Friday, October 26, 2007

Slippery Slope

I found myself conflicted when fellow blogger Nedra Weinreich drew my attention to Suzy's Law, legislation that would make it a crime to use the Internet to disseminate information that enables or encourages people to take their own lives. Usually, I'm in concert with Nedra's attitudes about social policy and public rhetoric, and there's been a lot of friendly interchanges between our two blogs when she tags me and I tag her in return during the course of various Internet memes. But this is a case where I'm not sure that she's necessarily right.

On the one hand, I'm not happy to say that I know something about suicide first-hand and the violence that it does to the people left behind. Among academics, there are many rituals to deal with the death of a friend and colleague, but when that person takes his or her own life, those ways that scholars cope with loss don't function, and guilty silence and withdrawal becomes the norm. In one particularly horrific case that I still have nightmares about, one of the last times I spoke to a close friend who killed herself was to tell her about another person in our social circle who had also taken his own life.

But there are a lot of legislative priorities when it comes to the Internet that directly affect hundreds of millions of people: network neutrality, the need for public digital libraries, consumer advocacy for defective-by-design products and monopolistic corporations, and attention to revising the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This equation of electronic distributed networks with criminality continues a destructive trend in Congress that takes attention away from critical issues involving public access to the Internet.

The fact that this kind of legislation often gets approved unanimously or near unanimously, as do many Internet-anxiety laws that are named after individuals not principles and pass without debate for what seems to be the easy political benefit of both sides of the aisle, should alone be cause enough for concern. Furthermore, if there are already laws against this admittedly reprehensible conduct, what purpose does "Suzy's Law" serve? What does the use of digital media have to do with death-wish ghouls who urge people to take their own lives, who may also taunt those on the brink through the telephone or face-to-face interchanges? Certainly, without any use of a computer, there are far more spouses and parents who have taken part in sick, self-serving arrangements to rid themselves of self-destructive family members.

The Internet has also connected many individuals with life-saving mental health help. Where in HR-940 is funding for more of these suicide-prevention resources?

There are a lot of seemingly unsavory Usenet groups, although, which Suzy Gonzales apparently consulted according to this article, may be one of the worst. But there are also a lot of legitimate "alt" groups about sexuality or even religious doubt for which already well-connected religiously fundamentalist interests in the heartland might harbor deep disapproval. Could this attention to tiny minorities who use the Internet for subversive purposes also open the door to more general "anti-alt" sentiments that might ban access to useful if countercultural information through cutting off public portals like libraries, as other legislation has similarly tried to do with social networking sites on the grounds of predator panic?

I'm no pro-euthanasia advocate, but a number of states have passed right-to-die laws through popular majorities. How does this law ignore the fact that there might be genuine debate about particular kinds of assisted suicide? As it is written, there is no exemption involving a person who is terminally ill already.

Whether it is a code for de-encrypting DVDs or information about how to pass a drug test, it's difficult to keep this kind of formulaic information from circulating on the Internet. I'm sure to get some hate mail on this posting, but I worry that we are passing legislation that directly affects fewer and fewer people while not considering seriously in principle the larger digital rights of our culture of democracy as a whole.

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