texts and send emails” [Telegraaf 13.5.2006]. Therefore, the confidential information that ended up in the street via the computer of the public prosecutor may have been stolen.

Together with the Telegraaf GeenStijl succeeded in badly damaging someone by quoting from personal documents which had been obtained in a dubious way. Exposing that criminal investigation documents are freely available via internet, due to incompetent acting of a public prosecutor, serves a social interest. But this does not apply to damaging the private person — this has no other purpose than offering sensation by trampling on someone else. This is not ‘funny’ and has nothing to do with ‘the exploration of frontiers’, and everything with passing elementary moral limits and defying forms of civilization. Wesselius reacted furiously: “It is awful that your private life is thrown away. Your feelings are torn in all directions. Fortunately I only received good reactions: one hundred percent of the people thinks it is an outrageous disgrace.”

Teacher loses patience - The Netherlands, 2008
It happened earlier before and elsewhere, but in November 2008 a video appears in which a teacher of the municipal grammar school in the city of Utrecht hard-handedly removes one of his pupils from the classroom. A pupil has to leave the classroom without his bag. Another pupil tries to make off with the bag. But he is roughly removed from the classroom, bag and all, by economics teacher Jongerius. Another person filmed the incident on his mobile, provided it with text and music at home, and dumped in on GeenStijl.

The principal of the school, Hanneke Taat, emphasised that the film only reveals part of the truth. “A teacher should not lose his patience, but sometimes they make it very hard for him. This film only shows one side of the case. We do not exactly know what preceded it. We are trying to find this out.” Three students of the comprehensive school in Utrecht were suspended. But the damage had already been done and the film can still be watched on internet. A small film on internet and the school reputation is busted. At some schools mobiles are forbidden in class and must be put away in lockers.

Prins on the journalistic pillory - The Netherlands, 2004
One of the first victims of the Dutch shocklogs was Trudy Prins, manager of Stivoro (information organisation in the field of smoking). It started on 2 January 2004 with an editorial published in GeenStijl, in which the number of people intending to stop smoking according to Stivoro was contested. The editorial staff of GeenStijl then asked its visitors to send e-cards to Prins or to call her. She was flooded with hate mails, publication of personal details and threats. There was even the suggestion of sending a paedophile to her house to rape her children anally. The editorial staff of GeenStijl initiated it, but declines any responsibility for what their visitors (Dutch: ‘reaguurders’, something like ‘reacreeps’) write down in the weblog.

Due to appropriate instigations of the editors of GeenStijl the rage became more and more threatening:

  • “It is as if there is a kind of rage smouldering in society, aimed at random people. It all started with a message on a website, somebody reacted, and again somebody reacted. In no time they had put my mobile and home phone number on internet. And I received phone calls with the tenor: we know where your children go to school. People used to send you a postcard when they disagreed with you. But now it keeps going on. One person wrote something that was going nearly too far. The next one went even further. One moment ‘whore!’ was the kindest thing that was shouted through the phone” [Trudy Prins, in Trouw: 15.3.2004].

And each counter action has a reaction with even grosser use of words:

  • “When I asked the provider if all this could be published, I was abused even more. An enormous dose of aggression was poured over me. All anonymous of course, although I could trace a phone number of those who sent me vicious text messages. When I called them back, they hung up” [idem].

Trudy Prins received nonstop phone calls for days. She was not sure anymore to what extent she should take the threats seriously.

  • “I only thought: these people are too busy mailing to come here. But I was slandered so immensely that there only had to be one person who thought he would do the world a favour by getting rid of me.”

Prins considered reporting this hate campaign. But the digital police informed her that the chance of catching them was very small, that an investigation into the origin of these texts would probably generate new hate messages again and that the perpetrator would probably get no more than a light community service. She eventually refrained from legally defending herself. But the Stivoro foundation succeeded in putting so much pressure on the provider of GeenStijl, that the company ended its cooperation with the web log. As a result of Trudy Prins’ threats GeenStijl temporarily went off the air, but appeared online again a few months later. “GeenStijl was temporarily off the air, in order to cling fiercely growling to Stivoro’s trouser-leg again via another hosting provider” [WebWereld].

The law of mud wrestling
What can you do if you have the honour of being the target of the mob of a shocklog? In almost all cases it is unwise to react to the content. Who does so is immediately covered with mud. It only encourages the unseemly mob to go even further. Here a conventional wisdom applies: ‘Who is shorn has to sit still’. And also: ‘Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it’. Ignoring public attacks is often the best way to contain them.
Pig in the mud
Never wrestle with a pig:
You both get all dirty,
and the pig likes it

The gutter journalism of GeenStijl operates according to a fixed pattern. With a first move of the editors the ‘reacreeps’ are invited to open up their hearts anonymously about a person they dislike for some reason or another. The ‘reacreeps’ outdo each other in malicious disqualifications, torrents of abuse and threats. After publication of phone number and address of the victim the latter is then privately harassed by the most agitated ‘reacreeps’. Defamation, slander and threats form the unseemly recipe of an editorial board that always cowardly hides behind its ‘reacreeps’ and tries to evade all responsibility for what happened. Who opposes this is sure to get an even more malicious treatment. Shameless to the bone, but with only one goal in mind: becoming more controversial and high-profile than other provoking or shocklogs.

Although GeenStijl still fulfils its raving role within journalism, nearly all reactions relating to the manager of Stivora have meanwhile been removed. Even the reference to the Stivora story in ‘Unseemly classics’ has been removed from the opening page in the meantime. Besides, the house rules were tightened up as well. “Racism, anti-semitism, rabid ultra-right language and threats” are no longer allowed. The explanation adds to this: “With shots in the back of the neck and (fictitious) death threats you walk on thin ice. Yes, we know it is meant to be funny. Your fellow commentators presumably have a good laugh as well. But the reality is that the judge only looks at how your ‘victim’ feels and not how your death threat was intended. So, if you really have to do it, only do it with mutual consent, if so desired while enjoying a beer. [...] Never ever never threat prominent persons or subjects we deal with on GeenStijl. In the worst case this will lead to your arrest!” In the meantime Stivoro has advertised on GeenStijl again with paid banners since December 2007: “quitting reacreeping is a piece of cake, quitting smoking is harder, dump your ‘quit film’, click here...” Money can buy almost anything.

The motto of PilloryJournalism“We are not a journalistic medium. Our motto is: biased, unfounded and needlessly offending” [Dominique Weesie in Vrij Nederland, 30.8.2008]
Dominique WeesieDominique Weesie

In an interview with the Volkskrant Dominique Weesie (‘Fleischbaum’) – founder of GeenStijl, together with Ambroos Wiegers (‘Prof. Hoxha’) – stated that the editors went too far in the Trudy Prins case. GeenStijl should have shown their regret about linking to an article with Prins’ phone number, resulting in reacreeps calling her. “We should have expressed our regret. And we waited far too long. That is what bothers me. This should never have happened and cannot be excused. Yet, we had a point: she had cheated with the figures.”

Theft of virtual goods

Can theft of digital goods be regarded as a criminal offence, or is it ‘merely’ an indecent act deserving moral disapproval? The answer to this question remained unanswered in the Netherlands for years. Before October 2008 the thieves of digital goods were acquitted by the court. Judges did not consider digital objects to be ‘goods’ that could be misappropriated. Artikel 310 of the criminal code phrases it as follows: “He who takes away goods that partly or totally belong to someone else, with the intention to unlawfully appropriate these goods, will be punished for theft with imprisonment of four years at the most or a fine of the fourth category.” Due to the increased economic importance of online gaming and the trade of virtual objects used by gamers in online games, the question of the legal status of these objects becomes increasingly pressing. Can virtual goods be object of ownership?

Thieves in Habbo Hotel
Someone who enters his or her house and discovers that all furniture has suddenly disappeared immediately reports a theft. If the perpetrator(s) of this theft can be traced, they will be sentenced by the judge for misappropriation. After all, the furniture thieves have illegally obtained power of disposal of goods that are my property. But what is the situation in the virtual world? Can you steal virtual goods? The furniture, clothes, houses, pets and gadgets in the 3D virtual worlds are indeed ‘not real’ in the sense that they are tangible objects. But the objects one can have at one’s disposal are of great significance to their users, and they have invested a lot of time and sometimes also many real euros in them. Who wants to have these objects has to pay for them in real euros or develop the skills to make them oneself. Who steals such objects from others is therefore guilty of theft or violation of intellectual property (theft of home-made digital objects).

In 2007 a 17-year old boy from Gennip was arrested for stealing furniture in the online game Habbo Hotel. He stole login data from young users and moved furniture, which the youngsters had paid for with their own pocket money, to his own rooms. The furniture represented a total value of 4,000 euro. The Amsterdam digital criminal investigation department not only accused the Habbo-thief of theft and handling stolen goods, but also of computer trespassing and destruction. Worldwide there is a trade of about 4 million euro in Habbo Hotels per month; Second Life has a daily turnover of more than 1 million euro. The trial against the Habbo thief was a testcase. The crucial question was whether stealing virtual goods is punishable.


Habbo Hotel is a popular internet site for youngsters between the age of eight and sixteen. They can walk through a virtual hotel there, chat with other guest and decorate their own hotel room with virtual furniture. They meet other visitors in the café, disco, pizzeria and swimming pool. The website of Habbo is free of charge to be sure, but for extra services (for example furniture) visitors have to pay with Credits that are bought with real money. A Dutch bank (Postbank) confronts the parents of potential Habbo inhabitants as follows: “In Habbo Hotel your child can venture for example by selling furniture and by organising activities. Is your child enterprising enough to make his own money in real life? Then he or she can start their own Bizznizz by working as a gardener for example, or by entertaining at parties. This is how children learn how to deal with money in a cool and clever way when they are young.”

For stealing digital goods on Habbo Hotel several tactics were used. To find out the usernames and passwords for Habbo Hotel, hotmail accounts of other youngsters were hacked and fake websites were made use of. In the TV programme Nova [13 November 2007] this virtual theft was shown.

Nevertheless, the thief of the digital objects was not convicted [Newspaper DAG - 14.11.2007].

‘Then I would hit him even more’”One of the suspects stated: “Because [victim] did not cooperate I choked him. We forced [victim] to log in on that computer. [victim] did not want to give his password and log in to play the game. Because we threatened him he logged in at a certain moment and downloaded the play. I threatened [victim] that he had to cooperate. If [victim] was unwilling to cooperate I would beat him even more” [NJD].

The RuneScape hold-up

In October 2008, for the first time in Dutch history, two boys, 14 and 15 years old, are sentenced to a community service of 160 and 200 hours and a suspended sentence of one to two months for ‘stealing virtual goods’. In September 2007 they had assaulted a 13-year old RuneScape player and subsequently threatened him with a knife and robbed him of his virtual riches: they forced him to transfer a virtual mask and a virtual amulet to the perpetrators’ account. By extorting his password from him, under threat of violence, the perpetrators acquired access to the virtual possessions of the victim. The victim had spent a lot of time on the game and therefore he had an account of great value. The lawyers tried to defend the perpetrators with the argument that it was not a matter of theft, because no ‘tangible goods’ were involved. But in this case the judge decided differently. The Court of Justice of Leeuwarden determined that also theft of virtual goods was covered by Article 310 of the penal code, and that on this basis the suspects were found guilty. According to the judge virtual goods are indeed valuable to gamers.

The judge motivated his sentence as follows:

“The purpose of Article 310 of the penal code is protecting the property of citizens. In answering the question whether virtual goods are goods in the sense of this article, this should be kept in mind. There is a number of criteria that has to be met, if we can speak of goods in the sense of the article mentioned.

First of all it is important if goods are of value to the owner. This value need not be expressed in money. In our present society the virtual goods from the online computer game RuneScape have become very important. To a great number of online gamers these goods are valuable. The more virtual goods a gamer has, the stronger he is in the game.

Besides, the virtual goods are bought and sold for money, for example via internet or in the schoolyard. There already exists a lively trade on eBay in game objects and even complete accounts for big games such as World of Warcraft. The case at issue shows that the mask and amulet were valuable to both declarant and to suspect and co-suspect.

[*] Electricity and Transferable Money

According to the Dutch law only ‘objects’ can be subject of right of ownership. In this case objects are defined as material objects susceptible to human control. But then what about electricity or transferable money?

In 1918 a dentist in The Hague taps electricity from the electricity grid for a few months. Without paying, for he was able to stop the energy metre “by inserting a pen.” At the time one did not immediately agree that this was theft. After all, article 310 of the penal code defined theft as stealing “some property” belonging to somebody else. The defence said: you cannot see or grasp electric current, it is not ‘tangible’. It is not a matter of “some property” in case of electric current and therefore you cannot take it away illegally. The case was discussed for a long time. Eventually the Supreme Court gave a decisive answer in 1921. It decided that electric energy is property that can be taken away with the intention to appropriate it illegally [Electricity decree, HR 23 May 1921, NJ, 564]. Anyway, already in 1851 the Supreme Court had decided that gas was property that can be stolen [HR 22 April 1851, W. 1394].

Equally, it has been determined that transferable money is also “property” or “property object” that can be stolen. A bank balance is a virtual object – it does not matter if the balance is kept up to date in a card-index box or in an electronic database. In 1982 the Supreme Court judged that an amount of transferable money that has been mistakenly transferred to someone’s account, can be regarded as ‘property’ that as ‘belonging to’ this other person, is susceptible to ‘appropriation’ by the account holder [HR 11 mei 1982, NJ 1982, 584].

It is also of significance that goods need not be material. In the jurisprudence [*] it is determined that also non-material goods – such as electricity and transferable money – are regarded as goods in a criminal sense.

The virtual amulet and the virtual mask [...] are no material goods, although they are perceptible. In view of the jurisprudence alluded to this is no impediment to regard them as goods as alluded to in article 310 of the penal code.

Moreover, the jurisprudence implies that an important characteristic of goods in a criminal sense is, that in case of theft the burglar obtains the actual power over the stolen goods and the person robbed loses the actual power by this theft.

Possession of property must be transferable from one person to the other. Criminal possession means having actual power. Jurisprudence has decided that the foregoing is not the case when a pin code, computer data and time units of a telephone subscription are concerned.

The designated virtual goods in the present case, i.e. a virtual amulet and a virtual mask, were in the possession of the declarant. Only he actually possessed these goods. Possession of these virtual goods can be passed on, for example by transferring the goods from one account to another.

In the present case the goods have been transferred as well, i.e. from the actual control of the declarant to the control of the suspect and co-suspect. Suspect and co-suspect have transferred the goods from the declarant’s account to the suspect’s account. Therefore declarant has lost the actual control of the goods and have suspect and co-suspect gained power over the actual control.

Now that the virtual amulet and virtual mask [...] have met the above-mentioned criteria, the court judges that these virtual goods fall within the concept ‘goods’ as intended in article 310 of the penal code and belonged to declarant”.

‘Digital goods’ are objects that have obtained their meaning and value primarily in the virtual world and hence can also become object of theft. The status of a player in an online game has been established by this player himself and generally requires a great time investment. Access to this virtual wealth and the formal power of disposal to manipulate with it online are protected by the unique log-in data (user name and password), allowing access to the game. They who have control of these log-in data are able to perform all sorts of actions that belong to an owner, such as transferring, excluding third parties, destroying and abandoning (as a rule the users acquire these rights based on the user’s agreement with the provider). And so users sell virtual goods as if they are their rightful property (although this is sometimes in contradiction with a contractual ban on transference, as in the case of Second Life). Someone who illegally appropriates this access key does, in fact, exactly the same as a thief who forces the bank manager to hand over the code of the safe. 

One gains illegal access to the properties of someone else. In the first case virtual goods are concerned, in the second case it is about money. Online threatening with violence in order to steal a password is therefore no ‘virtual theft’ – as many newspaper articles called it – but theft of virtual goods. Even if you cannot touch these goods (the same counts for money of account, see HR 11 May 1982, NJ 1982, 583). Digital or virtual objects certainly have a certain value, not only to the victim, but also to the thieves. In the sense of justice of users digital objects are anyhow experienced as property [Lagemaat/Boonk/Biet 2006]. Besides, they increasingly represent a monetary value in the local world as well, and are traded on special markets and playgrounds.

Virtual theft
We can speak of virtual theft when the access codes to a special internet space are stolen via the internet itself. To do this one need not threaten or abuse the victim – rather, it happens without the victim knowing and discovering only later that his virtual properties have been stolen.

The verdict of the Court in Leeuwarden results in interesting jurisprudence: from now on stealing virtual goods is punishable in the Netherlands.

Killing an avatar
In Japan a 43-year old piano teacher was so angry about her divorce from her online husband in a virtual game, that she killed his digital character. “I was suddenly divorced, without a word of warning. That made me so angry,” she said in her defence. The women who, by the way, is married in real life, was locked up by the police on suspicion of illegal access to a computer and manipulating electronic data. She used his identification and password to log in on the popular interactive gameMaple Story (50 million registrations) and committed the virtual murder in May 2008 [The Guardian, 24.10.2008]. In Japan maakte een 43-jarige pianolerares zich zo kwaad over haar scheiding van haar online echtgenoot in een virtueel spel, dat zij zijn digitale karakter vermoordde. “Ik was opeens gescheiden, zonder waarschuwing vooraf. Dat maakte me zo kwaad.” De vrouw, die overigens in het echt getrouwd is, werd door de politie opgesloten op verdenking van illegale toegang tot een computer en het manipuleren van elektronische data. Zij gebruikte zijn identificatie en wachtwoord om in te loggen op het populaire interactieve spel Maple Story (50 miljoen inschrijvingen) en pleegde in mei 2008 de virtuele moord [The Guardian, 24.10.2008].

When her former virtual husband, a 33-year old office employee, discovered that his beloved avatar had been killed he reported it to the police. He had ‘raised’ his avatar for more than a year [Sky News]. The piano teacher was arrested in her home on 22 October 2008 and locked up 1,000 kilometres away from her home in Sapporo.

This example not only shows how the borderline between reality and fantasy can fade, but also and especially how internet can be used to settle personal accounts. When the herenext of the virtual world mingles with the herenow of the local world, how great is the distance between a virtual murder on a carefully cherished avatar and a physical murder on the body of his creator?

Experimental research shows that the personality of someone’s Second Life character can affect a player’s local life. Yee & Bailenson [2007, 2008] called this the Proteus effect (the Greek god Proteus could assume a great diversity of self representations. He had the rude habit of showing up at the oddest moments, every time in a different shape. If someone for example has a more attractive avatar, this person does not only act in a more extrovert way than normally in an online game, but this extrovert behaviour can also be transferred to local life. When we design our avatars there is also a subtle change in the way in which we behave. Individuals act more assertively and more aggressively when they play with a big avatar, even when they are not big in reality. You can also reverse it, as Kristina Dell of Time magazine suggested: “I’m considering giving my avatar a cottage by the sea and a job doing charitable work. Maybe some of the positive vibes will rub off into my real life.” It might work, because self perception influences our behaviour.

Internet as watch group and thief catcher

We have seen how internet is not only used to settle personal accounts, to ridicule embarrassing behaviour of individuals and to broach norm exceeding behaviour. Here internet functions as a prism in which individuals are suddenly and involuntarily placed in the spotlights of cyberspace. In principle everyone has to do with it: including adolescents, divorced women, teachers, politicians and managers of large companies. In many cases private material is published on internet without the owner’s permission (in case of extortion this is the threat). According to the Dutch Board of Journalists this is prohibited. But the internet publicists do not adhere to this journalistic code.

Internet is increasingly also used to trace real offenders. Alleged perpetrators of a crime are shown recognisably and mentioned by name. Sometimes this is done by private persons, but this means is increasingly employed by the government itself.

High-handed tracing
A chemist from Nieuwegein had been robbed in his store by a young man. The chemist, Aart van Tellingen, took revenge on the shop-lifter early March 2006: he put a video of the stealing young man online. In the video we can see how the young man shamelessly fills his bag with dozens of mascara roller brushes worth 1,400 euro. When he reported the crime, the chemist offered the surveillance pictures to the police as well. In the newspaper AD [3 March 2006] the chemist stated:

  • “My experience has taught me that the police do nothing with these pictures. Shop-lifting has no priority. In January I gave the police pictures of a theft. Well, you never hear about it again. And this is not only my experience. Many shop owners complain about it. I was showered with reactions from all over the country. ‘Take a baseball bat! Send your personnel on a security course’. Many people understand my action. Of course I want to know who the perpetrator is. As soon as I get the tip, I will call the police.”

The chemist removed the film when he was called by the husband of a woman who also appeared in the film and who had nothing to do with the theft, but could easily be recognised. The chemist agreed that this was too much.

Watchdogging and branding
There are several private sites informing citizens about whether or not convicted crooks, cheats and paedophiles. With the help of internet citizens are summoned to be watchful and agile. Examples are (until March 2007) and (Cunning and Guile, “a public charge against abuse”), which publishes names of crooks. One of them is Sebastian B. [1985] who got deep into debt with a number of people and companies, which he never paid back. He was convicted for it and does not take his case to a higher court. Since 2004 B. has been threatened on several websites and has been accused of all sorts of affairs. The consequences are incalculable: B. has made two suicide attempts and is still threatened and insulted. According to his lawyer the owners of the weblog are guilty of defamation, slander and threat. B. recognised that he was wrong and accepted his conviction. His problem is not the conviction, but his prospect of a second start: “Owing to the publications on internet I never get the opportunity to start again. It keeps pursuing me.” No limitations apply for internet – it can pursue you your whole life. In criminal law the starting point is the presumption of innocence (you are innocent, unless you are convicted by the judge) and after having served a certain time of imprisonment, you get a new chance to integrate in society. Who has been exposed as a criminal on internet is branded for life and runs the risk of being permanently discriminated against as an ex-prisoner.

The maker of ListenBedrog, Martin van Kampen, believes it is “nonsense that the perpetrator cannot be mentioned by name and that the victim can.” He started the site as a “warning against this kind of people.” Besides, he collects most publications from the newspapers: “I merely compile them.” But B’s lawyer challenges this: “ListenBedrog mixes journalistic facts with its own colouring and therefore borders slander and defamation” [AD - 3.6.2006].

Chasing convicted criminals
Chasing after men who, with a false identity, try to get in touch with children and try to seduce them to perform sexual acts. This is allowed, and may even have a preventive effect. But chasing after convicted paedosexuals who have served their time? This is inappropriately taking the law in one’s own hands. On the site Stopkindersex (Stopchildsex), launched on 31 May 2006, there is a list of postal codes of districts in which a convicted paedophile lives. This way anybody can check if a convicted paedophile lives in his or her postal code area. “The site was initiated to warn people against men who operate on internet and want to have sexual contact with children”, says initiator Yvonne van Hertum. She had been convicted by the judge before, because she had mentioned paedophiles by name on her website. In the TV programme Pauw & Witteman [26.2.2007] van Hertum explains that she and her volunteers draw men out who try to have sexual contact with minors on several chat sites. If someone responds to these advances, the individual in question is publicly pilloried: they are put on the site with a picture and are mentioned by name [see also: EénVandaag - 26.9.2007].

Publishing addresses of convicts is forbidden in the Netherlands. Therefore the Dutch action group StopKinderSex has published adresses of child molesters since 6 February 2009, via an American site. Who types his postal code or residence, can see if alleged paedophiles live in his neighbourhood. The details of paedophiles is delivered by the victims or their relatives. Yvonne van Hertum’s motto is still the same: paedophiles have no right to privacy. “The moment they touch a child they lose all rights as far as we are concerned” [Volkskrant 5.2.2009].

Pedojaagster in de celOn 8 May 2009 paedo hunter Yvonne van Hertum was conviced to two months’ imprisonment by the court of The Hague. She had wrongfully accused a man of erotic chats with minor girls and had published his picture and home address on internet. With the height of the punishment the court wanted to demonstrate that the suspect’s behaviour deserved ‘disapproval’. In its verdict the court emphasised that a false accusation on internet can haunt someone for a long time. “The victim is vulnerable on internet and can be haunted for years to come” [Volkskrant 9.5.09].
The logic of naming and shaming is that sex offenders who have served their time are punished once more by society. They are virtually and unconditionally pilloried, without the perspective of prescription. This mode of exposing convicts does not agree with the Dutch legal order, Minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin wrote in his reply to parliamentary questions [source]. Who wants to report child pornography and sexual approach of children on or via internet, had better report this to the MeldpuntCyberCrime (MCC), (Complaints Office Cybercrime), the official police complaints office on internet.

Police are looking for extra eyes

In his new year’s speech of 2004 superintendant Peter Vogelzang of the province of Utrecht suggested publishing pictures of recidivists on internet and to distribute them in the areas where they commit their crimes. By pilloring criminals in public the police hope to inform citizens more efficiently about the safety and criminality in their area. “Citizens themselves are mainly responsible for the safety in their area. Accordingly they have the right to know who continuously commits crimes in their area.” Vogelzang knew that by doing this he nearly crossed the borders of the privacy law, but he believes “that social interests prevail over the privacy interests of criminals.” He received little support from politics and the Public Prosecutor, especially because of the risk of ‘taking the law into one’s own hands’. The legal spokesman of the Dutch Labour Party Wolfson remarked: “It looks like going for a ride with a condemned person on the dung cart, just like in the Middle Ages.” Actually, the superintendant’s proposal was even more drastic. After all, in case of breaking the anonymity of recidivists it is not a matter of tracing suspects or exposing convicts, but of warning the public against ex-convicts at large. And so ex-prisoners are withheld the chance of returning in society without being abused, ridiculed or menaced.

Peter Hustinx
Peter Hustinx

The Public Prosecutor notified they were not in favour of publishing pictures of criminals on internet. But Prime Minister Balkenende did not support this and only emphasised that there should be a right balance between the privacy of the perpetrators and society’s interest. The president of the Dutch Data Protection Authority (Dutch DPA), Peter Hustinx, was annoyed by the condescending way in which chiefs of police comment on privacy. He strongly opposes the idea that criminals lose their right of privacy [NRC 12.1.2004]. In the TV programme Buitenhof [11.1.2004] he claimed that chiefs of police who incite to confining the privacy of recidivists are working on ‘dangerous rousing of public sentiment’. According to him they lack understanding of their exact place in the constitutional state and should not bend with the call for taking the law into one’s own hands and reintroduction of the pillory.

In 2005 the police of Rotterdam Rijnmond dropped a bombshell and published the pictures of suspects of suspects of the riots of the football match Feyenoord-Ajax on 17 April 2005 on internet. The service sent 17,000 text messages to anyone whose mobile was around at the moment of the riots. With these modern investigation techniques a lot of people were reached (nearly 80,000 hits on the site), which led to the arrest of a number of suspects and football banning orders. The Dutch Data Protection Authority, the privacy watch dog, investigated the publication of the pictures, but concluded that this had been done ‘conscientiously’. Publishing pictures of suspects is allowed, if done with moderation and fairness. In these cases the Public Prosecutor and the police always need to balance the interests: of privacy versus punishment and prevention. Publication is only permitted in case of suspects of crimes resulting in preventive custody. And in case of escaped, violent prisoners, missed persons and unknown deaths. The Dutch DPA demands that the decision to publish should be taken for each suspicious individual. Special notice should be taken of “damaging and irreversible side effects of publication on internet on ‘first offenders’, people who have never been in contact with the police.” Publishing police pictures should comply with the demands of proportionality and subsidiarity. On the one hand the publication should be in reasonable proportion to the goal (preventing criminal facts) and on the other hand should only be allowed when no other, less extreme means is at hand [NRC 1.2.2008].

In January 2008 the town council of Rotterdam accepted a proposal to publish pictures and camera shots of Rotterdam troublemakers, trolls and hooligans on internet. In this case an escalation model is used, first showing agitators and hooligans with their eyes covered, but eventually fully recognisable. “He who misbehaves loses his right to privacy,” said Labour Party leader Peter van Heemst. He believes that politics should buy political broadcast time from the local TV station and “if need be show weekly pictures of characters that evidently screw up the liveability of this area.” The Rotterdam ombudsman, Migiel van Kinderen, calls it “a draconian measure, which seems to spring from output thinking and appeals to gut feelings” [NRC 1.2.2008].

Welcome in HumiliationLand...
Even in the Dutch Labour Party there are regularly calls to restore the pillory. In October 2008, in the weekly Vrij Nederland, member of parliament Hans Spekman of the Labour Party, spokesman of poverty policy and political asylum cases, launched the proposal to humiliate Moroccans who structurally refuse to behave in front of their own people. He believes he can realize a change of behaviour in this way.
  • “The Moroccans who do not want to behave should be humiliated, in front of their own people. If you only give them a warning or a fine they laugh at you. And a solitary confinement only gives them more status in the group. You have to deal with them in such a way that they lose their status. This is the only thing that works” [VN 14.10.2008].
By exposing criminals they are disposed of their human dignity. This was and still is the strongest moral argument against pillories, corporal punishments and interrogation with torture. And therefore these mediaeval practices are absolutely against international treaties and the constitution. A government can never wilfully humiliate people. It is a form of organised sadism. Besides, Spekman seems to plan to introduce different kinds of criminal law, tailored to ethnic descent [Etty 2008]. These are two serious infringements of the fundamentals of the so laboriously achieved democratic constitutional state: protection of human dignity and the non-discrimination principle ending on the rubbish dump of modern history at one go. Welcome to HumiliationLand...

Political exaggerations

Popular tribunals and public pillories are grist to the mill of populist parties. In 2007 the PVV member of parliament Raymond de Roon proposed to place all persons sentenced to imprisonment, community service and detention on a website of the Ministry of Justice with their name, address and picture [motions of 18 January 2007 and 15 November 2007]. He expects a digital pillory to have a preventive effect as well, because potential criminals will think twice before they overstep the mark. His motto: “Citizens have the right to know who the criminals amongst us are.” His motivation: “Many criminals absolutely hate it when their misdeeds become known in their immediate environment. This can also be a weapon in the fight against criminality. No use is made of this now. The minister has himself crippled by privacy considerations. The privacy of criminals, who themselves do nothing but permanently violate the personal privacy of others, may – and I say: has to – be affected for the sake of a higher goal: prevention of recidivism. These two arguments, preventive effect and information for citizens, should outweigh the privacy of criminals.” Who has misbehaved once gets no fair chance of returning in society and will be branded as a criminal for years after serving his sentence. This is not the same as nearly crossing the margins of the constitutional state. It is the destruction of one of its pillars: protection of the privacy of all (also ex-detained) citizens.

Amber Alert
After the American example a large alarm system,Amber Alert, also became operative in the Netherlands in 2008. This system allows the police to raise red alert as soon as a child is missing. Via text messages, e-mail and screens on stations and airports the details of a missing child can be made public. This way a lot of people can look out for a missing or kidnapped child.

Amber Alert was developed by the software company Netpresenter, together with the National Police Services Agency (KLPD). In the United States the system has been operative since 1996. In that year the 9-year old girl Amber Hagerman was kidnapped in Arlington (Texas). She was pulled off her bicycle into a lorry on 13 January and found dead four days later.

According to the administrators hundreds of children’s lives have been saved since the introduction of the American system. But there are investigators that contest such numbers. The criminologist Timothy Griffin (University of Nevada, Reno) investigated hundreds of kidnap cases between 2003 and 2006. He concluded that Amber Alert actually played no role whatsoever in the possible return of the kidnapped children. In the rare cases in which kidnappers planned to rape or kill the child, Amber Albert usually did not succeed in saving lives. The successes of Amber Alert mostly concerned guardianship disputes that were of no risk to the kidnapped children. Most kidnappings of children are carried out by a family member (usually a parent who was rejected for guardianship) or a good acquaintance of the victim (often a baby sitter). Besides, most of these children would have been saved as well without Amber Alert. Griffin sees Amber Alert as a “crime control theater” and fears that the system is more based on emotions than on actions that are actually effective. Amber Alerts are least successful in the most dangerous cases, when the child has been kidnapped by a stranger.

The multimedia alarm system offers citizens the opportunity to receive request for information via the PC (e-mail, pop-up screen, screensaver or instant messenger), via the mobile phone or PDA (text messages), via one’s own website (website alert pop-ups, RSS-newsfeed), or via screen newspapers on well visible places in petrol stations, town halls, libraries, supermarkets, trams, trains, undergrounds, football stadiums, waiting rooms in train stations, airports or hospitals. Amber Alerts are only sent when one fears the life or health of the child is in danger. The expectation is that this is the case maximally 10 times per year. The messages exist of a picture, the name and other important information about the child. When the child has been abducted by an unknown person information is given about his car, its colour or licence plate.

Criminal investigation sites
Every day numerous crimes take place in the Netherlands for which the police need the help of people who, for example, were a witness to the crime or who have valuable information. By means of requests for information the Public Prosecutor and police ask the public for help in solving the crimes. This already took place via television, radio and newspapers, and now takes place via internet. Both on a national and on regional and local level there are several criminal investigation sites, on which police and the judicial authorities ask ordinary citizens to contribute to crime prevention. Sometimes these sites have been set up by the police, sometimes by private persons in collaboration with the qualified authorities.

  • (
    The mother of all criminal investigation sites is the web version of the TV-programme of the same name, which has incited citizens for 25 years to help the police and public prosecutor to trace criminals.
  • (
    On this site the police publish details about major crimes that have been unresolved.
  • (
    Via this website duped entrepreneurs can publish free security shots, deprive the criminal from anonymity. By publishing these shots the viewers can react with tips which may lead to the arrest of the perpetrators. The tips are sent straight to the police.
  • (
    A site with files on serious crime and forensic investigation.
  • (
    On this criminal investigation site pictures and/or video material are published of all wanted criminals in the Netherlands. The site adheres to the guidelines of the Ministry of Justice concerning requests for information, so there is only visual material on the site that has been granted permission. The requests are removed when the perpetrators have been taken into custody or when their identity is known. But this does not mean that the visual material has disappeared from internet. “This is typically internet. It is everyone’s responsibility to remove the pictures afterwards” [Onno Vos, manager of BonoVox]. The site is an initiative of the criminal investigation programme Ter Plaatse(On the spot) made by RTV Noord-Holland. The Ministry of Justice has no official ties with the initiative.

Requests for information is one of the investigating means a public prosecutor can deploy in the investigation. The Public Prosecutor decides if requests for information can be deployed and in which form and at which moment this is done. A request for information can be published with a picture and personal details. This only happens if the president of the Board of Attorneys General in consultation with the Minister of Justice has given permission. Since the measure can have far-reaching consequences, the criteria for its application have been recorded in the Instruction Requests for Information (Aanwijzing Opsporingsberichtgeving).

There are a number of complaints offices in the Netherlands where people can report criminal behaviour on internet. On Meldpunt Cybercrime (Cyber Crime Reporting Website), initiated by the Ministries of Justice and the Interior, all forms of cyber criminality (child pornography, terrorism) can be reported. The Meldpunt Discriminatie Internet (Dutch Complaints Office for Discrimination on the Internet, MDI) was established to help prevent and combat discrimination on the Dutch part of the internet. The MDI closely cooperates with several organisations, such as Art.1, politics, Public Prosecutor and several foreign organisations that are involved in fighting discrimination on internet.

Patronising government?

Guusje ter Horst (Minister van Binnenlandse Zaken)
Guusje ter Horst Minister 
van Binnenlandse Zaken

The Dutch government has also recognised the decency deficit. Minister of the Interior, Guusje ter Horst, searched for the balance between rights and duties. According to her citizens are very aware of their rights, but a lot less of their duties. In an interview with the newspaper de Volkskrant [18.11.2008] she explained her decency offensive. The purpose of the initiative is to stimulate citizens to restore the ‘social fabric’. The essence of the decency initiative is a charter responsible citizenship. In a catalogue of values citizens are pointed out what their duties are. “In it the government will establish what we believe to be good citizenship.” Everyone has to participate in society: “Vote. Don’t be on the sideline and shout, or cowardly curse on the internet.”

In the numerous reactions on internet the distrust of the ‘interference’ and ‘patronising’ by the government was paramount. “Let the government behave decently first” – followed by a lot of examples of indecent government behaviour. Or the other way around: “Let us citizens first establish what decent politicians are.” For that matter, good citizenship also means: don’t drive and drink and then try to wriggle out of the fine (even if you are the mayor of Nijmegen). In brief: “Improve the world and start with yourself.”

Do all these decency initiatives make any sense at all? A lot of people doubt it.

  • “Decency offensives of the government are useless. They are always signals of powerlessness, lack of real solutions and poverty of ideas. We do not need a catalogue of values at all. We have our Penal Law, and it suffices. The citizen sticks to the law, the government controls: Paradise regained. And for the rest: the government should not meddle with my values” [Bert Wagendorp - Volkskrant 19.11.2008].

Interpretation of good citizenship cannot be imposed from above. Citizens shape their citizenship themselves: “a decency norm should be felt as imperative by individuals, it should become self-evident” [Anton de Wit]. If a government wants to influence this process, a more refined approach is needed than publishing a catalogue of values. Marcel van Dam called it a “secular catechism nobody is waiting for” [Volkskrant 20.11.2008].

Insult and discrimination
In the course of years varied proposals have been made to regulate the internet legally. One of the most drastic ones is forbidding anonymity on internet. Apart from the principal objections mentioned before, such a prohibition is practically impossible. It would limit freedom of speech in any case.

However, the free word is only really free when it complies with the boundaries of respect and reasonableness. These boundaries are set by the ban on insult and discrimination of groups of people and inciting to hatred or violence against certain sections of the population. This is also the case in the Dutch legislation. The main boundaries of the free word have been established in the Penal Law.

  • “He who in public, orally or in writing or by portrayal, deliberately insults a group of people on account of their race, their religion or life principles, their heterosexual or homosexual inclination, or their physical, psychological or mental handicap, is punished with imprisonment of a year at the most, or a fine of the third category” [Article 137c, Penal Law].
  • “He who in public, orally or in writing or by portrayal, incites to hatred against or discrimination of people or violent action against person or good of people on account of their race, their religion or life principles, their sex or their heterosexual or homosexual inclination, is punished with imprisonment of a year at the most, or a fine of the third category” [Article 137d, Penal Law].

Apart from this emphatic penalisation of insulting and inciting to hatred against or discrimination of groups of people, the Dutch criminal law has a special clause which forbids insulting gods in which people believe.

  • “Imprisonment of three months at the most or a fine of the second category is the punishment for him who expresses himself in an offending way in public by scornful blasphemies that hurt religious feelings” [Article 147, Penal Law].
  • “He who distributes a writing or picture including utterances that, as scornful blasphemies, are offending to religious feelings [...] are punished with imprisonment of two months at the most” [Article 147a, Penal Law].
Crime without victims
Blasphemy is one of the most peculiar crimes: atheists are accused of insulting a god whose existence they deny. Dan Barker formulated his objection very succinctly: “You keep accusing me of blasphemy all of the time. But I cannot be convicted of a victimless crime.” With a ban on blasphemy myths and dogmas are defended that cannot maintain themselves on their own. Believers should not forget that also Jesus Christ was killed because of blasphemy. “All great truths begin as blasphemies” [George Bernard Shaw, Annajanska, 1919].

For democrats, liberals and unbelievers these articles are hard to digest. Freedom of speech is an essential pillar of a democratic society. A society offering room for opinions, viewpoints and information that may be inconvenient for the government or for certain groups in society. A society also offering room for critical, sceptical, offensive and humoristic opinions on collective neuroses, worshipped idols and gods, holy texts and religious traditions.

In 2008 Minister of Justice Hirsch Ballin proposed to cancel the penalty clause concerning blasphemy. With this he finally seemed to meet the wish of the parliamentary majority. But at the same time he proposed to extend the working of the anti-hatred clause of article 137c, so as to protect religious feelings as well. Moreover, the minister wants to insert the words ‘immediately or circumstantially’ after the word ‘deliberately’ in the text of article 137c. This is how he wanted to point out that minority groups should remain protected against needlessly offensive utterances.

Geuzenpenning - Liever Turks dan paaps 
Beggars’ medal Rather Turkish 
than papistic

The present article 137c aims at the protection of population groups, and not so much their convictions. According to the new article 137c every believer who feels offended by a statement about his or her belief could file a complaint for insulting or discriminating their population group. “This way Hirsch Ballin provides religious minorities with a weapon to silence dissenters, having the disposal of the state power on demand. It is odd that especially in a country in which the slogan ‘Rather Turkish than papistic’’ expressed the pride of a liberated and confident nation, runs the risk of becoming a country in which the expression ‘Rather Turkish than papistic’ will become a criminal offence in the future” [Paul Verhaegh, VK 10.12.2008]. Member of parliament Tofik Dibi (Green Left) phrased his criticism on this restriction of the freedom of speech as follows: “I am a Moroccan and muslim, but do you know what would really insult me? If you would protect me, more than others, against Fitnaand against Mohammed cartoons. Building a legal wall around islamic Dutch people is an underestimation of their fighting spirit, as was shown by their exemplary reactions to Fitna.”

Self regulation of virtual communities

Utopia of open communities

In the first generations of internet users a utopian vision on the future of online communities dominated. In this vision internet technology would more or less automatically lead to breaking down all boundaries and reducing the power of nation states. In the idyllic vision internet appears as a ‘new frontier’ where people live in peace, with their own rules, liberated from the compulsiveness of an oppressive society and free from government interference. Internet was seen as an unstoppable moloch, turning the whole social and political organisation of society upside down. Instead of industrial capitalism with its exploitation, concentration and rigid hierarchies, a completely lateral network society would rise, in which the freely associated citizens share all knowledge and insights with each other (open source) and while deliberating make participatory democratic decisions on the future of mankind, united via internet. The utopian vision on internet was nourished by the hope of a substantial improvement of the world if any individual is able to communicate with every other random individual.

Behind these rather naive expectations a way of thinking is hidden, which is known in technique sociology as technological determinism. This way of thinking can be summarised in two propositions. First of all, the technological development is seen as a fact that generates itself and follows only one trajectory. Technological innovations would take place according to a logic of their own and according to developmental laws that are merely technical and not socially restricted. Secondly, it is assumed that the technological process has univocally external or social effects. Internet technology would, by definition, bring along more or less automatically emancipating and democratising effects.

Therefore the utopians advocated the idea that cyberspace is a fully separate space that had to be protected against possible interventions of territorial governments. The netizens would develop their own social contract and therefore had to be secured against any intrusion of national states or other institutions of the old society. That is why the utopians are opposed to any form of regulation. Internet cannot and may not be regulated, said co-founder and director of the Media Lab of MIT: “It’s not that laws aren’t relevant, it’s that the nation-state is not relevant. The internet cannot be regulated” [Negroponte 1995]. Internet was seen as the embodiment of the deliberating (participatory) democracy in action. The rising virtual communities would prove that the netizens were capable of setting up participatory democratic associations – without interference of legislation, without authority and without sanctions.

Illusions of a borderless world
In their study Who Controls the Internet? Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu elaborately analyse the illusions of a world without boundaries. They correctly emphasise that national boundaries still reflect the real and important differences between people who live in divergent places. This not only has to do with language differences (it did not become English all the way), but also with differences in culture, climate, consumers’ preferences or ethics. In addition, various government interventions have resulted in an increasing localisation and regionalisation of internet. “Internet is becoming a connection of national and regional networks” [Goldsmith/Wu 2008:57].

The ideal of the virtual community was that it would be completely free and disorganised:

  • Without thresholds for admission
    Access to the virtual community is completely free. There is no exclusive recruitment. No conditions are attached to admission, there are no gatekeepers selecting new members, and usually no entrance fee has to be paid. Virtual communities are not only without a threshold, but also fleeting. A netizen can simply determine which community he joins, but also when he leaves this community.
  • Without internal rules of conduct
    Nobody can tell another member of the community how to behave. There are no specific rules of conduct, at most a minimal netiquette. Since the community does not draw up rules of conduct there is no need of social control of members’ behaviour either. In case there is a need of moderation at all, this will have to be done by the members themselves (‘spontaneously’).
  • Without effective sanctions or exclusions
    Due to the lack of both gatekeepers (to oversee the entry conditions) and moderators (to maintain internal rules of conduct) there are no effective sanctions in these ideal virtual communities against people who attack the community from the outside or try to destabilise it from the inside. Therefore a virtual community is practically defenceless against evil attacks from the outside and against — whether or not specific and conscious – attempts to disorganise it from inside. In short: it is a paradise for netshits and netsluts who not only aggravate other members with their provocations, but in the end chase them from the community because the atmosphere has been completely ruined.

This is not the place to write the history and the learning processes of virtual communities. But it is clear that the notions about a completely autonomous and self-regulating virtual second lifehave by now lost a lot of their fresh colours and have been heavily discredited. Already in 1998 internet was highly commercialised, in a way its inventors and founders had believed to be impossible. By the commercialisation and pornofication of the internet chat rooms, web forums and other virtual associations have often learned the hard way that they need rules of conduct to maintain and manage themselves as a community.

Self-regulation and virtual socialisation
To fight criminal behaviour on internet there is need for a policy for criminal investigation and prosecution by the government, facilitating identification of the ‘villains in cyberspace’. This monitoring of criminal behaviour has got off the ground with difficulty and still lacks sufficient capacity to search for digital traces that can lead to perpetrators in the very large and complex virtual world, and to collect sufficient reliable information to bring a successful charge to court.

But no matter how well the official criminal investigation and prosecution authorities do their work, they can never do this alone – they badly need the help of the internet citizens. Besides, this way only the major excrescences that are already legally forbidden are tackled. The ‘lesser evil’ of indecency and of the culture of the loudmouths stays out of reach of the strong arm of the law. This evil should be fought by the net citizens themselves.

The most important lesson from the history of virtual communities is that they have to arm themselves more effectively against internal balance disruptions and malicious attacks from the outside. The virtual communities will have to regulate themselves and invent strategies to set off processes of virtual socialisation.

The first step in this process is the development of common values and behavioural norms and recording them in the house rules. The basic idea of each netiquette is simple: “Behave yourself, also on internet.” But as we have seen, the social conventions that are applied are not always very clear and sometimes highly contested. ‘Everyone should say what he or she wants to say’, but it is not very wise and usually also very indecent to type on internet what comes to one’s head. Discriminating, insulting or threatening utterances are not only indecent and/or punishable, but harm the fundamental conditions of a truly free discussion in web forums. Internet communities that cherish freedom of speech should see to it that the democratic conditions for a free exchange of opinion are respected. This is not a restriction of freedom of speech, but the first step to enable this freedom.

Saying straightforwardly what one thinks, without the possibility of communicating tone and facial expression, rapidly leads to misunderstandings and sometimes to fierce anger. Experiences with this have led to the ethical norm: “Be broad-minded in receiving and reticent in sending.” Such a moral guideline does not exactly prescribe what one can and cannot do, but does offer something to hold on to in critical discussions on the democratic culture of a virtual community.

BeleefdheidPolitenessDuring the classic polite greeting one takes one step backward and briefly bows the head. With the step backward one symbolises the distance, with the bow in the direction of the other the affection, the respect. Physical distance is taken to approach socially.

Formulating common values and norms and recording them in internal rules of conduct is merely a first step in the self-regulation of virtual communities. The second step is supervision of compliance with the house rules and imposing sanctions on those who violate these rules. Supervision of compliance with the house rules is not a privilege of the administrator or owner of a web forum, but a responsibility of the whole community. That is the reason why a lot of online communities have their own complaints desk, where participants can indicate which contributions they do not think appropriate, for whatever reason. Subsequently, procedures determinating how these complaints are dealt with and who takes the final decisions, can be established as well. When it is unclear if the complaint is sound, the question can be presented to the whole community.

In the larger web forums people are recruited from the membership file, who are assigned the task of moderating the contributions to the discussions. Moderators are the gatekeepers of virtual communities who monitor the development of the discussions daily. Because they closely follow the postings, they can act right away when they get the impression that things are happening that do not fit in with the community in case. Often urging people to remain calm is already sufficient, plus pointing out the house rules to them. But sometimes moderators need to interfere more strongly. This is the case when a participant perseveres in his or her indecent behaviour and deliberately tries to ruin the atmosphere in a community. Then moderators can decide to remove postings from the forum or to exclude the person in question temporarily or permanently from the community. Exclusion is that last remedy to keep a community resistant against going to the dogs.

Over the years more and more and widely divergent large online communities have come into being, in which thousands of people participate daily. In the most popular web forms the tasks and responsibilities of the moderators have been greatly expanded. They play an increasingly vital role in the protection of their community against miscreants, vandals, troublemakers and trolls and in the stimulation of an atmosphere that is required for candid exchange of opinions. Originally the moderators were mainly volunteers who undertook the task of regulating their community without being paid for it. The increasing awareness of the importance of ‘self-regulation by moderation’ has led to initiatives to qualify their moderators in a better way in a lot of virtual communities. It is time to set up learning trajectories in regular education that can support the professionalisation of the moderators. Improving the expertise of moderators is a crucial link in realising a non-repressive social control within online communities.

At first sight the self-cleaning ability of online communities seems to be strongly restricted by the anonymous or pseudonymous behaviour of the participants. But the lack of local mechanisms of social control can be compensated online by virtual socialisation. This allows for reinforcement of the social cohesion and sense of social belonging of virtual communities, leaving no (or at least a lot less) room for extreme reactions. Eventually this is what is at stake in this virtual decency offensive – ‘Decency: also online’.

Law of conservation of mud
Newspaper sites with open discussion forums hardly exist anymore, because only the muck gets attention. “Because we, as newspaper people, are frightened out of our wits by the impertinent and indecent way people are ranting and raving when they can anonymously join in a discussion about the news. Because the muck does not disappear, whatever you try. Yet, we keep trying in the Dagblad van het Noorden. We close discussions that are running out of hand and keep out trolls – vandals – with ip-bans. This works, fortunately. It does make the problems manageable. We are no longer held hostage by a small group of miscreants. Our goal is that the users of the site solve the problem together. As a newspaper we do not want to take over full responsibility, because we cannot do this. Of course we remain responsible for insulting and racist utterances, which we remove as soon as they are pointed out to us. But the first aim is an open site, on which not only our check of what is good or bad is the standard. We do this because we really believe in reader-directed journalism. In listening to the reader. Of course it is by now an unheard-of experiment, because other newspapers have closed their forum and not without a reason, or do not start one to begin with” [Henk Blanken, De wet van behoud van bagger, 2005].

The law of retention of much goes as follows: “Whatever you do online as a medium, you will always find your part of the muck on your doormat, your part of crude racism, of the stupid nonsense, of anonymous badgering and senseless tormenting. Because muck remains, a number of interactive experiments failed, forums were closed and chat sessions ended in sad tragedies” [idem, Herbert en het behoud van bagger]. In other words: “If you invite the whole world to your party, you can be sure that someone pees in your beer” [Wired]. Moderation of weblogs is an effective instrument to curb virtual indecency. But there will always be muck. If only because most web forums do not have the means to moderate all contributions in real time.

Nomadic reflections

Responsibility for postings
Klik om te vergrotenA crucial question is: to what extent is (the administrator of) a weblog responsible for the postings of others? Who is responsible when something is posted on a weblog by a visitor, which can be qualified as an insult, a threat, violation of privacy and publishing right of pictures, and so on? When an internet provider in the Netherlands is warned by the judiciary about the nasty content of websites on its network/servers, it is assumed to do something about it. Providers are not responsible for publishing illegal material, but they are indeed responsible for removing it. This principle can be extended to weblogs themselves, forcing webmasters to keep discussions within the boundaries of the law. And preferably also within the boundaries of social decency. But by now we know that you cannot impose decency, or only with great difficulty, and certainly not with legal means. What is decent to one person, is indecent to the other. What is rude to one person, is sharp-witted or funny to the other. And being indecent is not punishable.

Tempt to decency: netiquette
In the complaints brought forward about internet criminality and decency (intolerance and rough manners) play a prominent role. How can people be inspired to behave decently in a digital environment too? Civilised behaviour cannot be enforced online either. It is inevitable that the indecency we meet in the streets has its effects in popular web forums as well. If you administer an open web forum that becomes very popular, you should keep in mind that ‘indecent’ postings will be published. A weblog or forum owner cannot hide from the law behind a disclaimer: criminal offences are also punishable by law when they are committed online. But within this boundary administrators of web forums are not responsible for what people post on their forum. He does not have to apologise for indecent language. But administrators of web forums and their visitors can set up and guard rules of conduct that draw a clear line. This has nothing to do with restricting freedom of speech. On the contrary, developing a private netiquette is a vital condition for any online community to enable freedom of speech.

A lot of web forums have had years’ experience with drawing up and maintaining internet rules of conduct. This experience teaches us that it is often not useful to set up very detailed rules of conduct. “If you try to set explicit norms people will look for holes. (...) A lot of people like to explore the frontiers,” says Johan Heslinga of Fok. The FOK!forum makes use of a simple rule of conduct: “The main thing is that we expect you to behave decently towards your co-posters, that you stick to the Dutch legislation and that you follow the instructions of moderators and (forum)admins” [Fok Policy].

Reputation system
Apart from drawing up rules of conduct and appointing moderators, online communities can use a number of other means to ensure that people communicate with each other in a more careful and friendly way. By means of a rating system participants are enabled give each other’s reactions a higher or lower rate. This is how the contributions that are highly valued by a lot of people end up on top of the list of reactions. You can also offer visitors the possibility to decide for themselves if they only view reactions with a high rating. Apart from rating the individual contributions, the participant himself can also be rated by means of a reputation system. This is how decent behaviour is rewarded with a positive premium. The reputation system anticipates the need for recognition. Besides, all members of the community can include the reputation score in their judgment of contradictory opinions published by other members. By the way, in practice we can see that a lot of rating and reputation systems can relatively easily be manipulated.

Finally, web forums can also make use of a click-complain-button, allowing visitors of the site to register discriminating, hatred-sowing and slanderous or other legally forbidden utterances and to send them to the police with one click. With the software of Chat-Security, for example, one can make a screenshot in one go, after which the details of the participant involved are registered and put in a database. The police have access to this information and can take steps, depending on the seriousness of the offence. is the first site in the Netherlands that will make use of this software. was discredited in December 2008, after Minister Van der Laan (Integration) had been shocked by provocative texts on the forums of the website, amongst others against gays and jews. According to one of the founders, Khalid Mahdaoui, it is nearly impossible for the 30 moderators of to check all tens of thousands messages that come in daily themselves.

Moderator: the digital hydra
The good moderators of web forums are versatile people. For the upkeep of larger communities several important functions were already created earlier. People who were capable of helping newcomers to determine their position within the community. People who took care that no things occurred in the community that could endanger the continuity of the community. People who were capable of intervening in discussions that were deadlocked or got out of hand. The modern moderator of popular web forums not only has all these functions at the same time, but also in communities that are often much more extensive than all local communities that we have known so far.

With these house rules or netiquette in their hands —preferably as the result of a discussion with visitors or community members— moderators can act in order to protect the basic conditions of a free discussion. A moderator can caution an offender of the communication rules in a friendly way or warn to stop the undesired behaviour. He can remove the posting in question, close a whole discussion line (‘thread’), or ultimately remove this person temporarily or permanently from the system and block his IP-number. Practically each form of local social control can be copied online.

Civilisation as composed self-control
Civilisation is a complex concept with a very long, but also a contradictory history. From its origin it was a term with which social elites presented themselves in relation to people who were – in their eyes – ‘simpler’ and ‘more primitive’. Civilisation has always been a concept with which the ruling elites tried to convince themselves and others that they were superior to the ‘common people’ [Elias 1939/82: (1) 62]. This is why there is a superior overtone to the concept of civilisation (similar to decency). However, it is quite well possible, and in my view also essential, to disengage the concept of civilisation from its elitist cocoon.

Civilisation is regulating our desires and emotional life by means of a lasting self-control. This self-control is an indispensible condition of human coexistence. In case of a fully uncontrolled expression of our desires and emotional life, coexistence becomes impossible, in any case very unpleasant. Our whole process of upbringing is dominated by learning to have self-control, in combination with independence and empowerment. The art is to pursue this learning process in our virtual second life.

The self regulation of internet that is advocated here usually begins with the most literal and near ‘self’: myself. ‘Civilise internet and start with yourself.’ If I am annoyed by rudeness, obscene language, assholeishness and resentment, I have to see to it myself that I am not guilty of it and that I take action against those who do. There are enough people on internet who think the same. By joining hands virtual communities can protect themselves against degeneration, and actually become digital environments where it is nice to be. These are environments where listen to each other, and criticise each other without abuse, where we can convince each other without threats, and where we can learn from each other once in a while. Freedom of criticism thrives more than ever in an environment where people are broad-minded when they receive criticism, and reticent when they send criticism. It is an art one learns during the process. Decency should also be practised online.

Tight and empowered virtual communities
There are enough well-functioning virtual communities on internet in which the participants are strongly committed to each other, in spite of their anonymity. The close social contacts create a positive atmosphere. An atmosphere in which mutual trust and respect for each other’s opinions are predominant. Usually they are communities in which the members interact with each other during a longer period of time and who have therefore developed their own communication style and have a shared history. Especially these strong communities show that despite the anonymity of their communication, virtual socialisation can be extremely successful.

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