Commentary: When life imitates art, companies beware

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If Dick Wolf is itching to launch yet another iteration of his esteemed TV franchise, he might want to try "Law & Order: PC."

That's because your computer has been the crime scene for a few of the more interesting cases to make headlines in recent weeks. And corporations in the business of creating Web communities should take note because while they might not be getting prosecuted, they are essentially on trial.

News Corp.-owned MySpace played unwitting host to a cruel prank with tragic consequences. Two years ago, 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after believing she met a boy on the social network who rejected her shortly after courting her. Turns out the boy was the fictional creation of Lori Drew, mother to a girl Meier knew from their Missouri neighborhood.

Last week, a federal court found Drew guilty of misdemeanor charges that could lead to prison time, though not as much as she would have faced if convicted of a felony.

Another Internet-driven suicide occurred Nov. 19 on Justin.tv, which allows users to broadcast live video to anyone who cares to watch. Nineteen-year-old Abraham Biggs had 181 viewers watch him commit suicide in front of his webcam despite the fact that he had posted a suicide note online as well as a list of the pills he would use to overdose. Many people on the Justin.tv message boards actually encouraged him to take his own life.

Ghastly as these suicides are, there's no point in pointing the finger at the misguided souls who should have known better. Although Drew knew of Meier's medical history of depression, it's quite unlikely that she sought out to prompt the teenager to kill herself.

Many legal experts have decried the fact that Drew was even nailed with a misdemeanor because it could set a precedent that would end up criminalizing online behaviors that aren't truly offenses.

As for the callous individuals who either didn't notify authorities of what Biggs was doing until it was too late or posted inappropriate comments, no criminal charges have been brought. But their actions seem even more beyond prosecution given that it could easily be argued that they thought they were witnessing the kind of hoaxes that are all too common on the Internet. In addition, Biggs had a history of discussing his suicidal tendencies online, so it's difficult to contend that his Internet peers should have taken action this time.

Nevertheless, reading about the stomach-churning reactions Biggs drew as he neared death drew discomfiting parallels to "Untraceable," a 2007 thriller starring Diane Lane that featured a serial killer who broadcasts his murders online. "Untraceable" cleverly cloaked a barbed critique of online bloodlust in a standard-issue whodunit.

Regardless of whether you are a social network or a live-video hub, any company that lays out a virtual welcome mat to Internet users has cause for concern here. Even if MySpace or Justin.tv evades liability, there is the public-relations damage to consider. It's small comfort that suicides like these are aberrations; all it takes is one media frenzy to destroy a brand.

This kind of risk management is necessary even in situations that don't involve suicides. Just look at what happened last month on an independent blog covering the Gannett newspaper empire. A posting about the corporation's layoff plans spurred one anonymous person to comment, "I brought a gun to work but decided not to use it."

The blog's administrator contacted Gannett, which in turn contacted Google, which collaborated with the FBI to identify the source of the comment and determine it was not a threat. The poor schmuck who started it all probably thought he was being funny, but you can't be too careful in situations where there's potential danger to others or to oneself.

So what can a company do? There's talk of portals doing more to monitor what happens on their Web pages, which seems wrongheaded. Scrutinizing and sanitizing online activities seems not only wholly impractical but downright Orwellian in a way that will make users find freer virtual pastures. Yes, kids have virtual-world options that banish misbehavers, but those kinds of restrictions on anyone older than 12 are just not going to work.

And yet who among us hasn't read a message board or participated in a chatroom where the tone turns unacceptably ugly? The anonymity of the Internet tends to brings out the worst in people, though let's be honest: Oftentimes it is that no-holds-barred mentality that also creates moments of inspired humor.

Still, it is incumbent on Internet community providers of all kinds to try a less hands-off approach and instill a greater sense of moral accountability among its customers without getting heavy-handed. It's high time for pro-social initiatives that remind Internet users to retain a shred of humanity in their online interactions and to encourage parents to have a sense of what their children are doing on their computers.
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