Friday, June 26, 2009

A Rape in Cyberspace

Local news stations have recently covered a number of stories about how Internet-based social relations seem to lead to rape. News items such as "Police: Man Raped Woman Live on the Internet" and "Cops: Husband Hired Man on Craigslist to Rape Wife" make an implicit connection between distributed digital networks and sexual violence that may not be justified; they also draw on a range of news-ready experts from the self-aggrandizing Perry Aftab to a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Ironically, although they represent diametrically interest groups, both Aftab and the EFF argued that the mobility and multiplicity of Internet services makes it hard to find third parties culpable.

Parry Aftab, founder and executive director of, a New York-based cyber-neighborhood watch group, said that although the broadcast of the alleged sexual assault is no longer on, it will always be available online somewhere.

"Once somebody grabs it, it moves," she said. "It's like trying to catch a river in your hand."

The very next day, the EFF made a somewhat similar argument about the lack of singularity of Internet domains.

"Craigslist is suffering a little bit from a pile-on effect here because of all the criticism that they've gotten before this," said Matt Zimmerman, a staff attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights advocacy group.

"If this was someone who met someone through a Yahoo personal or any other place that allows people to communicate directly without a background check, I don't know if they would be getting the same level of criticism.

However, as Julian Dibbell has argued in his famous essay "A Rape in Cyberspace," issues about consent and agency can be far more complicated and can involve the deliberations of many kinds of virtual bystanders as well in ways that don't fit into a local news sound bite.


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