Crime and the Internet

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

Is the Internet really powerful enough to enable a sixteen-year-old boy to become the biggest threat to world peace since Adolf Hitler?

Dr David Wall, Crime and the Internet

Having been set chapter 11 of this 2001 book—Maintaining order and law on the Internet—as SOCL491 reading, I decided to read the rest of the book. Edited by Dr David Wall, it features 13 essays by a range of academics both fledgling and established, all revolving around the then-novel field of cybercrime.

In the introductory chapter Cybercrimes and the Internet Dr Wall outlines his division of cybercrimes into instances of: cyber-trespass, such as the unauthorised accessing of computer systems; cyber-deception/theft, such as …the fraudulent use of credit cards and (cyber)-cash…; cyber-pornography/obscenity, such as child sexual images; and cyber-violence, encompassing everything …from cyber-stalking to hate-speech…. He then goes over some of the obstacles encountered when attempting to research cybercrimes, such as the lack of useful statistics and trans-jurisdictionality.

Then follows my second-favourite chapter, Dr Ken Pease’s Crime futures and foresight: challenging criminal behaviour in the information age. Pease argues that whilst [t]he Internet ends the age of the home-as-refuge just as artillery ended the age of the castle-as-fortress, the use of novel technology in the commital of crimes is nothing new: People in pubs glass each other. People in Elizabethan alehouses did not pewter each other, the availability of knives being much greater and the effect of pewter on the victim’s face being much less dramatic than that of broken glass. He believes that more attention should be paid to motivation in future criminological research, writing that [a] crime is solved when someone to blame is found [but a] crime is understood when the offender’s motivation is revealed.

Cybercrime giant Prof. Peter Grabosky co-authors the next chapter with Dr Russell Smith, examining examples of telecommunication fraud in the digital age. Following this, Prof. Michael Levi provides …a suggestive, rather than a systematic, analysis of media coverage of computer crime. He argues that we …need a more sophisticated and critical awareness of the problematic relationship between the theoretical potential for cybercrime and the much smaller (as far as we know) incidence and prevalence of computer crime for economic gain.

Next up is Dr Paul Taylor, pondering in Hacktivism: in search of lost ethics? whether the rise of the hacktivist is in fact the result of contemporary hackers rediscovering the ethical values of their early forebears. Borrowing Levy’s idea, expressed in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, of there having been …three main hacker generations—the true hackers, the hardware hackers and the game hackers—Taylor adds his own three—the hacker/crackers of the mid-1980s, the mid-90s Microserfs and, finally, the late-90s hacktivists.

Lancaster’s very own Dr Bela Chatterjee then takes a stab at the revolutionary potential for marginalised gender, sexual and relationship minorities to explore their identities within the context of widely proliferated online pornography. In Last of the rainmacs? Thinking about pornography in cyberspace, Chatterjee argues that …there may be pornographies rather than pornography (emphasis hers) and that [s]uch an understanding makes room for lesbian and gay pornography, as well as for different styles of sexual expression such as fetishism and sado-masochism.

The most interesting chapter, for my money, is Marjorie Heins’ Criminalizing online speech to protect the young: what are the benefits and costs? presents a compelling case that most justifications used to stifle speech online—claims of indecency, harm to minors and obscenity—fail to hold up to even the most cursory scrutiny, evidence that such material causes harm when consumed by youths being thin on the ground. Addressing both UK and US case law, Heins then argues that it is the attempts to restrict such material that can be in fact harmful, writing …youngsters, certainly, will have sexual thoughts; they will seek out information; they will masturbate but we cannot publicly approve of it and asking [w]hether the messages of guilt, shame and disapproval that society sends to youngsters by forbidden their access to sexual explicitness and erotica are ultimately harmful or helpful to them…, suggesting that [y]oungsters cannot be expected to mature into competent adults, capable of embracing good ideas and rejecting bad ones, unless they get some practice at it. In the wake of the UK government’s current calamitous attempts to implement a nationwide porn block, this chapter seems more relevant than ever now.

The same can not be said for the next few chapters, which betray the almost two-decade pedigree of the book. One lengthy chapter discusses …Internet content regulation in the UK…, which is by now almost entirely outdated. Another discusses ways in which the judiciary can better incorporate IT, and yet another discusses 20-year-old attempts to combat cyber-stalking. Having aged slightly better is Dr Matthew Williams’ The language of cybercrime, which suffers instead from an overdependence on social scientific waffle. The central thread—…understanding how on-line offenders harm their victims through text…—is not uninteresting, but the author gets far too bogged down in po-mo wankery.

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