The Internet: Power Without Responsibility?

The Internet gives users immense power to affect the welfare of others. Malicious use of that power, such as the recent theft and online release of nude photos of a hundred female celebrities, confronts users -- and regulators -- with a perplexing question: Does that power have moral boundaries?

The actions involved in the dissemination of the revealing pictures ignited a conflagration of outrage and denunciation. Actress and director Lena Dunham tweeted that whoever leaked the pictures is a "sex offender" and urged followers not to look at the pictures, "violating these women again and again." Forbes blogger Scott Mendelson declared that the women were victims not just of an invasion of privacy but of a "sex crime involving theft of personal property and the exploitation of the female body." Hollywood gossip Perez Hilton put out a video in which, appearing sleepless and rattled, he expressed remorse for having helped spread the pictures by thoughtlessly rushing them onto his website. He came to see that what he did was wrong, he said, partly by angry reader posts calling him a "rapist."

The publication of these photos is a high-profile instance of hostile online behavior often referred to as "cyber-abuse," where perpetrators use the Internet to threaten or hurt others through various forms of bullying, harassment, and defamation. One kind of cyber-abuse that has now caught the attention of the public and some state legislatures is "revenge pornography." This is the uploading to designated sites of sexually explicit photos and videos of individuals, usually women, by ex-spouses or former lovers in order to humiliate them. The consequences for the victims can be shattering. Paula Todd, an expert on cyber-abuse, told the National Post that she had "found women who lost their jobs, who had been kicked out of their church groups, who had lost their friends, and who had been so deeply devastated that they're under psychiatric care." The New York Times reported that the pictures are "often accompanied by disparaging descriptions and identifying details, like where the women live and work, as well as their Facebook pages." The Times noted that victims have been "approached in stores by strangers who recognize their photographs" and that "[s]ome have changed their names or altered their appearance."

If you share Ms. Dunham's and Mr. Mendelson's outrage at the distribution of the celebrities' intimate pictures and feel that it was an invasion of privacy or even a kind of sexual assault, or if you react with indignation at revenge pornography and other types of cyber-abuse, then notice this. Those responses make sense only if you believe that such behavior is morally wrong -- that the actions are moral offenses, transgressions of moral norms that the offenders should have complied with and can rightly be condemned for violating. Invasion of privacy, for example, is infringement of someone's moral right to privacy, which may or may not also be a legal right, depending on the circumstances and relevant laws. If, when Perez Hilton put Jennifer Lawrence's personal pictures on his website, he wronged her by violating her right to privacy, then there are some moral rules that make such use of the Internet wrong -- and justify moral criticism of it.

However, many people would scoff at the idea that the rules of morality hold for the Internet. After all, they would point out, it is easy for Internet users to harm other people with impunity, shielding their identities with anonymized browsers, attacking their targets from offshore, or making sure that the injurious behavior -- such as a website's hosting revenge porn -- is protected free speech. Thus, the Internet makes it possible for anyone to engage in some truly pernicious conduct without fear of the consequences. It is tempting, then, to think that the Internet is a global jungle, where such "predatory" behavior is beyond the reach of law and morality.

Must we conclude that common moral norms -- which invoke crucial social values like justice, honesty, and respect -- that apply in the "offline" world do not apply in the online world? Must we concede that all of the malevolent things the Internet enables people to do without censure or sanction are actually not wrong? I do not think we can afford to give in to these doubts -- nor do I think we have to.

First, consider a famous line from the movie Spider-Man (2002): "With great power comes great responsibility." This can be seen as a corollary of a more general maxim, "With power comes responsibility," which I call "the Spider-Man Principle." In my view, this principle expresses the essence of morality, affirming that all power to affect others carries with it corresponding obligations -- responsibilities -- to those other people who would be helped or harmed by its use. To be sure, the Spider-Man Principle is very general and open to interpretation, and so, without elaboration, is of limited practical value as a guide to action. Still, it serves as a reminder that all power can be abused -- that any human power can be exercised irresponsibly, violating moral (if not legal) obligations.

I would argue that virtually everyone accepts the Spider-Man Principle, at least implicitly, since all of us regard arbitrary uses of power that endanger or harm us as wrong or unjust -- that is, as abuses, violations of responsibilities to us that come with that power. In that case, Internet users must agree that the Spider-Man Principle applies to online behavior and that they are obliged to employ its power in ways consistent with their responsibilities to people affected by that behavior. What are those responsibilities?

In general terms, they are the same responsibilities all of us have to other people on the receiving end of our actions. These responsibilities are grounded in those common moral norms -- relating to justice, integrity, honesty, and the like, including (no small thing) respect for law -- that are the "glue" that holds society together. It is the broad acceptance of these norms that makes it possible for us to trust other people in the countless ways we must, in every aspect of our lives. Think of all the people we have to trust when we buy groceries or prescription drugs or when we deposit money in a bank or undergo surgery. If it were not true that, most people, most of the time, treat others fairly, honestly, and respectfully, we could not place in others the trust now required to participate in all the different sorts of orderly cooperation and competition that constitute modern society.

All of these points apply as well to that part of our social existence that takes place online. Like society itself -- and all the institutions and relationships it comprises -- the Internet cannot function without the trust of users, trust secured by the prevalence of moral norms. Of course, on the Internet just as in the larger world, we must try to protect sensitive information and communications, balancing security against freedom and convenience. But if Internet users abandon moral rules -- if it becomes a moral wilderness -- that will destroy the trust required for its operation. It will become useless.

Those who are morally outraged at cyber-abuse are justified in their feelings. The victims have been wronged. The fact that the Internet was the assailants' weapon of choice is morally irrelevant.