The internet has provided fantastic new opportunities for individuals and organisations to flourish and prosper, but I suppose it was inevitable that a growing number of online activities should turn out to be criminal. The dark side of the internet has emerged, shattering any residual faith we might have had in the emancipatory role of online communication in our lives. Inadequate policing has rendered the internet susceptible to cyber crime which, like metastatic cancer, is invading more and more areas of cyberspace and is threatening to get out of control.
The nuisance value of hacking, spamming and viruses is one thing. Financial fraud and offences against the person such as cyberbullying and trolling are quite another. Every day another cyber crime revelation is unveiled. It may be an accusation of privacy violation, a phishing scam or Twitter trolls making vile threats to rape and kill. Theft, fraud and abuse.
For some reason, however, crimes committed in cyberspace are treated as if they are ‘virtual’ crimes, detached in some way from the real world. The borderless nature of cyberspace certainly makes things complicated when it comes to policing it. Cyberspace is a vast grey area where criminals find anonymity and jurisdictions are blurred. Conflicts and contradictions abound. It is often unclear exactly where a crime is being committed. In such circumstances, a state or country may claim it has no jurisdiction, or several states may claim jurisdiction at the same time.
The situation is not helped when banks and other financial institutions, worried about public confidence and potential damage to their reputations, deliberately fail to report incidents of online fraud to the police. Some financial institutions complain that police don’t take the crime seriously enough anyway. Either way, the bank refunds the money to the customer, bank charges go through the roof and the criminal laughs all the way to the, er, bank. Even when the fraud is investigated and the offenders are traced, they get away with fairly lenient sentences. Earlier this year, two British hackers affiliated with the hacking group Anonymous, were given jail terms of between 7 and 18 months for carrying out a cyber attack that cost Paypal £3.5 million. They would surely have served a much longer sentence if they had robbed a high street bank of £3.5 million. So why were they treated differently for carrying out the theft online?
The situation is also not helped by the rose-tinted view that the internet is a vehicle of emancipation and should not be subject to censorship, surveillance and control. Of course it should be controlled! Why should the internet be treated any differently from any other form of human interaction?
In the wake of the furore caused by the abusive Twitter tirade against Caroline Criado Perez over her Jane Austen bank note campaign, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) promptly insisted that the problem should be resolved by the microblogging website itself. But if someone wrote an abusive, threatening letter to you and sent it by post, would you hold Royal Mail responsible? Don’t shoot the messenger, as they say. Stuart Hyde, the chief constable of Cumbria, said that it was right for police to intervene where individuals’ lives were being made a misery by Twitter trolls, but he insisted that forces should take a “common sense” approach and that he did not want police officers “dragged off the streets to deal with frivolous complaints”.
If someone threatens a woman with rape or murder, can it really be considered frivolous to complain about it? A threat is a threat regardless of the vehicle of expression. The internet is not a virtual world. It is not some kind of parallel universe where normal rules do not apply. It is becoming a dominant part of our real lives and we must have real policing to prevent real criminals turning it into a lawless jungle where crooks prey on the unsuspecting and no one is safe.