What is it about the Internet that brings out the worst in some of us? On July 16, five days before the official publication of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, online activists apparently photographed every single page of the book and then published their stolen content with file-sharing technology.
Why flood the Internet with a leaked version of the book? These hooligans were obviously trying to ruin the pleasure of millions of innocent Harry Potter fans. The impact of this antisocial act was best summarized by a contributor to the Potter fansite Mugglenet.com: ”I hate it when people ruin things like this for everyone else who wants to enjoy it the right way. I think that’s just the most awful thing ever. Especially when there’s spoilers where you least suspect it. People are jerks.”
Yes, exactly. Today’s Internet — with its blogs, wikis, and social networks — is being spoiled by nihilistic jerks. In theory, this Web 2.0 revolution is supposed to augur a new age of responsible cultural democratization in which we are all liberated from mainstream media’s gatekeepers. This is the much-hyped Citizen Media revolution, carried out by the noble ”You” — TIME’s Person of 2006.
Unfortunately, that’s mostly just digital utopian theory. The real-world practice is increasingly ruined by the piracy and incivility of online activists. The problem is that when you do away with the rules of traditional media, when there are no editors policing the flow of information, a handful of rotten individuals can spoil everything. As a spokesman for Bloomsbury, J.K. Rowling’s U.K. publisher, said, ”We’re getting phone calls from people in tears saying: I don’t want to find out what happens.”
So how can we stem the tears and make the Internet a more law-abiding place? Today’s Internet is policing itself inadequately. On July 16, Scholastic issued a subpoena to Gaia Online, a social-networking site for teenagers that had allowed one of its users to post links to leaked Harry Potter information. Gaia’s response? The California-based site banned the leaker from its network for 14 days. A 14-day ban for distributing illegal content! Online spoilers need to be held much more accountable. Websites must be more aggressive in deterring antisocial action. Otherwise the jerks really will take over the Internet. And the tears of Harry Potter fans will become all of our tears. — Andrew Keen is the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture.