Commercial motive behind internet scare stories

Maybe it's just a symptom of the increasing pervasiveness of the internet, but we seem to have been experiencing another rash of "risks of the net" stories in the media.

Maybe it’s just a symptom of the increasing pervasiveness of the internet, but we seem to have been experiencing another rash of “risks of the net” stories in the media.

Over just the past few weeks, there have been:

  • A story of a boy supposedly “addicted” to a website showing acts of bestiality.
  • A survey and analysis of adolescent girls’ disturbingly risky behaviour on the internet. This was apparently well intentioned, and its co-ordinator emphasised to Computerworld “our aim is not to put people off the internet”, a remark she notes the mainstream media never report.
  • Tales of unauthorised prescription-medicine sales over the net.
  • Students accessing ready-made essays online — with obvious implications of cheating. A university dean noted that students have been archiving and swapping essays since long before the rise of the internet, so it was hardly an internet story, nor was it new.
  • And, lest we forget the power of popular “drama”, a brouhaha on Shortland Street involving young Blake Crombie putting his family on an online camera.
Many would say this plot was a case of “art imitating life”. Sceptics might suspect social engineering; the evangelists of the “dangers of the internet” gospel realise not everyone reads newspapers or listens to radio or TV news, so they open up a second front in a medium the missing targets do pay attention to.

This has been done on Shortland Street before, when the Department of Internal Affairs was directly involved in a tale of another lad accessing internet “porn”. They were not just a technical adviser; one of their officers appeared on screen, playing himself. This concept of drama as an publicity agent for government policy has always left a nasty taste in my mouth since the British Ministry of Agriculture used to use radio’s The Archers — “an everyday story of countryfolk” — like that.

Like any technologies, the internet raises new problems and opportunities to commit crime in a new way. But did the media ever talk about “telephone crime”, in the early days of that technology, I wonder; or “car crime”, when motor vehicles became fast enough to be used in robberies? I don’t think so.

On the other hand, let us not forget the position of the “conventional” media. For all they protest how useful they find the internet, it is fundamentally a competitor. It competes with the older media for advertising revenue, for immediacy of the news — and in allowing people to exchange news and opinion without the intervention of an editor. It is a democratising tool that hits at the power base of newspapers, radio and television. It hits us here at Computerworld too. But our IT-aware readership would soon pick us up if we started internet scare stories.

The internet — that community of reciprocal interest, with its newsgroups and mailing lists — is increasing being pushed as a one-way feed, with passive “mouse potatoes” accepting all that it pitched at them in appropriately edited, sanitised form, and having a severely limited right of reply.

Conventional media thinking is eroding the unique characteristics of the internet, as a medium for mutual exchange of ideas. So maybe we should believe what the daily press says about the perils of the internet as much as we would believe a press release about the dangers of Pepsi sent out by Coca Cola.

Bell is Computerworld’s Wellington-based reporter. Send email to Stephen Bell. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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