Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

Why do we treat cyber crime so harshly, yet let thugs off lightly?

Andy Warhol famously predicted that there would come a time when everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. I have a counter-theory. There may come a time when everyone will be private for 15 minutes.

The rest of the time our lives will be an open Facebook. We'll be constantly Twittering them away - flushing every highlight of our mobile-filmed day down the YouTube.

I'm not being a total oul curmudgeon about the joys of social networking here. I fully understand the lure.

It may not rank up there with the discovery of the wheel or penicillin but it has in its own way brought many, many positives to our world. It has made it easier for nation to speak unto nation at laptop level.

It allows people to keep in touch and share their news, inspirational messages, photographs of themselves looking surprisingly attractive and photographs of attractive friends looking heart-warmingly ropey.

It is an unsurpassable forum for gossip. It is often outstandingly ingenious and fun.

But against all these good points you have the obvious downside. An awful lot of what gets posted is just plain dire.

Someone who gets up in the morning and feels the need to share with the world - even before they've had cornflakes or a shower - illuminating stuff along the lines of "Ho hum. Here we go. Another day ... ." doesn't need a Facebook page. They need a life.

And then, of course, there is what we could call the troll community.

Nerdy boys - they're almost always boys - who feel compelled to snipe, insult and threaten.

Some of these people are mentally ill. Some are drunk. Some are spotty inadequates. A very large proportion are just witless eejits.

Inevitably, a sizeable number have now landed themselves before the courts to be sentenced for their vitriolic, often distressing nastiness, racism, homophobia and online threats to inflict harm.

Interestingly, in many of these cases the tariff has been imprisonment. I say interestingly because as we all know, these days burglars, sex offenders, even yobs who physically menace vulnerable old people have come to expect little more than the now-statutory wrist rap for truly serious crime.

And no, I'm not saying threatening to kill someone is non-serious. The law has to take all threats seriously. Even those tweeted by anonymous illiterates or gobby kids who don't know any better.

You just wonder though are we sometimes in danger of losing the run of ourselves in terms of assessing the right punishment to fit the crime?

The latest case to hit the headlines is a 21-year-old fast food worker who, when he was 19, hacked into the Facebook page of singer/actress Selena Gomez, read messages from her boyfriend Justin Bieber and posted on the site (in Selena's name) the devastating assertion: "Justin Bieber sucks!"

Bieber fans were enraged at the hapless Selena (and you don't ever want to make enemies of Bieber fans.) The hacker also attempted to pass on information from the site to a couple of magazines.

But is the sentence for the crime - 12 months imprisonment - commensurate with the offence?

"People are entitled to privacy even those who seek publicity," the judge told him.

Is invasion of privacy a worse crime though than, say, invasion of the home of a pensioner by a thug armed with an iron bar?

Maybe this is just me, but I think not. Tens of thousands of pounds were spent tracking down the Justin-Bieber-sucks hacker.

If only every crime victim could depend upon such a determined and relentless pursuit of justice.

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