Before the explosion of online communications, our world necessarily was smaller and who we came in contact with tended to people we already knew. Then our ability to reach out and communicate with others expanded dramatically and exponentially as we all started traveling at warp speed down the information superhighway.
We learned that not only could we interact with people locally, but with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks we could be communicating with people across the country and even in countries on the other side of the globe. Part of the fun was our ability to communicate anonymously, using pseudonyms.
We could be informal, we could be creative, and we could reinvent ourselves. Indeed, most of us probably remember the cartoon with a dog in front of a monitor and a keyboard that had a caption which read: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Case law developed making clear that First Amendment protections extended to the right to speak freely and even anonymously on the Internet.
All well and good, right? Perhaps for the most part. The Internet has provided a medium that has led to many beneficial communications and interactions for personal, business, and other purposes. However, human nature is not always pure. From the beginning of human history, it seems there always have been some people intent on mischief and even violent behavior. And unfortunately, with the increased ability for people to contact others via the Internet, there also is a heightened possibility for such contacts to lead to terrible results.
A recent example brings this point home. A 26-year-old Colorado woman who was seven months pregnant recently placed a Craigslist ad for the sale of baby clothes. When she went to the home of a woman who answered the ad, the other woman allegedly stabbed her and cut her fetus out of her womb. The 26-year-old victim has had surgery and is expected to survive, but the unborn baby did not. The accused attacker had showed up at a hospital with the fetus asserting that she had had a miscarriage. The accused attacker is potentially facing charges of attempted first-degree murder, first-degree assault, and child abuse knowingly and recklessly resulting in death.
Prior to the Internet, it is less likely that a stranger like the accused attacker would have been able to communicate with the 26-year-old victim — meaning that they would have been less likely to meet and such a disaster might not have occurred. But we are in the online era, and there is no turning back.
So what is the moral of the story? Yes, there are so many advantages to life on the Internet, many of which have been chronicled in this blog over the years. But people must be careful and they must take prudent precautions. We must remember that we truly do not know those on the Internet other than our true friends and colleagues. If we intend to meet someone in person who we first met online, it is critically important to do so only when necessary, in public with other people around, and we should not supply highly private information like our home addresses.
This is not to say that all strangers on the Internet are bad or evil. Indeed, quite the contrary. But still, an ounce of prevention can be worth all the cure in the world in the rare event that we unwittingly are dealing with someone online with less than benevolent intentions.
Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is of counsel in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at email@example.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.