The Rise of the Un-Person

On Friday, AllFacebook reported about current moves to kick convicted sex offenders off of social networks.  On the one hand, I understand the motivation behind this — people are terribly worried about online predation.  On the other hand, I’m increasingly disturbed by this trend.

As with most such, the beginning of the legal story was innocuous, or at least fairly sensible, with moves such as keeping convicted offenders away from schools.  This seems pretty rational on the surface, at least when well-applied, keeping them away from temptation and the danger away from kids.

But over time, the idea has expanded, and gradually become, if not always irrational, at least a lot less consistently grounded.  Some laws are requiring offenders to register publicly, so that parents can know about them.  Still justifiable, but shakier ground: everybody has to live somewhere, after all, and most places are somewhere near children, so the fact that they happen to be in the same neighborhood isn’t an indication of malign intent.  And it opens up a lot of likelihood of harassment of people who aren’t doing anything wrong.

(There are lots of other arguments as well, not least that the definition of “sex offender” is now very broad, covering everything from really scary predators to people who are just guilty of a dumb teenage mistake.  Not to mention the whole question of how we should treat someone who has genuinely reformed.  It’s thorny stuff.)

These new moves into the online space expand the argument even further.  It seems innocuous if you think of Facebook as simply a kids’ hangout where nothing important happens — on that logic, the risk is high and the cost in freedom low.  But that is, at best, a misinformed short-term view.

There seems to be little question that the online sphere matters more every year — indeed, almost every day at the moment.  Facebook is no longer just for kids: it and other social networks are increasingly crucial for everything from finding a job to staying in touch with your social circle.  On current trends, within ten years it’s going to be getting hard to have a life in this country without some social networking.

Which raises the question: what justifies cutting someone out of those networks?  Currently, it’s done casually, indeed sometimes frivolously by the network providers like Facebook.  But as these networks become ever-more important public utilities — as they become public space, as much so as the park you might go for a stroll in — it becomes a much more serious punishment, and one that can’t be applied arbitrarily.

Or to look at it another way: at what point does cutting someone out of the social web turn them into an Un-Person, whose life is more restricted than any released felon’s has been in the past hundred years?  We’re not there yet, but I can see that day coming.  And I believe we’re going to need to come to grips with the question soon…

3 Responses to “The Rise of the Un-Person”

  1. serakit Says:

    I see the internet as something the parents should be regulating. (Which, yes, coming from me is a bit of an irony.) While the providers probably can kick out whoever they like; I see no reason why they should. Being a convicted sex offender- especially given how broad that term now is- shouldn’t suddenly deny you access to the internet. At most, this could be justified if someone has a past history of internet predatoring. (Actually, if someone was convicted of internet predatoring, banning them from sites like this is a good idea. )

    But to ban all sex offenders? How would they enforce that, exactly? It can’t be done by the law, I think, without seriously stepping on some kind of civil rights, and the providers themselves can probably make it policy as “sex offender” is not a protected class, but they couldn’t enforce it without demanding some kind of ID on signup.

    In the end, if you’re concerned your children may run into internet predators, keep an eye on their communications. Not an overbearing one, just enough to see if they’re getting into creepy situations. Given what people have told me of Facebook, I don’t think that’s likely where these things are genesising from anyway…

  2. Justin Says:

    I largely agree, but common sense has often left the building where this subject is concerned.

    But to ban all sex offenders? How would they enforce that, exactly? It can’t be done by the law, I think, without seriously stepping on some kind of civil rights

    While I agree in principle, in practice civil rights law is a pretty fluid subject, and less is protected than most people think. Laws restricting the actions of convicted sex offenders are downright common at this point, and various levels of government are putting heavy pressure on the social networks to keep these people out.

    As for how, it’s far from reliable — it sounds like the offenders are required to register their email addresses with the state, and those addresses are provided to the social networks as a sort of “no fly list” for the Internet. This presumably means that only the relatively law-abiding ones (the ones probably least likely to re-offend) are the ones most hurt by the rule — the really determined ones can probably get around it easily.

    Remember, the social networks mostly aren’t looking for this — they’re being forced into it by the government. Which is part of why I care so much: if CommYou ever becomes successful, it will get caught up in the middle of all this…

  3. metahacker Says:

    Can’t….write…story…fast enough…

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