That people have always behaved badly is beyond doubt. As such, the internet cannot take the blame for people behaving in evil ways. However, the internet makes it easier for people to engage in immoral behavior and easier to hide behind the veil of anonymity.
One recent and sickening example involves the death scene photos of Nikki Catsouras. She died in a horrific car crash in 2006 and, as per procedure, CHP officers took photos of the crash scene. For some reason two officers decided to leak the photos and they soon began appearing on web sites. Oddly enough, some people began making hateful and cruel comments about Nikki Catsouras, thus reminding us that we share the planet with people devoid of decency and moral sense.
Perhaps the most terrible thing is that someone emailed one of the images to her farther. This twisted monster went so far as to send it as if it were a property listing email so as to ensure that he opened it. I can only imagine what sort of person would take the effort to do this sort of thing and why they would do so. The only answer I can come up with is that this person is evil. I am not going to claim that they are mentally ill. The sort of planned behavior denotes evil, not a brain malfunction.
In response to the web sites that started displaying the photos, the family tried taking legal action to get them to cease and desist. Of course, the sort of people who would run such sites are not exactly the best of people and hence they would not be inclined to respect the wishes of the family or do what is right. Also, such sites would no doubt tend to be operating outside the reach of the law anyway.
Not surprisingly, the family then brought a lawsuit against the CHP. The judge was sympathetic to their plight, but ruled that no laws were broken. Presumably there is not such a law because it was assumed that the police would not leak such photos. After all, doing that would be both unprofessional and ethically dubious (at best).
In light of the leak, there should be a law that prevents such photos from being released to the public. Naturally, such images should be available in cases in which there is legitimate need (such as for evidence in a trial) but it should not be legal to leak them to the internet. The case under discussion shows the clear harm to the families that has and can occur from such leaks. Assuming that the law should protect people from harm, then this provides a reasonable justification for such a law.
Naturally, people will raise concerns about the broader issue of placing restrictions on distributing images via the web. After all, as the arguments usually go, if the law starts restricting some images, then broad censorship will follow.
While this is a slippery slope fallacy, it does raise a point worth considering. Placing restrictions on images and other media does run the risk of eroding liberty. While no sane and decent person wants the photos of Nikki Catsouras’ corpse to be distributed on the web, the challenge is writing a law that would limit such awful behavior without infringing on reasonable liberties.
While it might seem easy to write such a law, it would actually be rather challenging. For example, a law against posting images of the dead would be absurd. This would, for example, make it illegal for me to post a picture of my grandmother and I on Facebook. It would also be absurd to have a law against gruesome images-that would make many news and even medical images illegal. Having a law against offensive images would also be problematic-so many people are offended by so many things. Perhaps the right wording can be found that will make just the right images illegal while allowing all the rest. If so, there should be such a law.
Normally we rely on decency and a sense of shame (or at least fear of retaliation) to prevent such behavior. The anonymous nature of the internet enables people to act without the shame or danger of being exposed and that makes it more likely that people will behave badly.
While I do suspect that the internet does help people become worse, this is mainly because they can get away with behaving badly and without the correction of punishment or condemnation, they will simply grow more corrupt. That is, of course, one danger of the internet: it provides people with an amazing ability to be evil anonymously and this is no doubt a very heady drug for some.