A further reminder that individual privacy is hard to maintain in the Web 2.0 era came two weeks ago when a Rutgers University freshman committed suicide after seeing his sexual activity broadcast over the Web. It had been secretly recorded over a Webcam in his bedroom Sept. 19.
Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge shortly afterwards. Two Rutgers students – one of whom was Clementi’s roommate — stand accused of secretly webcasting the sexual encounter involving Clementi and another man who has not been identified.
It’s the latest tragic episode in what many are calling cyber-voyeurism.
In an ironic twist, Clementi leaped to his death apparently over this webcast and yet used the same Internet to announce his intention, according to ABC News. His message, posted to his Facebook page Sept. 22 at 8:42 p.m. read simply, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
The attorney for one of the two students charged with invasion of privacy said in a statement Tuesday that his client, “committed no crime,” and described her as a “wonderful, caring and talented young woman with a bright future.”
In New Jersey, it is a fourth-degree crime to collect images showing sexual content or nudity without the subject’s consent, and it is a third-degree crime to transmit the relevant content.
Although invasion of privacy laws exist in every state, the application of those laws vary from state to state. And, unless those cases lead to wrongful death charges or civil claims, the punishment can be fairly light, especially in cases where suicides result from the humiliation caused by the unwanted exposure.
One university English professor, Brian McNely, has noted about this Internet overkill, “You have the capacity to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theatre, but there would be consequences of some legal ramification. Things that students say online publicly like Twitter and Facebook, they should assume those things are going to stay forever. People have to be very wary about what they post.”
This is the fourth time the focus of this blog has been on either self-disclosed “sexting” or on individuals suffering the consequence of others posting sexual messages or other revealing information about their friends. What some people have seen as a passing fad is apparently more than that. What some people feared to be a damaging application of the social media has proven to be just that.
The fact that nearly all of the suicides that have occurred so far involve teenage victims make the problem even more egregious.
The medium is the massage
The late Marshall McLuhan often spoke of how each media form “massages” us differently and has different effects on it. For example, watching a traumatic event like 9/11 on live television produces a different effect on us than reading about it the next morning in the newspaper.
The same is true with the Web and the social media found on them. We can feel a real invasion of privacy when unwanted messages, photos, or videos are posted about us, and rightly so. And that sense of embarrassment – which reached the point of humiliation with Tyler Clementi – can lead to tragic consequences.