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Crime and Punishment In Cyberspace

Sonia Orin Lyris
Cyberspace is a computer-mediated place where people (or "inhabitants") can meet to exchange information. So any place that people communicate with each other with the aid of computers is a cyberspace. There are plenty of embellishments possible, of course: equipment that adds sensory experience and enhances realism (virtual reality) or that makes it seem that an inhabitant is in another location entirely (telepresence.) Today's cyberspaces are primarily text-based. Inhabitants "post" to electronic bulletin boards (bbs) or conference groups, send electronic mail to each other (e-mail), and have real-time exchanges via computer chat-lines (e-chat or e-talk).

To outsiders, this sort of computer-based communication may seem little more than a quicker way to send written mail. But it is more than that. In cyberspace, information is the medium of exchange and an inhabitant's actual physical location is unimportant. So communication actually defines a given cyberspace community. Cyberspace communities have different problems than physical world communities and, as a result, adopt different rules.

Many of these rules are nonetheless based on the physical world's rules and are still under construction. Cyberspace communities are constantly trying to figure out the best ways to support their needs in a world of changing technology and diverse users. System administrators evaluate the practicality of enforcing appropriate guidelines for cyberspace behavior while lawmakers try to determine appropriate laws to protect against crime in the computer age.

But what is a crime in cyberspace? "Crime" covers a multitude of meanings, from the complex laws of our legal system to the complex rules of social interaction. Cyberspace is a world with new rules and old rules and sometimes no rules. It can be a confusing place for a newcomer.

For example, we all know that it is a crime to steal someone else's physical property. But is it a crime to steal someone else's information in cyberspace? The answer depends on the location and type of information. For example, if the information is in a cyberspace inhabitant's private storage area, it may require system-breaking to read, which in most circumstances is a prosecutable crime. But it is not a crime to steal ideas, in or out of cyberspace. Since information in cyberspace is still largely textual, it is protected by existing copyright laws. But copyrights can only protect the presentation of an idea -- in this case the actual text -- and not the ideas themselves. Inventions can be protected with patents, but patents protect implementations and processes, not general ideas. Besides, a patent must usually be filed before an idea is made public.

So there is a great deal of information that is simply not protectable. In cyberspace, where information is easily and publicly available, taking, using, and even claiming to have created someone else's ideas is simply not a crime.

But most cyberspace inhabitants will not stand for it. In a world where every item of exchange is information or information-based, inhabitants have a healthy respect for those who give information. People in cyberspace share and present information more freely and widely than in any other culture that has ever existed before and usually at little or no benefit to themselves. Cyberspace inhabitants share knowledge and information because it is an essential part of the cyberspace culture to do so.

So while there may be no laws to prevent someone in cyberspace from stealing someone else's ideas, when the theft comes to light, other inhabitants are likely to be unhappy about it. The offender's credibility will suffer significantly. This is likely to limit the offender's ability to get and give information. A good reputation in a cyberspace community can buy the generous effort of thousands of people at a moment's notice. Losing that can be costly.

Even so, there are many cyberspaces, and anonymity and name changes are often easy to come by. Strict monitoring of a cyberspace is impractical or impossible. At the heart of cyberspace "crimes" is misrepresentation. An inhabitant can claim another's idea as their own or can claim to be someone they are not. Scams, chain-letters, and pyramid schemes are trivial efforts to launch and mass distribute in cyberspace.

What's an honest cyberspace inhabitant to do?

RULE 1: Know your neighbors.

Cyberspace is a large community, in which neighborhoods are built -- not along lines of location, as they are in the physical world -- but along lines of interest. For example, a conference group that discusses software engineering is a neighborhood of inhabitants who are interested in (and probably knowledgeable about) the topic of software engineering. In that neighborhood, over time, inhabitants will come to know each other not only by name, but also by the style and content of information that they present to each other. When someone who is well-known and respected says something to their neighbors, their neighbors will listen carefully.

RULE 2: Read critically and cross-reference whenever possible.

Cyberspace is very much like a living library. Books, essays, poems, and fiction are easily available, and the authors are often around if an inhabitant wants to discuss their works with them. But putting words in print does not make them fact, and much of the information available in cyberspace is based primarily on opinion. As with paper libraries, readers must read with care.

RULE 3: Verify the personal identity or reputation of your source when the validity of information is important.

In systems where inhabitants must use their real names or a traceable account number, forcing them to account for their actions is much easier. Those who break rules can be identified, and others can be warned about their behavior. But since many cyberspaces allow some or total anonymity, inhabitants can often present themselves as someone else. Even the Internet, the largest world-wide cyberspace, cannot enforce individual identification. Anyone on the Internet who has appropriate privileges or knowledge can create a new account or forge another name and account on messages. When the content of information is important, inhabitants need to make sure the source is reliable.

RULE 4: Verify the personal identity of your cyberspace neighbors before becoming personally involved with them.

While online, reading up on the latest technical writing conferences, Fred happens across Julia, another technical writer. They exchange e-mail about technical writing, and eventually include other personal information about themselves. Over time Fred becomes quite fond of Julia. One day another inhabitant tells Fred that Julia is really Max, and Max has been telling everyone except Fred details of how Fred was taken in. Fred discovers that Max considers the whole thing a hilarious joke. Fred feels humiliated, betrayed, and angry.

This happens repeatedly in many cyberspaces. Far too often, cyberspace inhabitants are credulous, believing everyone to be as honest as they are. There are a number of approaches to verifying the identity of another cyberspace inhabitant, such as in-person meetings, phone calls, personal references, and so on. Since it is impractical to take the time to try to verify the identify of everyone in a cyberspace, it is a matter of assessing the risk if the other person is not telling the truth -- whether the risk is flawed technical information or personal discomfort. Friendship and information exchange are often closely linked in cyberspace neighborhoods, so inhabitants often establish significant personal ties as well as information-based ones.

RULE 5: Don't be afraid to apologize publicly if you make a mistake, whether the mistake is technical or personal, big or small.

After Fred gets over his embarrassment, he posts a recounting of the events for his cyberspace neighbors, including information on the fake Julia and the real Max. Some fellow inhabitants are amused, saying that Fred got what he deserved for taking what Max said at face value, but most inhabitants are irritated. Some send angry letters to Max, and some refuse to talk to him at all. Max didn't realize his actions would cause so many people to be upset. After he sees the reactions of his fellow inhabitants, he begins to regret the whole thing, and even considers leaving the system entirely, or finding a way to get a new account and start over under a new name.

Everyone makes mistakes, and cyberspace inhabitants place great store by a willingness to admit them. Public apologies are fairly common in cyberspace, where personal cues are often easy to misinterpret. If Max were to make a public apology to Fred, most people would probably forgive Max.

RULE 6: Consider the possible risks and benefits of sharing information, but remember that in all but a few circumstances the benefits outweigh the risks.

Alice has a great idea for a new kind of cyberspace, but she isn't sure if her idea is really new. She considers posting a summary of the idea to the cyberspace conference to see if anyone else has heard of it before or can offer her advice for what to do next, but she's afraid someone will steal the idea.

It is good that Alice is seriously evaluating the risks of posting her idea to a public cyberspace, but she is probably worrying too much. If she posts publicly, other inhabitants will see that it was her idea, and if someone else should claim the idea later on, she'll have evidence of a prior claim. Unless, of course, the idea isn't original after all, in which case, asking her cyberspace neighbors about it could save her a lot of time and work. In any case, most ideas presented in cyberspace are not stolen. While ideas can indeed change the world, most ideas simply don't. Some of the best ideas the world has seen were ignored for long periods of time.

Impersonation and intellectual property theft are among the most serious of the cyberspace crimes, but they are relatively rare. Most people are not in cyberspace to engage in such activities; they are there because they want the exchange that cyberspace best supports: communication with people who have similar interests in an environment where physical distance is not an obstacle.

Rule 7: Expect to make mistakes if you are new to a cyberspace, but don't be afraid to ask for help or references from older inhabitants, who are usually glad to be of assistance.

Susan is new to the cyberspace conference group. She asks the group what their definitions of "cyberspace" are. Twenty people in the group immediately respond, telling her that this is an inappropriate question. They explain that this particular question gets asked every month by some newcomer, and while it is a worthwhile question, it has already been talked to death, and it takes the discussion away from other important topics.

It is easy for the new cyberspace inhabitant to be unaware of the serious problem of information overload. In cyberspace, more information is available than any one person can possibly assimilate. When information exchanges are free and spontaneous, some issues arise often, starting up discussions that repeatedly follow similar paths. In an established cyberspace with many inhabitants, some issues come up so often that older inhabitants become understandably tired of them. In some cyberspace groups, archives or regular postings discuss reoccurring issues for the benefit of the newcomer. On the Internet, this list is posted monthly and is called a "FAQ," which contains answers to "Frequently Asked Questions".

RULE 8: Remember how easy it is to misinterpret someone's intent in cyberspace. Stay cool, even if you're sure you've been insulted. If you must say something, say it privately.

In Joe's PC conference group, someone asks for advice on purchasing a computer. Joe posts a reply. Someone else posts a message saying that Joe doesn't know what he's talking about. Joe is irritated and replies to the posting. Before long the discussion has moved from technical discussions to name-calling.

Cyberspace makes immediate replies easy, so misunderstandings can quickly blossom into arguments. Because tone of voice cannot easily be conveyed with text, many arguments start up because someone attributes to malice what is adequately explained by poor expression or miscommunication. Substantitive and relevant discussion usually becomes impossible when these exchanges are public. These fiery interactions usually start with little misunderstandings and are often preventable.

Cyberspace crimes are similar to crimes in the physical world, with the essential difference being the ease of obtaining and distributing information. Whether the information contains new ideas, poetry, opinions, hoaxes, or outright lies, the dissemination of information -- or misinformation -- in cyberspace is easy. This is what makes cyberspace such an unusual environment, with great potential for both sharing information and taking advantage of the unwary.

It is difficult to formalize and enforce rules in cyberspace, so cyberspace communities tend to construct and enforce rules that suit their needs as specific problems arise. Many of these rules are based on the in-person social conduct rules we are all familiar with. As in the physical world, it is considered improper to badger, slander, or reveal personal information about someone without their consent. Impersonating someone, or "blowing someone's cover" on anonymous systems (giving out names, phone numbers, and so on) is also highly unacceptable. Some systems have rules governing behavior, but such rules are hard to formalize and enforce. On one system, the rule is both simple and vague: "be polite". Surprisingly, it works most of the time.

Administrators who try to enforce rules often end up having to read a prohibitively extensive amount of text, and they are often forced to invade an inhabitant's privacy in order to be thorough. A number of law suits dealing with the privacy rights of cyberspace inhabitants have been brought to the courts. The bottom line, however, is that it is impossible to monitor all the communications between cyberspace inhabitants in cyberspace. Between sheer volume and unbreakable cryptography algorithms, there is no sure way to know what information a group of cyberspace inhabitants are exchanging.

Thus, in practice it is the cyberspace community itself that enforces the rules, with the tried and true methods of the schoolyard: peer review, disapproval, and -- if necessary -- ostracism.

Since most cyberspace administrators are limited in their ability to hold inhabitants accountable for their actions, today's cyberspaces are largely run by educated anarchy. The biggest disadvantage of cyberspace anarchy is confusion; questions of proper behavior arise constantly and must be worked out among the inhabitants every time a problem surfaces. The advantage is that a more mature citizenship arises out of these efforts, one where inhabitants adopt rules because they work well and not simply because they are handed down from a higher authority.

When children play in a schoolyard they decide for themselves what the rules for various games will be, and they enforce the rules themselves. There are always bullies who badger or harass, but for the most part, children manage to interact with each other in ways that support the rules they have created. Children learn in a schoolyard what behavior works in a social environment and what behavior doesn't. If a child wants to be a part of a social community or an inhabitant wants to be part of a cyberspace community, each must learn from that community what behavior is appropriate in order to remain part of the community.

Sonia Orin Lyris has been an inhabitant of various cyberspaces since 1979. Formerly a software engineer and technical writer, she now writes cyberspace science fiction as well as fantasy and horror stories.


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© Copyright 1992 by Sonia Orin Lyris.
All rights reserved except those which may be granted by
Sections 107 and 108 of the Copyright Revision Act of 1976.