The Dark Side of the Internet : What Can Be Done

With the proliferation of new media technologies, the Internet has been hailed as a utopian technology, capable of transforming the world for the better through education, through greater democracy, through its ability to bypass the censors, and through creating online networks and communities.

But that which can be used for good can be twisted into something that can be used for the bad; just as the Internet can be used to do many beautiful and wonderful things, so it can also be used for nefarious ends. For example, anonymity affords users the freedom to discuss sensitive or embarrassing issues without the fear of economical or political retaliation, social ostracism, or sacrifice of privacy; however, it also offers deviants a refuge to perpetrate offences with less fear of being detected and prosecuted. Encryption can be developed to secure national secrets, privacy and protect copyrighted works; it can also be exploited by hackers, terrorists for their nefarious purposes and to erase any traceable "footprints".

The "dual-use problem" (Katyal, 2001) not only raises a host of new problems, but also heightens the complexity of existent difficulties with traditional forms of deviance, such as consumer fraud, child pornography, defamation and copyright infringement. The perpetrators use the Internet with its global reach to carry out their nefarious plans, targeting victims the world over. Because of a combination of weak laws and enforcement, the novelty of the problem and the methods used, some of these perpetrators do get away without being punished. Traditional laws and enforcement has never looked so impotent in the face of such well-known problems.

The view that offline rules apply to the Internet is gaining increasing acceptance. Lessig (1999) has demonstrated that law, social norms, market and architecture constrain people's behaviour in real world as well as in virtual world. A combination of these are probably necessary to regulate the Internet. Technology or architecture, can be circumvented by the most determined, which is the category that offenders fall into. Regulation through market forces can work only when those forces are working well.

Cyber-community Norms

In cyberspace, more and more users not only hopscotch from one website to another website like tourists, but also settle down in online communities. Each virtual community has its own customs, norms and rules of conduct Some of these norms are incorporated in documents posted on the website; some are provided electronically when a person joins a specific group or list; some are communicated with memberships and pass on to new-comers by experienced users . Those who transgress the community norms are punished by their virtual communities.

For example, BBS webmasters may impose on the violator public criticism, deletion of a specific posting or blocking the IP address and register name; newsgroup and MUD system operators (sysops) possess the power expel individuals from the group for breaking customary rules ; members will retaliate and isolate norm violators through "defect-for-deviate" or social ostracism .

Though through anonymity, it is possible for a violator to rejoin the former community under a new identity or simply transfer to another community, a new identity means a new face, it is always takes time and efforts to make friends and to be accepted in a community.

Such ostracism can be effective. The famous "toading" of Mr. Bungle illustrates cyber-community's power to standardize its member's behaviour. Mr. Bungle was a member of a MUD (multi-user dungeon) game. He angered his community by committed disgusting rape and violence against other members of the cyber-community. The community decided to "toad" Mr. Bungle. His account was erased and his identity eliminated from the virtual community. Mr. Bungle tried to return to the community as Dr. Jest. However, social ostracism from the community finally forced him leave the community permanently.

Such instances of social ostracism are rare. The offenders have to commit an act sufficiently egregious to incur the wrath of the community. Otherwise, the community is forgiving enough to accommodate quirkiness.


With these constraints, organisations are using creative self-help measures to enforce the law when it is in their interest to do so. In copyright arena, companies have been established to reduce if not eliminate piracy. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the International Olympic Committee hired a company to patrol the Internet for unauthorized videos or images. The IOC had signed a multibillion-dollar television deal and it had to ensure exclusivity under the deal. The company Copyright Control Services initially trawled some 60,000 sites. Later, it narrowed down its focus to some 100-odd sites that were more popular. Most of the sites were apparently unaware of the copyright implications of their live feeds. But when they were so enlightened, they duly removed the feed. All except for one defiant Russian site that claimed to "believe in freedom of expression" and so refused to remove its webcast. The IOC then warned the Russian site that if it did not do so, the live feed to its terrestrial television station would be pulled. The Russian site duly removed the webcast.

Law and International Cooperation

Governments the world over will have to deploy new technology and enact new laws or revise old ones to cope with new and evolving abuses and misuses of the Internet. It will be necessary to enact a version of a computer misuse law that criminalises computer and Internet-related offences such as unauthorized access, access with intent to commit or facilitate commission of an offence, unauthorized modification of computer material, unauthorized use or interception of computer services, unauthorized obstruction of use of computer, and unauthorized disclosure of access code. China's revised criminal code penalises those who "use a computer for financial fraud, theft, corruption, misappropriation of public funds, stealing state secrets or other crimes".

However, these laws can only have impact on its own citizens within its own borders, while with the proliferation of the Internet and computer technology, cyber-criminals can "hopscotch around the world, exploiting gaps in criminal laws and committing depredations with essential impunity and citizens abiding the laws of their own country can find themselves subject to prosecution in another country under its different laws" (Goodman, and Brenner, 2002). Hence such laws would tend to have extra-territorial application. Without international cooperation, such laws would have limited efficacy at best.

Thus, on one hand, without international cooperation, cyber criminals can safely commit trans-border offences via the Internet with impunity. On the other hand, the inconsistency of laws in different country imposes unpredictable risks. For example, Yahoo had to take down Nazi paraphernalia and Third Reich memorabilia and prohibit the online auction of items that violate the French penal code, though in the United States, the ban violates the First Amendment. And an Australia who had materials on his website which is legal in Australian while illegal in Germany was arrested when he was travelling in Germany. As the Internet becomes more closely integrated with companies' daily business practice and people's everyday life, the uncertainty of laws can undermine confidence in the Internet and create barriers to the future growth of E-commerce.

On the other hand, the need for such cooperation will compel governments the world over to look into criminalising such offences. Not surprisingly, countries have taken steps toward international consensus on cybercrimes and attempted to facilitate international cooperation in combating the abuse and misuse of the Internet. The Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime was signed by 32 European Union members and the United States, South Africa, Canada, as well as Japan (Council of Europe, 2004). As the Convention aims at promoting uniform national legislation, common criminal procedures, and resources for cooperation in an international perspective, the involvement of a variety of countries can help to reach a real consensus on cybercrimes and enhance the enforcement of national laws.

Besides international efforts on legislation, international cooperation on investigating and prosecuting cybercrimes has also yielded encouraging results. The best example of the power of international cooperation is illustrated in the international crackdown on child pornography rings. For example, in 1998, 12 countries joined hands and smashed one of the largest international paedophile rings, the "Wonderland Club". The cooperation action, known as "Operation Cathedral", began after United States Customs officers exposed a paedophile gang in 1996. Police from other countries followed the leads and shared information and finally raided at the homes of suspects in 12 countries-all at exactly 0400 GMT on September 2, 1998.

It is therefore likely that laws in this area will converge into a set of internationally recognised norms based on best practices and willingness to cooperate.


The view of Barlow and others who think that the Internet cannot be regulated has been, and deserves to be, debunked. The Internet is just too powerful a medium not to be regulated so as to maximise the good and minimise if not eliminate the misuse and abuse.

Effective regulation, one that carries with it sanctions and enforcement, however, will require international cooperation. Local or national enforcement can be effective only up to the a point. The Internet makes it easy for offenders to operate from across the border.

In the longer term, this means that countries that do not act against the darker uses of the Internet will find themselves havens for such users. No country would want to be in this unenviable position. This suggests that in the long run, the regulation of the Internet in many countries will converge. There will be a core of common regulations, such as those covering subjects discussed in this paper: child pornography, consumer fraud, defamation and copyright. But to let the Internet be the Internet, there will be differences great and small in areas outside this core. This is as should be expected because this is the expected result of the appropriation of the Internet by various countries.

In the meantime, governments, users and industry do need to look at minimising the dark side of the Internet. That can only encourage its diffusion and growth.

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