Network: The Internet is far more powerful than a hangman's rope or a cowpoke's six-gun

In the 19th-century American West, folks had their own way of dealing with things. Cut off from East Coast refinements and the legal system, the citizenry had ad hoc methods for dealing with what you might call "social problems".

They formed a posse, they got a rope, and they hanged offending varmints from a handy tree. If the varmints weren't in the mood for a necktie party, then the posse loaded up their Colt Peacemaker revolvers and Winchester repeating rifles and headed out for a showdown. After all, if a cuss was too ornery to stand still for a hanging, then he deserved to be shot.

Many a murderous, larcenous or otherwise socially irresponsible soul met his maker in this fashion.

Problem was, so did some other folks, who may have been less deserving of an early date with the big Cowpuncher in the Sky. Folks who didn't see things the same way as other folks, for example.

You could be hanged or shot for being black; for being Native American; for being a foreigner; for being a Mormon, or not being a Mormon; for not wanting to sell your land; for selling your land to the wrong person; for being a sheep-herder; for being a cattle-rancher; for damming the creek in a drought or opening the dam in a flood; for marrying the farmer's daughter or, certainly, for not marrying her.

In some towns, during some epochs, just about anything was an excuse for a little "social engineering", including the fact that it was Saturday night and there was nothing else to do after the saloon ran out of whisky.

The Internet is often called a frontier. Indeed, one of the Net's most influential advocacy groups is called the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Just like the young United States, the Internet is a place where there are lots of new opportunities and where former strangers from all walks of life are gathering to form new communities.

And, like the West of old, Net communities often have to make do without the established legal system. The capabilities of an instant global network render obsolete many legal notions based on 17th- and 18th-century concepts of how information moves.

Even the language harks back to a simpler world. Take "freedom of speech": does that mean I'm OK as long as I use Real Audio to express my views? What about freedom of e-mail? Freedom of HTML?

How about national boundaries? It's perfectly possible to post something to your Web site that is completely legal (indeed, encouraged) in places such as the UK and Norway, but which would be grounds for a prison sentence (or worse) in places such as China and Myanmar.

The Net's denizens have filled this gap by cobbling together ad hoc standards, referred to as "netiquette", based on widely accepted notions of civil behaviour as it translates to an electronic medium.

However, when transgressions occur, Net people react remarkably like their counterparts in old Dodge City.

A prime example was the case of those ever-so-uncivil Arizona attorneys Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, who spammed some 6,000 newsgroups with their pitch for legal services for immigrants. Netizens launched such a hail of return hate e-mail that Canter and Siegel's service provider was knocked off the air repeatedly until the account was cancelled.

Couldn't hang 'em, so we cut 'em off at the cyber pass. Not a lot of tears were shed for the couple, who've been quoted calling the Internet community "hackers, pornographers and forgers".

But apparently, some members of the cyber posse occasionally find themselves bored on a Saturday night, too.

A recent example is the case of Tommy Hilfiger, the New York fashion designer who has been vilified in e-mail and newsgroup postings for allegedly making racist remarks on two American television shows. As word spread, many outraged correspondents called for a boycott of Hilfiger's clothing.

Problem is, it just ain't so. The New York Times investigated, and confirmed, in an article published last Thursday on its Cybertimes Web site, that Hilfiger had never even appeared on the television shows in question, much less made the comments.

And Hilfiger's is just the most recent case. There's a long list of businesses and individuals who've been unjustly strung up on the cyber gallows, their good name fallen victim to malicious persons cloaking themselves in the Net's anonymity.

The Net is far more powerful than a hangman's rope, or a cowpoke's six- gun. Great power brings with it the need for great responsibility, like folks who check before they jump on to a runaway rumour wagon. For any cyber varmints who think otherwise, this Net just ain't big enough for the two of usn

cg@gulker.com

Erratum: In my column of 22 April, I attributed the invention of the transistor to the Bellcore research organisation. Bell Labs in fact have the kudos. Many thanks to John Haine for setting me straight.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing