Beware! The online civil guard could be watching
Tracking down and publicly naming Internet users who harass young children may be a welcome move, but raises both ethical and legal questions.
Margin still hasn't decided what to do about the new site he created. He wants to do the right thing, but doesn't know exactly what that is.
Last week, before being caught off guard and swept up into the media maelstrom that he generated with his new project, everything had seemed crystal clear. He was supposed to be the straight-arrow guy who was fed up with the authorities' helplessness. The sordid characters who trawl for children in chat rooms were supposed to be his prey. On the site that he created - israeli-pedophiles.tripod.com - Margin (an abbreviation of his Internet nickname MaRgln_0f_ErROr) intended to track down web surfers who sexually harass boys and girls and initiate non-virtual meetings with them. Then he would reveal their identities and disgrace them publicly.
But what may have seemed obvious a week ago is now not so simple. Perhaps the fear of being caught has caused him to reconsider the validity of this adventure, perhaps the initial enthusiasm has faded, or perhaps his hesitancy derives from his being too intellectual to lock out of his mind arguments other than his own. Whatever it is, Margin is confused, and is now asking visitors to his site to help him do the right thing.
Margin, in his twenties, decided to create his new site after reading an article on Ynet by Ariana Melamed, who described her experiences on the Internet masquerading as a 14-year-old girl. The article ran after the arrest of Itamar Ban, who is suspected of having sexual relations with a 15-year-old girl he met in an online chat room. Margin claims to know several young women who were sexually harassed as children by adults. The police's efforts are praiseworthy, he says, but inadequate. That is why he decided to do something, and to replicate an American initiative here in Israel.
The idea behind the website that served as a prototype for Margin - perverted-justice.com - is quite simple. Volunteers who are sick and tired of children being pestered by perverts on the Internet, at best, or falling victim to their carnal lusts in the physical world, at worst, mount raids on the chat rooms and the instant-message services and try to expose the identity of the potential pedophiles swarming there. They wait for the adults to approach them, hold conversations with them, which usually degenerate - at the initiative of the adult - into obsessive conversations about sex, and then attempt to determine the identity of the person on the other side of the chat window, using a variety of means. If the site operators feel they are certain of the identity of the pestering adult, they publicize on the site any and all information that have on him, including his picture.
It is not clear what exact means the volunteers employ to reach definitive conclusions about the online conversationalist, aside from telephone calls that are sometimes placed by volunteers with childish voices. The site has succeeded in keeping within American law. This was corroborated both by Harvard University legal scholars who were asked by the Boston Globe to look into the legality of the website, and by American Civil Liberties Union experts, who were also asked to review the issue.
The operators of perverted-justice.com refuse to comment on the issue of how the identity of chat-room users is determined, in order not to help other potential pedophiles. They declare that aside from a few incidents in which the particulars and the photos of some of the people who were `outed' were subsequently removed, they make an effort to leave the embarrassing information on their server, for everlasting ignominy.
In an interview that began on instant messaging software and then continued by phone - Margin called collect, thereby making it impossible to locate the source of the call - Margin argued that, "That which walks like a duck and quacks like a duck is, apparently, a duck," and denied that mistakes in identification were possible. But to his extreme mortification, the very first time that he publicized ostensibly incriminating information about one chat-room denizen, he made a mistake. For several hours last week, immediately after the existence of the site was first publicized on Ynet, the photograph of a woman appeared alongside the transcript of a conversation in which "Yonit," 33, tries to seduce "a girl of 14" who calls herself "Liat." Only in the wake of comments from visitors to the site, from which it became abundantly clear to Margin that the photo he received from "Yonit" was in fact that of a woman who bore no connection to the matter, the photo was removed from the site. Although Margin apologizes for what happened and stresses that the criteria for publicizing details on online deviates were stiffened in the wake of the mistake, the good name of an innocent person - whose photograph was presumably taken from a singles website - had been sullied.
Responses by visitors who identified Yonit's username, 33YC, led Margin to conclude that in fact Yonit is "a man of about 40, married, without children." In the absence of any unequivocal proof, Margin is asking for the help of visitors to the site in "procuring a definite photo of the sought-after individual."
Margin's initiative joins a growing wave of personal Internet initiatives by people who use the medium to exact revenge or promote an agenda. Incidents from the recent past include an e-mail that featured the photo of a person who, it was claimed, stroked the backside of a woman strolling along the pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, who then photographed the harasser and distributed his picture through the Internet; an e-mail message that slandered Haaretz journalist Nehemiah Strasler in response to his criticism of teachers' salaries; and a message that was spread by an individual protesting the behavior of staff at the Princess Hotel in Eilat, which succeeded in drawing a public apology from the hotel management.
As in other instances of non-establishment Robin Hoods, most of the online initiatives earn the instinctive sympathy of Internet visitors. The latter view them as a fresh source of power that shakes up the mainstream media, which is at best seen as hamstrung by castrating laws and regulations, and at worst as the mouthpiece of the establishment, in which case it is concerned with playing down the impotence of the institutions that are supposed to protect citizens. Nevertheless, based on the talkback feature on Ynet (which gives readers a chance to instantly react to articles, and is considered a non-representative indicator, even though it is viewed as reflecting the public mood), many Internet users understand the more problematic aspects of the outing that Margin is planning for surfing sexual deviates.
Despite the criticism, Margin says that he has also received dozens of positive responses, some from people who want to voluntarily help in the task of ridding the web of potential pedophiles. He says that with their assistance, the site will soon launch a campaign in which its representatives will have a presence on Nana, Tapuz, Walla and IRC, "so that not a single pedophile will be able to feel certain about the identity of the person he's speaking with."
Margin doesn't yet know if he will submit the details he gathers to the police, which also stakes out chat rooms with policemen posing as children. The police are themselves also at a loss as to how to deal with Margin's online civil guard enterprise. Officially, they are studying the issue but in the meantime, they cannot say if Margin would be violating the law by publicizing the identity of online harassers.
Dr. Yuval Karniel of the Shiboleth, Yisraeli, Roberts, Zisman and Co. law firm and the academic track of the College of Administration, says that two legal problems may arise from the operation of Margin's website: violation of libel law, and violation of privacy protection law. Nevertheless, he says, not only the establishment media has the right to publicize the truth; so, too, does every citizen who is careful to state the truth, on matters that have an element of public interest. Karniel, who stresses that the issue is subject to varied interpretations, feels that in the case of adults harassing children on the Internet, the public interest justifies the harm done to the reputation and privacy of the individual.
Karniel says that the "Yonit" case, as it appears on the site, is borderline, although it would be possible to put things right through the use of dry wording that sticks to the facts and does not include any commentary. "You could say, `This individual carries on dirty conversations with minors,' but not describe him as a pedophile, which would be a violation of the law," says Karniel.
Aside from the legal issue, it is impossible to overlook the ethical side that frequently arises in debates over hunting down online pedophiles. When an adult chat-room visitor arrives at a meeting that was arranged online with someone he believed was a girl, his true intentions are revealed, and he can be tried and convicted. On the other hand, it is not clear if someone who enjoys conversations of a sexual nature with children has the desire or mental capacity to realize his online fantasy in the real world. Or in other words: should people be punished for their fantasies?
Margin understands the dilemma, and the matter seems to trouble him, despite his desire to begin the work of weeding out potential pedophiles from the Israeli Internet. Maybe that is why he has put a one-question survey on the site: What would you do next?, where he asks visitors to decide if he should close down the site without delay, only reveal the chatter's IP (computer address) and the text of the chat, reveal his photograph and address, or relay the details to the police for further action.
In the meantime, until the site's visitors decide on a course of action, stalkers of children and various other deviates are recommended to crawl back under their rocks. They have more or less gotten along with the police until now; but with online vigilantes, on the other hand, it's a whole new ball game.