Net Or Not Ethics

The humanities of the Internet: identity and responsibility

We are the Internet people. Not monsters or wizards or even masked superheroes. We are just people encouraged by a great will to learn and communicate. Exceeding the physical distances and filling the cultural ones in a network made of people.

These statements might appear rhetorical, obvious and predictable and, probably, they actually are, but it is not easy at all to fully comprehend them, as they are buried under tons of hostile technology, mass-medio-logical hysterical masses, the public arrogance of institutions’ and misleadingly pointless behaviour that, in order to preserve public and private interests, moved by ignorance or selfishness, leads to exceed every elementary principle of respect towards the users and their communication rights.

There is a keyword: relationship. The Internet is a fantastic instrument for building human relationships, it does not matter if we are talking about a business or a birthday present, but it is necessary to know how to achieve this goal. It is vital to explore the “people’s Internet” or, more precisely, the people that constitute the Internet. It is simply necessary to get through the first phase, the “web-centric” one, to discover the amusing world of social networking, mailing lists, chat and newsgroups. Places where people meet in a boundaries-free environment, talk, build up friendships, argue and much more.

How to analyse Internet humanities then? The answer is simple: it is necessary to explore the relationship between the people behind the screen and their image which is projected inside the network. Two big topics have been spinning around since the Internet was born: the first is the “anonymity right” and the second is the “content responsibility”. Freedom is vital in every context, but it also has some precise limits and it is honest to admit that the Internet business is the first to undergo some strict rules.

Let’s start with the identity. In all the other forms of communication, an “anonymous letter” or an “anonymous call” is always considered unacceptable, incorrect or, at least, unkind. In the Internet environment, many people reckon it is their own right to “hide” behind an “alias”, a pseudonym. While it is true that everyone is totally free in using nicknames or tag lines, hiding is a completely different story.

Pseudonyms have always existed in literature but, generally, it is clear who the author of a certain book or article is; only in a few cases, especially where the author might have to undergo political consequences, the pseudonym is not transparent and the true identity is hidden. There are people in showbiz that have an “artistic” nickname, but this doesn’t mean their identity is a mystery. It may be useful to remind us that in British law and costumes the name is considered a private choice.

Anyone who goes to a hotel in the United States has the right to communicate to the employees any information he or she wants, even fake details. In 99.9% of the cases the customers do communicate the right details and their identity can be verified anyway when they use their credit card. It is proverbial, though, paying-with-cash “clandestine couple” who register as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”.

Anyway, in spite of all the different customs among the countries in the world, we are used to thinking that everyone has a real name and can be recognized. The same should happen on Internet. In chat platforms it is quite common to use nicknames but is usually nothing more than a game. For e-mail accounts we can use fake names, and many people do this, but e-mails are normally signed and we know perfectly who is writing a message to us, even if the sender account is [email protected]

Basically, it is rare to fall into some “anonymity problem”, but it is vital to underline the criteria of the issue. If everyone has the right to sign messages as desired or even not to sign them at all, it is also true that no one is forced to reply or accept the exchange. So everyone is in such a position where it is possible to choose whether to read unsigned or unidentifiable messages or not.

What if someone breaks the rules? Even without getting into some legal issues, the moderator of any list or newsgroup, the administrator of a system, can forbid the access to the service to all the users that don’t fit the “etiquette” or have negative behaviour or even don’t agree with the policy defined for that service.

Therefore, the “anonymity right” has a limit, according to the principle that is behind every reasonable concept of liberty: everyone is allowed to do anything, as long as it doesn’t hurt other users’ liberty and rights. With this, we get to the “responsibility” issue. Who is responsible for what is written and spread through the Internet? Everyone is responsible for his own work, obviously, but it is not so simple. Again, without considering the legal aspects of the topic and even without entering the delicate and complex defamation and crimes of world opinion, it is evident that it is not a reasonable act to spread false news or slander or make some strictly private information public.

Gossip is a very common disease and, if a gossiper gives immorality a voice in private meetings or by phone, then it is definitely difficult to identify him or her, but on the Internet the situation is a bit different. “Scripta manent” and, therefore, every single statement can be spread worldwide and get exponentially multiplied, while, on the other hand it is much easier to discover the guilt, even if it is not always easy to identify the sinner.

There are many ways to censor the network, trying to address the responsibility of the contents of the systems that are in charge of the on-line platforms. We can think of those who try to impose the so-called “provider responsibility”. This is absurd because of a simple practical reason (although it is technically possible to monitor all the data exchanged in a system) and it would turn out to be an unacceptable restriction of liberty by transforming every communication provider into a censor. Another thing, which is often attempted, is to consider every list, newsletter or website as a news organization, with a managing director. This is absurd too: everyone should be free to write, say and publish whatever he or she wants. These distortions are definitely to be avoided, but, responsibility is not annulled in any event.

In spite of any law issue, from a human or civil point of view, we are responsible for everything we post on the Internet. There is a big difference between “hosting” other users’ ideas and reproducing them intentionally. This means that any of us, before forging or quoting some news or a statement, has to wonder whether it is reliable and interesting or not.

Therefore, everyone is responsible for what he personally produces or what spreads intentionally. Who runs a dialogue area, such as a list moderator, is also responsible for the behaviour and the civility of the environment but not of the content of every single message. No one should censor anyone’s opinion.

From a juridical point of view, there is no actual need for precise laws concerning the use of the Internet because of this responsibility common sense. There is a risk, which is concretely real, though: while it is true that the complexity and the multiplicity of networks makes censorship very difficult, the huge amount of restrictions, criteria and rules might steal our web-liberty, which is our own right.

On the other hand, being free also means being responsible. Therefore we have to commit ourselves to respect everyone’s liberty and privacy, always being ready to get in charge of responsibilities. We are required to do so. It is respect towards other people that demands this, even more than the law.