Grey Areas and Reality

Previous research has shown that the anonymity of the internet has had a profound effect on the behavior of people online. However, past endeavours have not looked into the fact that this anonymity is not singularly bad, and the effects could be negative or positive. In our web text we seek to explore the consequences of this phenomenon and the moral and ethical implications of an anonymous internet. Through the medium of the web we will be able to deliver our text directly to the audience to which it refers. In doing so we plan to address why people act differently on the internet. Why is it that anonymity changes people? What are the reasons some people see the internet as real life and others distance themselves from the notion? Alongside our discussion of ways the internet changes people we shall explore both why and how many of the actions performed anonymously differ from actions taken with identities tied to them. It has long been known that people may present themselves differently online than in the physical world. How is this contributing to cyber crimes? In addition to this, we endeavour to explore the positive and negative connotations of these identities. Why is this alternate reality viewed in such a negative light? Are there positives that can be associated with having these separate realities? We plan to complicate this idea further than it has been.  Past research points out the negatives of the internet’s impact on morality, but we plan to explore the gray areas of internet morality, for just as the morality of behaviors presented in the physical world are not black and white, neither are the behaviors of the online world. Perhaps they are even more complex.


Congress and the misgivings of Copyright

Rob Reid gave a comical speech in a 2012 TED Talk about the numerical side of piracy. In his speech he brings up numbers derived from many sources that quantify loses from piracy. One such statistic is the estimated $58 billion loss from piracy every year, a number which originated at a Think Tank called the “Institute for Policy Innovation” shorted to IPI for the rest of the article. From this IPI came a number of op-eds related to piracy and the potential losses accumulated over the last decade, such as 373,000 jobs lost which is debatable since the overall employment of people in the Entertainment industry is slightly less than that. An interesting point Reid makes is the value of a downloaded song. The Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 laid down a hard maximum penalty for copyright infringement of a single song at $150,000. This number designated by congress would mean that an IPod Classic full of pirated songs would have a total value of $8 million. If you however purchased the songs at the average price of $1.29 from Itunes your IPod would sadly only be worth $67,889.57, not even half the maximum fine for pirating a single song. Simple math makes it painfully obvious Congress doesn’t know how to handle digital theft, and the lobbyist for entertainment companies are equally guilty. There is so much at stake in Reid’s 5 minute video it is hard to imagine he addressed half of the problems relating to how the government handles digital crime.

Copyright: Forever Less One Day” is a video on youtube made by youtuber CGPgrey, an educator in the UK who makes educational videos for the internet in his free time. In this video GCPgrey (Grey) goes into a detailed breakdown of what copyright is and how it came to be as insane as it is today. In 1710 the Statue of Ann came into effect in the UK which gave artist and authors the right to make money from their creations for a limited period of time. When America created its constitution it gave the congress the same power. When entered into the Constitution copyright lasted 28 years, however in 1831 it increased to 32 years, in 1909 to 56 years, in 1976 to the lifetime of the author plus 50 years and finally in 1998 to the lifetime of the author plus 75 years.  This means Tarzan written in 1911 is still not open to public domain, and the first Harry Potter book won’t be in the public domain until around 2116. Grey explains this concept was pushed by companies like Disney to ensure there wouldn’t be a better version of their movies made in the distant future. The original point of Copyright law was to increase incentive for authors to write more content however limiting access to ideas over 100 years old is doing the opposite. The implications of these ridiculous copyright laws gives direction to the improper usage of copyrighted material. If copyright had stayed where it started maybe people wouldn’t go to illegal means to use those materials.

“The internet is changing the way we communicate” a powerful line from the opening paragraph of “The Internet, cyberethics and virtual morality” written by Robert Hauptman and Susan Motin. In their paper they address many concerns with how the internet is changing our lives and how we should not let it shape our actions. “They are particularly harmful if they allow us to confuse reality with a nonexistent universe where unethical actions are permitted” talking about Cyberspace and virtual reality, Hauptman and Motin take note of the duality of the internet and want to prevent us from partaking in harmful actions. Surprisingly their paper addresses many of the concerns I have about my inquiry and provides solutions to several of them. They take an insiders approach trying to lay down the laws of ethics governing the internet and offer a set of rules to abide by in order to make cyberspace a better place. This is the firs paper I found that wants to solve the problem of cyberethics instead of just noting it and moving on. They close their paper with a statement that could not speak better to my inquiry, ” We must police ourselves and act in accordance with the same ethical principles and procedures that are operative in our lives generally”. They believe that it is up to us to govern ourselves on the internet in order for it to grow as a medium we must put order above our own desires to continue into a brighter technological age.

For my last source I looked to a new side of the spectrum and found a neat article about cyber-smearing. “Rash impulsivity, vengefulness, virtual-self and amplification of ethical relativism on cyber-smearing against corporations” is an article written by Michael Workman where he talks about how cyber-smearing —  the intentional effort to damage the reputation of an individual or corporation using the Internet as the medium — affects corporations. Workman addresses an issue I am concerned about but from the perspective of large corporations, a side of the argument I had not considered. He conducted research on how people behave when commenting online about companies and found that “simply because people post anonymously or with aliases online frequently, does not mean they are cyber smearing”. This research shows that people don’t post harmful comments just because they are anonymous, instead there are people who use anonymity for privacy reasons. We should not blanket statement concerns about anonymity in cyberspace because Workman makes valid points about the need for privacy in such a large space. Instead he believes regulations should be in place in workplaces to prevent cyber-smearing by employees and using legal means to deal with traceable smearers outside the company. Workman provided me new insight on how anonymous posting can harm businesses and while he takes a stricter approach than I think necessary, he still makes good points on how cyber-smearing and potentially cyber-bullying should be handled.

Cyber Behavior

So for my inquiry questions I looked into are people able to compartmentalize and become “different people” when working in a digital rather than physical space. As well as in what ways does being anonymous make us feel safe about making ethically questionable decisions. My opinion on both topics are somewhat bland, as I don’t see myself standing strongly for one reason above another. I think that many factors are at work as to how people act in cyberspace but I do unquestionably believe that people act different from physical space. I mainly want to know why, and what it would take for us to treat each space equally because I spend equal times in both and see them as equally valuable. While I haven’t personally had any exceptionally negative or positive experience I am aware that it is a common problem that affects a large population, especially teenagers. The idea that we can become somebody we are not is thrilling but how far is it okay to take acting before it becomes a serious problem? The answer isn’t clear and that’s what I’m really interested in, the psychology behind how people behave online.

I strongly believe that most people act differently in cyberspace, and most scholars agree with me. The only thing I can really think about disputing is the reasons behind this and possibly the importance of it. I started thinking about whether or not acting like somebody you aren’t is actually worth looking into. However as long as cyber bullying is causing teens to take drastic actions I think there is reason to study more about cyber-behavior. I think a “Yeah but…” approach would be most suited to public opinion on piracy. A general definition of piracy according to average web users seems to be “copying material from an open source” which does not shed light on the stealing aspect. This mindset has foundations since technically nothing is being physically “taken” from somebody however I believe we need to move away from this concept of physicality and think instead about potential loss. Another reason for piracy is that one of our founding fathers Thomas Jefferson was against copyright laws which fuel the legal battles involving piracy. Copyright is an artist or companies right to make profit from their work when it is used, which sounds like a great idea however many complications end up occuring and we end up with things like “Happy Birthday” being copyright 90+ years after it was made. The artist has been long dead and in no way benefits from profits from the use of “Happy Birthday” however it still requires permission from the owning company and a fee to be used. That is why restaurants don’t sing a normal “Happy Birthday” to customers. However copyright has thin lines involving private use which is why it isn’t illegal to sing “Happy Birthday” to your kids. So where does online content fall within a copyright war? Currently copyright laws say that piracy is illegal, however many disagree with that which is why I get to debate this. If something like shoplifting was backed by a copyright mentality people wouldn’t argue about whether or not it should be legal, it would just be illegal and people would be punished for doing it. However thanks to the anonymous nature of the internet we get heated debates about piracy constantly and even big news sites chime in from time to time. Lately scholarly research has gone into cyber behavior and people have started taking these issues seriously.

Following with the “Yeah but…” approach I looked at quotes from my sources and found some interesting debatable statements. From my source on how piracy is good there is a quote “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. This statement is worded with the intent to protect “authors and inventors” from having their writings/inventions stolen before they had the chance to make money on it. It does not imply a sense of security for musicians, filmmakers and so forth, therein begging the question if copyright should even apply to those categories. While many would agree that it should cover all forms of art, that possibly wasn’t the intention of Congress when copyright law was introduced in 1783. Copyright was formed with the intention of letting inventors sell there work before others could build on it, and was never intended to stop people from enjoying music 95+ years after its release. I can see why people commit piracy when such outrageous limitations exist.

From my source from the academic journal of educational computing research (scholarly research), Tanya Beran takes a “Yeah but..” approach herself stating ” Perhaps bullying begins at school and then extends into the home and community through the use of technology” supporting this with stats from the study conducted showing “More than half (64%) of students who were victims of cyber-harassment, also reported victimization by another type of harassment.” This would mean that technology doesn’t change our actions, instead it becomes a medium for them to continue outside of our usual realm of influence. According to this line of thought people don’t compartmentalize in a digital space, rather they import their psychical selves into the digital context making this a concern about human nature instead of technological influence.

I used an article title “The Online Inhibition Effect” and honestly I can’t find anything to dispute in his paper because it directly addressed my opinions on the matter from a scientific view and backed up what I already assumed. For the sake of the assignment there is a phrase “some people report being more like their “true self” while online” where the idea of “true self” probably needs to be more clearly defined. Why can’t a “true self” be a digital self? Why do we assume physical self to be more true than other selves? Many people would say their spiritual self is closer to their “true self”. Limiting the idea of “true self” to a physical real world self is restricting thoughts on how digital selves should be handled. Is a crime committed by a digital self less or more severe than a similar crime committed by a physical self?

As my last source so far I used an online news article titled “The Psychology of Online Comments” by Maria Konnikova. She states “Anonymity … encouraged incivility.” which is a relatively shorten conclusion of her article as a whole. Here I think it would be best if we redefined Anonymity. She uses it to basically be any form of internet usage since for normal people it is hard to respond to a digital mishap even with a real name linked to the account in question. Since people can always make a new account or change their digital name, Konnikova thinks all actions are anonymous. I believe otherwise. Things posted to sites like Facebook or traceable through Linkedin do not have the same anonymity as actual anonymous posts on websites that allow such. If every website enforced real identification to partake in forums or comments her ideas would be shaken. Why do we allow anonymous posters then? And who is to blame when an anonymous post or comment causes serious problems in a digital community?

The online disinhibition effect

On a quest to find out how the technologies we use change and shape our character and values, I stumbled across an interesting theory. It is known as the online disinhibition effect and it involves the social restrictions we have in a normal face-to-face environment and how they can tend to get thrown out the window online. It is a known cause of many problems with the internet such as cyber bullying and trolling, but I believe it also relates deeply to other aspects such as piracy and fraud. I was looking into whether or not people able to compartmentalize and become “different people” when working in a digital rather than physical space and I believe the online disinhibition effect gave me exactly what I was looking for. The idea that we have a form of  dissociative anonymity on the web means that people don’t feel threatened with the consequences of their actions . This points mainly to trolling on message boards but also can be applied to our more questionable decisions. Can I really be punished if nobody knows I did it? This question applies to real life as well as the internet and my thought is no. An unnoticed crime wouldn’t be punished in real life unless you turned yourself in from guilt and many believe this attributes to why people feel comfortable doing illegal things online. Apparently a lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to track you down over the internet thus they feel comfortable behind their screens saying and doing whatever they please. John Suler speaks to this in his article “The Online Disinhibition Effect” where he goes into great detail about the many aspects of what being anonymous does to people from a psychological standpoint. In fact his article does a great job of linking my two inquiry questions: Are people able to compartmentalize and become “different people” when working in a digital rather than physical space, and in what ways does being anonymous make us feel safe about making ethically questionable decisions that I feel I need to search for a new question. For the time being however I want to delve deeper into how anonymity affects us.

It doesn’t seem to be a topic of debate that being anonymous changes the way we behave. The psychology community appears to unanimously agree that something changes when we get the freedom to not be ourselves. Popular theories relating to group dynamics such as Group Polarization relate partly to our ability to de-individualize ourselves in large groups. When you apply this to the internet and see groups as message boards or communities it makes sense that people are able to say things beyond normal logic. Add to that the fact that many feel completely anonymous and its no wonder there is such a trolling problem online. Trolling, for those who do not know, is making a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them. As it so happens trolls are prime examples of decent people compartmentalizing themselves in an online space. Maria Konnikova addresses anonymous commenting in her article for the Newyorker “The Psychology of Online Comments” where she notes that the internet isn’t the first time we see these actions but it increased the rate of them alarmingly. I think there is a lot to be said about the “freedom” the internet offers and with that freedom come great responsibility and it will take a lot more scientific studies before a definite conclusion is reached. In the mean time I will collect the current information we have and try to make sense of what is happening in the society that is the internet.