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Against the Net? No—Just Cautious

I realize that those who’ve read my previous articles might get the idea that I view the net as a scary place, chock full of mostly-bad people just waiting to harass you or your child, and am in favor of strictly controlling the net, regulating it. That is not, in fact, the case.

I learn new and wondrous things via the net every day. Every week or so, I meet a new and marvelous person who I would never have encoutered in my offline life. I’ve been able to reconnect with people who have been gone from my life for a decade or more. I’ve benefited from the net personally, professionally—even spiritually! It’s an incredible tool, and I have no plans to reduce the presence of the internet in my life.

I met my life partner, Sam, in church—a Univertarian Universalist Congregation, to be exact. A mutual friend introduced us. We were busy single parents who didn’t have much opportunity to spend a lot of time with each other or even talk on the phone. We did exchange email—lots of email. We had long conversation in those messages that just weren’t possible standing around sipping coffee after church, or having a meal with friends and the kids at IHOP. Even our first "dates" involved all three kids, sometimes other people too. Our email and occasional ICQ conversations gave us time to interact one-on-one, and I know that the internet is partially to thank for our relationship. That’s my favorite happy-net story.

The net is a tool. It’s an interesting one, allowing us to create community with people we may never see in the flesh, or whose voices we may never hear. It gives every one of us the ability to become publishers and say absolutely anything we want to an international audience.

We meet far more people, from more varied backgrounds, by logging on the the internet than we would by strolling down our neighborhood streets. Let’s say there are 20 houses on my street, each with an average of five people living in them—100 people that I might meet on a stroll. On the net, I regularly participate in newsgroups with 100 or more active participants and hundreds more lurkers (those who read but rarely post messages themselves). Being active on many high-volume mailing lists and a handful of prolific newsgroups, it’s perfectly supportable to say that I am interacting, on some level, with more than 1000 people every day on the net—and I don’t even use chat rooms!

Now, plucking a number out of the air, if 1 in 500 of the people we ordinarily encounter might be dangerous, then on my daily walk through the neighborhood the odds of encountering someone with criminal intent is very low. My odds of encountering such a person in my normal daily activities on the net, while still, say, 2 out of 1000, are much higher, simply because I’m encountering more people.

Now, consider the fact that my neighbors know me. Even if one of them is a criminal, it’s unlikely that he’ll decide to mug me while walking down the street on a nice morning. He’s more likely to commit such crimes elsewhere, with victims who are strangers to him and couldn’t identify him easily if they survived. On the net, we are not usually neighbors in any real sense. We know people by the handle or email address they’ve given us, which may have absolutely nothing to do with their real names or characteristics. Even if we’ve been given a photo which is supposedly of the person in question, we haven’t seen him or her with our own eyes, so we can’t say "Officer, a blue-eyed woman with black hair and a scar on her left cheek, about 5’5", maybe 140 lbs., with a tanning-bed tan and silver cross earrings, threatened to kill me on IRC yesterday! She called herself AngelEyez."

That kind of relative anonymity makes some people far more willng to act in ways towards people they meet online that they would never consider with their neighbors, fellow church members, coworkers, etc. Some are relatively harmless—when’s the last time you got a business call from someone who asked "What are you wearing?" in a salacious tone of voice? Doesn’t happen (okay, not in the offices I’ve worked in!). However, it’s difficult to enter any chat forum on the net without getting something like that inquiry, from people who might well be your church deacon or copier repairman.

Some of these interactions are not harmless. If someone sent you a letter via the post office describing his sexual fantasies towards you and said that he intended to get your children and husband out of the way so he could carry them out, the police would immediately be tracking the origin of the message, questioning and probably arresting the most likely sender, etc.

People get emails like that every day. Their alarm is regarded as being blown out of proportion—"hey, it’s just email!" and many police departments won’t even take reports of such threats sent via email. If they take a report, they don’t follow up, or don’t even know how to follow up.

And it’s easier to send such a message via email—come on, when’s the last time you snail mailed a personal letter? It’s much easier to send threats that you know are illegal if you think those messages can’t be traced.

And all that adds up to why I encourage people to be very cautious about what information they make available online, about how open they are, and about how far they let net friends into their lives.

I check into the backgrounds of people I meet on the net—in fact, I checked Sam out on the net before the relationship went anywhere. It took less than an hour to find out where he’d worked in the past, to verify that what he’d said about his current job was true, to know something about his social interests—I even knew who his ex-wife was and where she worked, though we hadn’t discussed anything more than the fact that she existed (no name). Without being a private detective or paying anybody for access to any databases, I knew where they’d lived together and apart and had read some of the fiction she’d published. I knew about when they’d separated and had some information on who he’d been involved with since then. Under an hour, no money paid to anyone, no formal training in tracking people—just what I know about where people leave information across the net. Anybody can do it—and I encourage them to do so. He knew I’d check, too, and was okay with that. I’m quite sure he did the same, looking up what he could find about me on the net.

Fifty years ago, when encountering a new person we knew something about their family—his father runs the hardware store, his mother’s heavily involved in the Methodist church, his older brother got a football scholarship, his older sister got pregnant and dropped out of school to get married. We knew whether or not he (or his family) had frequent run-ins with the law. We knew how long the family had been around town, probably knew the guy’s grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. And they knew us. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity for deceit in that kind of situation. It would be ludicrous for this guy to claim he wasn’t married if we saw his wife and kids at the grocery store every week. He couldn’t exactly tell a woman he encountered at the donut shop that he’s really a millionaire photographer who could get her a chance at a modeling career when she knows that he works in the family hardware store. She didn’t need to check him out—she already knew. Or her mother, sister, best friend, or father would know.

Today, we meet someone, online or off, and most of us have no idea whether what the person says of herself is true, utterly fabricated, or half-and-half. We don’t know a thing about her family, or her marital status, or any kids she might have shuffled off to live with her parents. If we meet her online, we know even less, and have fewer opportunities to verify whatever she chooses to say. So we need to be more cautious—it’s simply the price of admission, folks.

May 10, 2001

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