The internet's dark heart

The Offensive Internet, a collection of powerful academic essays, weighs the case that the internet offends as much as it empowers

An old saying has it that when one of China's leaders, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the consequences of the French revolution, he replied it was too soon to tell. When it comes to the internet, you might think it equally wise to wait for the e-dust to settle. But since this revolution threatens (or promises) an unprecedented revision of the world, the drive to analysis is probably unstoppable.

Hence a slew of books due in the coming months, starting with a heavy-going critique with a great title. It's a collection of essays by law and philosophy academics, edited by Chicago professors Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum, focusing on real-world worries about how the internet causes "offence". They look at privacy, freedom of speech and reputation, and while the last two may present old problems in new clothing, privacy, say the editors, clarifies the true novelty of the internet.

Suppose formerly confidential information ends up circling the globe (WikiLeaks); or a false accusation becomes part of someone's online identity, affecting relationships and job prospects forever (cyber-bullying); or a break-up triggers retaliation, with the exposure of sexual details harming reputations or mental health (campus suicides). And any of us could be the Star Wars Kid, cited in one essay - a pudgy, nerdy 15-year-old who videoed himself pretending a golf-ball retriever was a lightsaber. This went viral when his tormentors uploaded it in 2002, to blogospheric derision.

The essays have an academic tone, and sometimes raise issues seldom addressed. For example, Nussbaum's essay "Objectification and internet misogyny" is full of graphic detail, reminding us that much of the damage done by the spread of gossip and slander is to women, and may involve what feminists call "objectification".

To turn anyone into an object "involves conferring on the object a spoiled, or stigmatised, identity", says Nussbaum, while to objectify publicly "is a variety of shame punishment". Harassment on the AutoAdmit website led two female students from Yale Law School to file complaints. Mild examples read: "[DOE I] is a dumbass bitch and [DOE II] is a slut".

Beyond citing feminist Andrea Dworkin's remedy of "asserting one's humanness", Nussbaum has only questions, wondering how to ensure those assertions are not "silenced by pornographic hate". Other authors dealing with less pervasive "offences" have easier recourse to legal solutions.

This is not a book for those already "living online", many of whom may see feminism as a spent force and total exposure as harmless, even good. But it is for those who care how the internet has complicated privacy, speech and reputation, and for those who may have to rescue it from itself.