Fla. courts, lawmakers wade into cyberspace at last

Cyberspace
Photo Credit TheAge.com.au

By Jesse Phillips

Florida judges and lawmakers are venturing into cyberspace at last, taking actions that could set some important precedents.

Ever since Al Gore “invented the Internet” and Mark Zuckerberg more recently invented Facebook, social media sites are notorious for permitting otherwise unacceptable behavior.

The web has been compared to the wild, wild west, a land without rules and full of promise, provided you can tolerate a degree of mob rule. This can be a good and bad thing, and I have experienced both.

The Internet allowed our “Restore Justice” voter education campaign to share information about the records of Justices with historic success. It also allowed critics to say all sorts of “wonderful” things about me.

The crux of the current public policy debate over the internet is its ability to circumvent existing laws and societal rules. This is both its greatest advantage and weakness. Things that are not possible or acceptable in “real life” are common practice online.

The advent of the internet has created a chasm between real life and online life since technology changes quickly and laws do not. This difference has created a dichotomy between the legality of real life activities and their online counter parts.

It seems as though public policy might be catching up, thanks to our law makers and courts.

First, the legislature is moving to ban Internet Cafes. In places where slot machines are illegal, innovators circumvented the law through the creation of “Internet Cafes” that provided a virtual environment in which patrons could get the full slot machine experience without actual slot machines.

A combination of computers and electronic transactions exposed a loophole and allowed people to enjoy otherwise illegal activity in a virtual environment.

It took a huge scandal leading to the resignation of the Lieutenant Governor to motivate the legislature to act. If the Internet Cafe bans are passed, then what is virtually permissible will be a little closer to what is legal in real life.

In a lesser known development, a recent court decision ruled that threats made on Facebook can be prosecuted under the state law and potentially result in a second degree felony.

In the case O’Leary v. State of Florida, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that a man who had posted physical threats on his Facebook page would receive the same consequences as if he had made the threats in person or in writing.

Although the man claimed the threats were made for his own “personal contemplation” the court disagreed. If you say something on Facebook, you are still liable for having said it.

It will be interesting to see if these two cases represent an aberration or a growing trend. Common sense says you should not type or do anything on a computer you would not say or do in person. And while human nature dictates there will always be a difference between common sense and common practice, the courts and legislature seem to be narrowing the legal gap between the Internet and real life.

Jesse Phillips is a grassroots leader who leads Restore Justice, educating voters of the records of judicial candidates. He is also the Director of IT for one of the largest independent medical practices in Orlando. He can be reached at [email protected]

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