Seen from the outside, the internet is a nasty, brutish place where savage people say terrible things to each other. But that's always been the view of colonists.
Last year’s ruling by Judge Blackie that blogs are not considered to be news media and that Cameron Slater cannot refuse to reveal his sources as a journalist might, was significant. Reaction from other bloggers was loud and immediate. Public Address’s Russell Brown (who just moments before, it seemed, had been engaged in an online war with Slater over the interpretation of blog visitor numbers) came out strongly against the ruling, as did Slater’s fellow right-winger David Farrar of Kiwiblog.
Their specific beef was that the judge had failed to understand the place of blogs in contemporary media. In the past few years blogs have broken and hosted important discussions about some of our most significant stories, from Keith Ng’s well-researched and incomparably tech-literate WINZ kiosk exposé to Stephen Cook’s insights into the blurred lines between Auckland Mayor Len Brown’s personal and political lives.
The issue, though, isn’t just about journalism. It’s about colonialism.
In November, the government introduced its Harmful Digital Communications Bill. Among other things, the law is designed to reduce cyber bullying and make incitement to suicide an offence, even if no attempt is made.
The incitement to suicide offence makes perfect sense (even if distinguishing serious threats from off-the-cuff flaming might be a challenge). What gets my goat, and has been pointed out by a bunch of online commenters, is why ‘cyber bullying’ should be treated any differently to regular bullying. As one online commenter said, “you’re allowed to torment people at school, if you do it on the internet though we’ll fine you and put you in jail”.
Here’s the thing. Bullying is bullying and suicide is suicide. Prefixing it with ‘cyber’ makes as much sense as tagging playground awfulness with ‘monkey-bar’. Viewed from the outside, the internet is a nasty, brutish place where savage people do terrible things to each other. But that’s always been the view of colonists.
Two hundred years ago, this country was ruled by people not born here, and governed in accordance with laws written by people who’d never been here. Today, we’re seeing the same thing with the internet. Rules are being written and laws are being passed that affect the lives of digital natives, by people for whom the internet is a dark and scary place. But is it?
Bullying figures are hard to come by, however suicide rates are publicly available and unequivocal. In New Zealand, they simply don’t support the belief that cyber-anything must be evil. Imagine a graph of New Zealand suicides over the past 10 years. The number has its ups and downs, but is usually somewhere close to 500 (the highest rate in recent times was in 1998). Imagine, on top of that graph, another one, showing (since it’s a pretty popular website) New Zealand Facebook users. That line starts at zero in 2004 and reached 2.5 million this year.
One line goes up, the other stays flat. A conservative theory might be that there’s no association between internet use and suicide and that while bullying and incitement might be happening online, they’re not happening more than they ever were, just in a more visible place. A more optimistic reading might be that the internet is actually having a positive effect through making it easier for people to connect and support each other. (Bearing in mind that the suicide rate peaked in 1998.)
But that doesn’t make for good headlines and it doesn’t tally with the digital colonists’ view of the internet or the laws and judgments that view leads to. The good news is that colonialism seldom endures. Whether through treaty, assimilation or revolution, the path of history inevitably leads towards a day when a population lives by its own laws, rather than those delivered from abroad. And for digital natives everywhere, that day can’t come soon enough.