Law in the Internet Society


Abraham Biggs died on camera last month. The 19-year old swallowed a large number of prescription drugs, began broadcasting on, and started a thread called “Ask a guy who is gonna OD (again) tonight anything,” on the forums. Biggs had posted similar threads in the past, so forum members were initially unconcerned. As Biggs’ broadcast showed a man lying motionless for hours, curled up with his back to the camera, viewers debated whether the broadcast showed a still image or not. After several hours, some viewers made efforts to contact the police. When the police finally burst into Biggs’ room, the broadcast was confirmed to be live, and viewers reacted with shock (starting at line 1013).

Shortly after Biggs’ death, mainstream media reports quoted some of his family members as calling for government regulations to help prevent such incidents. While those sentiments are understandable, this event did not expose some fundamental flaw in the net; rather, it constituted a failure of individuals to actualize the net’s potential to help others.

Of course it would have been desirable if moderators on or on had acted more expeditiously. But had Biggs not been broadcasting, his death would not have been discovered for some time longer. Aid reached Biggs more quickly than it would have without his broadcast. But that fact is irrelevant if the net instigated the suicide in the first place.

Some mainstream media reports emphasized that posters egged Biggs on. Reports of another suicide broadcast on the web highlighted the same phenomenon. In that incident, Kevin Whitrick hanged himself on live webcam; some viewers encouraged him while others tried to persuade him not to go through with it. Although it is not clear in either case that the people encouraging suicide believed that Biggs or Whitrick were genuinely suicidal, the behavior is obviously abhorrent.

Even if the actuality of Whitrick’s suicidal impulses was unknown, in at least one other case where a person’s distress was clearly genuine, some people responded with taunts and insults. Earlier this month, an unusual story at the University of Michigan became public. A professor in the Near Eastern Studies Department there replied to a law student's craigslist ad and paid the student to participate in sex acts. Later, the student complained to police that she had been slapped and struck with a belt during the encounter. After the story broke, the student anonymously posted her side of the story on The woman’s letter made clear that she was severely distressed; she revealed that she had attempted suicide. Nonetheless, some commenters excoriated her. So, to be sure, some people use anonymity to attack the vulnerable.

But anonymity can equally be used for positive purposes. Many of the commenters rebuked the Michigan student’s critics and praised her courage, something the commenters might not have been willing to do without anonymity. And it was the net’s anonymity that allowed the Michigan law student to air her troubles in the first place. The student said in her post that while some of the comments made her “want to go crawl under a rock,” other comments “made me think that maybe I can show my face again.” While anonymity allows people to heartlessly ridicule someone’s real depression, it also enables people to seek help in the first place when they might otherwise refrain from doing so. Even aside from anonymity, the net gives people like Biggs and Whitrick an opportunity to reach out for help.

We have no way to know whether Biggs carried through with his suicide because of others’ encouragement, or if he would have refrained from acting and sought help had viewers tried to stop him. But the phenomenon of encouraging suicide is not relegated to the net. And although the encouraging posts are inexcusable, there are dozens of serious-minded forums that would have tried to give Biggs help. It is not clear that he wanted help, and perhaps that is why he posted on instead. In any case, it is regrettable that no one took the opportunity to assist Biggs, but that should be viewed as a failure of individuals rather than a fundamental flaw in the net.

-- TedKreit - 19 Dec 2008

  • This is another example, I think, of believing "the Net makes it different" when it doesn't. People have been yelling "Jump" at the man on the ledge since before we were human. The social psychology of bullying is interesting whether it's the heckling of suicides, or the comments on the Michigan student's cri de coeur. But the Net doesn't make it appreciably different.

  • I do think the Michigan situation, rather than your original choice, is where the payoff for closer analysis might be. I'm struck by the complete absence of grown-up realistic commentary. Someone should have told her, publicly, some facts that would have made her feel much better, and backed off the trolls. Isn't anyone over the age of twenty, capable of telling the truth and knowing some of it, aware of what's happening to her? Someone should tell her just how to force the situation with the Ann Arbor police and the University, publicly, so that senior University administrators can begin to get themselves ready for the onslaught. And someone should tell her just how common commercial sex is in our society among "nice girls" far more class-protected than herself. How many people--mostly but not exclusively women--put themselves through high-end law schools in part on the proceeds of sex work. Of course if they are getting paid tens of thousands a year for their work (which would not be the most I've ever known a law student to earn, by one order of magnitude) they're not answering ads on Craigslist. The viability of sex work for intelligent young people with professional aspirations is something the Net has changed. As is the fact that some people who know they're not alone don't commit suicide. Thinking more about those points might be worthwhile. You would probably be able to predict reality on the basis of a little careful speculation.



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r2 - 08 Feb 2009 - 16:46:57 - EbenMoglen
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