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Story Last modified at 12:17 p.m. on Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is the Internet too dangerous for us?


News outlets are reporting that some people are using the Internet to allegedly combine social media with mass mayhem. According to police in Maryland recently, nearly 30 people suddenly showed up at a convenience store in the middle of the night, ransacked the place, and disappeared all within about sixty seconds time.

The cops think the group got online and took the old "flash mob" idea literally, using the likes of Facebook and Twitter to form a real and dangerous mob that likely caused some poor clerk's life to flash before his eyes.

Police suspect similar organizing techniques have been used elsewhere, with large groups of criminals showing up out of nowhere to commit robberies and beatings.

Though frightening, it's debatable whether this kind of thing will become common. You've got to think that most people savvy enough to start a criminal organization from a blog probably also realize that the Internet is a tough place to cover your tracks. Within days of the Maryland mob, several suspects had already been apprehended. More will surely follow as the rest of the gang starts to talk.

Meanwhile in England, officials claim that young Londoners used similar social media tactics to spark recent riots, and some are calling for those involved to be banned from the Internet. The theory is that if miscreants can't use their Blackberries, they'll be powerless to organize and riot.

Is that the answer? Do we need new laws to curtail the use of the Internet for organizing criminal acts? Should we ban people from going online if they're convicted of such a crime? Should the Internet be scrutinized and subject to more government oversight?


We've already got laws against beating people up and robbing convenience stores. The penalties for such acts can be severe. We've also got laws against rioting in the streets and setting cars on fire. Heck, we've even got laws against organizing your criminal acts with other people beforehand.

New laws would give politicians something to hang their hat on during the next election cycle, but they wouldn't do much in the way of keeping the bad guys from doing bad things. All they would do is bring us closer to a world where the government decides what's permissible and what's not online. Like they do in China.

It's a good bet that as long as the Internet is around — which could be a while — some among us will probably use it for harm. But people use telephones to plan robberies. And they use books to organize riots. And they use guns to kill people. Banning telephones, books and guns won't stop any of these things from happening.

Instead of fretting over figuring out ways to keep criminals off the Internet, let's figure out new ways to fight against the conditions — the despair, poverty, apathy, hatred, prejudice, ignorance and stupidity — that leads to people to senselessly hurt one another in the first place.

Wouldn't it be cool to hear about a flash mob that suddenly appeared out of nowhere to paint a neighbor's house? Or about a group of teens getting on Twitter to organize an impromptu march in support of their peers serving in harm's way overseas? Or about someone using Facebook to flood soup kitchens with smiling volunteers and blood banks with young, fresh arms?

Sure, the Internet can be used to do dumb stuff. It can be used to create chaos. It can be dangerous.

But far more dangerous than riotous teenagers is the idea that we need more protection from ourselves, and that the open flow of information needs to be stymied. Don't blame the Internet for the criminals who use it — take the fight to them instead. Just go think of an idea that will help someone out there have a little bit better day today.

Then tweet away.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 17, 2011.