Dangerous games: Determining intent in the internet age

Recently, it was reported that a New York police officer had been found guilty of planning to murder and cannibalize his wife and several other women. The man had engaged in very detailed chats about kidnapping, torture, cannibalism, and murder, and acquired photos and personal info on several women. Tabloid press had a field day, nothing of immediate societal relevance about it... or?

In the age of internet anonymity, many bizarre and abhorrent fantasies are habitually discussed, which would've never been spoken of before. The potential for socializing freely around extremely niche interests have never been greater. It's never been easier for people to lose themselves in their fantasy, roleplaying out their innermost desires from behind the safety of a screen. All without harming a soul: Mere Fantasies about killing your (real) neighbor have never been illegal, nor would many want such thought crime regime instituted.

Their disturbing thoughts increasingly leave digital tracks though, meaning it's now actually possible to look into some extremely disturbing and detailed fantasies, which would before have stayed as thoughts. At some point, the line between fiction and reality might blur - even for themselves - in their language, to the point that whether or not their communication is fantasy or planning becomes hard to determine (the point of roleplaying being to stay in and be immersed in the character and scenario and all). How are one to separate the two?

Determining whether something was mere speculation and fantasy, or an early stage of an attempted criminal action, has obviously always been a problem courts have had to deal with. But the more liberal and public the culture around various proclivities, the more this problem is accentuated. To use one's Freedom of Expression to lose oneself in disturbing thoughts and games with fellow freaks, might be to play with fire.

So I wonder, how will Freedom of Expression be maintained in the face of such rising challenge? Should there even be a right to engage in realistic roleplaying of serious crimes? What could be done to keep the line from becoming too blurred, in regard to the law, and for the people who'd choose to toe this line? The court of this particular case apparently sought broad minded jurors. But being selective about the jury in a case would seem to open a whole other can of worms, and somewhat defeat the purpose of having it.

The key detail here is that he illegally used the police federal database to stalk a few women, that certainly has crossed the line into reality. No thoughts should be illegal, however disturbing we may find them, but once someone actually makes clear preparations to commit a crime... that can be classed as a crime if it goes far enough. I'm not sure exactly where that line is but illegally using a police database is well over that line.

JoJo:
The key detail here is that he illegally used the police federal database to stalk a few women, that certainly has crossed the line into reality. No thoughts should be illegal, however disturbing we may find them, but once someone actually makes clear preparations to commit a crime... that can be classed as a crime if it goes far enough. I'm not sure exactly where that line is but illegally using a police database is well over that line.

I agree in regard to the specific case. Using a police database to stalk these women is a crime in and of itself. But is it enough to convict him of truly intending to murder them? I'd be inclined to say yes, but I can think of many varieties of the general problem this case exemplify where I'd be very concerned in regard to Free Speech.

On principle, I firmly believe that people with controversial and disturbing proclivitie - which'd for good reason be impossibly unethical and extremely illegal to act out in real life - deserve Freedom of Expression within the realm of fiction too (...particularly if it offers them a harmless outlet for their proclivity). How to uphold their access to this is something I'm not really sure of though.

I can't go out and roleplay being a stalker when the person I'm stalking isn't in on it, it would just make me a stalker in the eyes of the law. I'm sure there have been plenty of cases before the rise of the internet were people started talking over the phone or in person about similar topics and one of the conspirators realized that it wasn't a joke and told the police, that conspirator then needs to prove what the partner was saying was just roleplaying. I don't think these issues are really "new" and the case seems pretty open and shut when you think actual steps where taken to complete his goal.

What he was doing was no longer a thought crime and maybe the steps he took should be taken as a man furthering his roleplaying but it appears as though this man was ready to start kidnapping, raping, and eating women. However just as we can't convict someone of their thought crime we can't prove their innocent with thoughts when the evidence is contradictory.

The same as it ever has been dealt with; reasonable doubt.

This isn't something specific to the internet. There have always and will always be crimes where there are potential reasons why maybe it might not have been a crime. the concept of a modern courtroom with a prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, jury etc are all there to assess whether or not the evidence goes beyond reasonable doubt in regards to whether someone committed a crime.

As far as I can tell the basic interrelation of roles and the challenges facing them doesn't change in your example, the internet just adds another in a long line of examples of things which could potentially introduce doubt as to the certainty of the crime.

I would be under the impression that sharing information on the internet should be seen in the same way as public discourse. Sharing something on a public site (facebook, forums, blogs, etc) should be treated as if that person had decided to announce their plans to everyone on a busy street with a megaphone. I couldn't threaten someone out loud in public like that - I'd be inducing public panic - and the same should hold true for posting on the internet.

For private chats, until something actually happens I don't believe someone should be prejudiced. It should be equivalent to one talking to a friend or a small group. As it applies to a criminal case this sort of information could be used as defining the character of the person in question but it doesn't directly indicate a crime has/will be committed.

Unfortunately there's not much of a distinction between the two forms of internet discourse. Often what people believe to be private correspondence isn't really. At this point, when I post on the internet I behave and post as if what I am saying were being said publicly. Until there's a clear distinction between these two I'd air on the side of caution.

People have written down their disturbing fantasies and sick thoughts for a very long time - What have changed since then? What makes it more likely to be intent and not fantasy because it is online and not in a journal?

Realitycrash:
People have written down their disturbing fantasies and sick thoughts for a very long time - What have changed since then? What makes it more likely to be intent and not fantasy because it is online and not in a journal?

Arguably two things,

1) Availability: since these thoughts are now on the Internet instead of some secluded journal they are in many cases much easier to access both for legal authorities as well as the layman, greatly improving their visibility. First, this gives the authorities much more material to analyze but it might also even foster action through increased political pressure by the disgusted masses.
2) The social component: I've argued often enough that the Internet is a great way to unify previously disjunct sets of people into interest groups of all legal shades. The social validation, feedback and plain sharing of information that they bring might alleviate the reluctance to commit criminal acts in an individual.

However, the first point is merely a question of quantity and not quality and does not necessarily change the perception of such thoughts as intending to commit a criminal act or not; Political pressure was always and is also always present in non-internet related cases and I don't think there is yet enough data to conclude that the Internet is somehow especially prone in channeling such. The second point implies an extrapolation towards the catalytic effect of social environment in the Internet towards criminal acts. While a reasonable proposition, it is just another variety of the "Video Games cause violence"-debate and hence very questionable that this is a, or even the, determining factor in such except for very specific cases.

Or in other words: I don't see any significant qualitative change to the treatment of this question when it comes to the Internet.

As long as no crime is commited its hard to say, though if the authorites do get involved they should have guidelines in police doctrine and so on that states a psychiatritric interview should take place. Simply to establish that the person they have come into contact with is just giving voice to thier fantasies or if they have a mental illness that needs treating. For the own good mainly, coming into contact with mental health services could improve their lives. Particulary if they are undiagnosed and never been treated.

The second reason is that a rational person is less likely to inact them, they are driven by the same morals and emotions like us for the most part and would never cross the line. Some do, history proves that but most do not. Same as any of us wanting to smack our boss or punch the desk clerk in a shop, we know its not right so we do not do it.

For a mentally ill person though they can have a rationality of their own, get caught in a manic state or have a psychotic break and the debate between objective reality and subjective reality takes shape in a very subjective way.

As for fantasies, I do not know why people feel like sharing some of it. I don't have anything that would ever inflict pain or suffering but some would think them weird but they are pretty much private.

Realitycrash:
People have written down their disturbing fantasies and sick thoughts for a very long time - What have changed since then? What makes it more likely to be intent and not fantasy because it is online and not in a journal?

Nothing.

However, if you've got thousands upon thousands of people writing about and chatting with each other in extreme detail about the specifics of horrendous crimes they'd never actually commit, how are you going to prosecute the one who was actually planning to commit them?

So the problem is rather that there is now ever less likelihood of intent. Which introduce more reasonable doubt.

Overhead:
The same as it ever has been dealt with; reasonable doubt.
...

And since the more common a behavior is in regard to something which is perfectly legal, the more reasonable doubt there'll be that it was an early stage of something illegal. So it'll become harder to step in before the deed is done.

Or - far worse - the standard of "reasonable doubt" is lowered (not formally, but what the courts consider the term to entail), in order to be able to step in before the deed is done. Which'll risk seeing people who never planned to act upon their fantasies punished.

 

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