Find a way to disarm the internet

Imagine moving to a neighborhood where social interaction is friendly, where people share news and information, call each other when there is trouble, and monitor each other’s children to make sure they are safe. Imagine being able to communicate with almost anyone in the world with the click of a key on your computer, and where information on virtually any subject is just a few steps away.

The Internet and the World Wide Web would be ideal. When the Internet was born in 1983 and the web was introduced 10 years later, hopes were high that it would make everyone virtual neighbors around the world for greater understanding and peace.

Now imagine bad actors approaching them with dishonorable intentions, including bullies, scammers, conspiracy mongers, and cyber-terrorists who believe neither laws nor morals apply to them.

Welcome to the internet and the web today.

The internet has been weaponized by trolls and terrorists; scammers and spammers; sadistic and seditious; bullies and blackmailers; hackers and haters. They use it for phishing, fake news, fraud and prosecution. Unscrupulous organizations steal and sell trade secrets and personal information. Others extort the ransom by shutting down critical networks of local governments, hospitals, first responders, and others. Trolls can ruin reputations and careers, subject people to slander and ridicule, and spread lies that can never be remembered or erased. Bullies and sadists use it to push vulnerable victims into harming or even killing themselves.

Mother Jones recently reported on Kiwi Farms, an online group whose members coordinate attacks on vulnerable victims. They employ doxing (malicious posting of private information about someone), swatting (making fake calls to send SWAT teams to private homes), slander, stalking and ridicule. They are cyber-cowards who hide deep in websites that allow them to remain anonymous.

“Kiwi Farms reaps heartache,” writes Mother Jones reporter Ali Breland. “Thrives in pain and revels in death.” It collects dossiers on vulnerable people and twists the information to torment them with “persistent and twisted campaigns of harassment”.

“Most websites aren’t known for having a ‘kill count,’” says Breland. “Kiwi Farms is.” Users of her connect, conspire and collaborate with victims of bullying. He quotes another reporter who found Kiwi Farms members were “systematically trying to cause suicides.” In one case, a woman set herself on fire in a public park.

A healthy democracy depends on an informed citizenry. But people are using the internet to spread disinformation, disinformation and anti-democratic ideologies. Many politicians inject poison into electoral campaigns and use the internet to anger and activate their constituents. For example, former President Donald Trump regularly spread slurs, conspiracy theories and misinformation in many of his 23,858 tweets while in office. Before Twitter suspended Trump’s account on Jan. 8, 2021, he had nearly 89 million followers, received 390 million tweets and garnered more than 1.7 trillion “likes,” according to an organization that tracks of social media.

Experts say bad actors can’t remain 100% anonymous, but there are several ways Internet users can make it nearly impossible to identify them. Visitors to the so-called dark web conduct legal and illegal transactions. An anonymous online message board advertising itself as “The Darkest Reaches of the Internet” has reportedly been linked to QAnon mass shootings and conspiracies.

Breland calls the internet’s worst abuses “the dystopian ending of those who think doing anything other than pulling the trigger yourself is ‘free speech.'” Bad actors seem to think that the anonymity of the internet allows them to get away with conduct that is likely illegal offline.

For example, some participants in the January 6 uprising apparently did not realize that freedom of speech and assembly are not absolute constitutional rights. For example, some speech is not protected, including incitement, defamation, fraud, obscenity, child pornography, name calling, and threats.

“Infowars” host Alex Jones was fined nearly $1 billion for defaming the parents of 20 children and six teachers killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The court found that text messages from Jones showed that he had spread rumors that the bereaved parents were actors and claimed that the massacre was faked to justify the confiscation of the guns. In another case, a judge found Michelle Carter guilty of manslaughter for sending messages to her boyfriend that drove him to suicide.

Kristin Bride, a social media reform advocate, recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee that her 16-year-old son died by suicide after receiving nearly 100 negative, harassing and sexually explicit messages online. She sued the social media company that hosted the harassment, but the court dismissed the case, citing the 1966 Communications Decency Act. She says Internet companies are not responsible for the content that third parties post on their sites web.

The president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children testified to Congress that his organization’s front line received more than 3.2 million child abuse complaints in the United States during the past year. He said companies aren’t obligated to report child sex trafficking or online grooming of children, and victims can’t have recourse if a company doesn’t take action to stop it.

Government regulation of the Internet is controversial. It’s like inviting Big Brother into the neighborhood. However, it would be a breach of duty for the Senate not to pass legislation this year to keep the bad guys offline. At the very least, it should be easier to identify unbelievers who weaponize what should be one of society’s greatest assets.

The Chamber must also deal with this. The criminal corruption of the Internet is more important than Hunter Biden’s laptop revenge hearings or the paranoia that the Justice Department and FBI are biased against conservatives.

William S. Becker is co-editor and contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People” a collection of more than 30 essays by American thought leaders on topics such as the perceived legitimacy of the Supreme Court. Becker has held a variety of roles in state and federal government, including executive assistant to the Wisconsin attorney general. He is currently the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), a nonpartisan think tank on climate policy not affiliated with the White House.

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