The Bully and the Protector
There’s no question that technology creates all sorts of challenges and that cyberbullying is among them. Just think of the malice that would have been required to do something similar in the past: Nailing nasty fliers around town took a lot more effort than posting a Facebook page, indicating a greater pathology. Yet, the effect on the victim is similar.
Nonetheless, we should be wary opening the door for government too widely to address bullying, because of both what might slip through in the process and what doing so indicates about our culture:
“I don’t think it’s going to eliminate bullying, but it will put a big dent in it,” said [Sen. John] Tassoni [D, Smithfield]. He refused to provide specifics about possible legislation.
The Rhode Island State Police, too, will again pursue a bill that would give law-enforcement officials the ability to subpoena information about Internet users without having to go through a judge, Tella said. State police will seek a measure that would require Internet services providers, such as Facebook and Google, to provide the name, address, and telephone numbers associated with an account in response to an administrative subpoena signed by a state police superintendent, or other high-ranking law-enforcement official.
Removing the judiciary from the process, shifting its authority in these matters to appointed officials in the executive, erodes protections against encroachment on citizens’ liberty. Whatever the exceptions become, to the rules for subpoenas, will surely expand; cyberbullying, that is, will in short order become a very broad category of online activity.
Of course, the larger problem is that we’re inviting such erosion by our very urge to involve government in the first place. It’s a cycle: As we pass along the responsibilities of membership in a community to government, it becomes easier to conceive of government as the appropriate overseer, leading us to pass along more responsibilities.
Society once had stigma and cultural rules of behavior that helped enforce boundaries. With their evaporation, legal consequences are being substituted, but our system hasn’t proven very effective at implementing objective, narrowly targeted laws.
To be sure, reasons beyond passivity exist for the shift. Social pressure must have had more weight when most people’s lives were lived within a few miles. The black mark of a child’s bad behavior could follow the parents to the workplace and social scene in more tightly woven communities. Homes are now often little more than rest stops in commuters’ lives, so dirty looks at the corner convenience store are less apt to have a substantial effect.