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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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