Digital vicious circle – Broken Web Circle

by Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger

Wild West Internet?

In 2010, the Chancellor stressed in a podcast that the Internet is not a lawless space. In early 2018, she repeated this statement again in another podcast. Only – if one constantly repeats that something is not a legal vacuum – is the opposite not rather the case? So is the Internet a legal vacuum?

Personally, I believe that the Internet is more of an area of low law enforcement. That means for me the Internet is not a lawless space, but a space that is largely free of legal enforcement.

Whatever one’s position on this question: The digital space ultimately questions our understanding of the development, as well as the emergence of crime and the reaction mechanisms of digital police work in particular.

In order to describe this new challenge, I have developed the “Broken Web Theory”, which consists of classics of criminological theory and transfers them to digital space. The “Broken Web Theory” states that especially the visible transgressions of norms are not confronted with visible norm control. This leads to a lowering of the inhibition threshold for possible perpetrators.

National security authorities – international cybercrime

The question of whether the Internet is a law-enforcement free space can be discussed in particular in terms of the aggressive and open approach of sex offenders.

Finally, digitisation means that perpetrators are no longer subject to any physical limits. For example, an offender can use appropriate technologies – such as webcam and live streams – to sexually abuse children at and from anywhere in the world. Even murder from a distance is conceivable – for example, by hacking a digital system, like an autonomous vehicle.

New ground for safety

In return, security structures have not yet adapted to this particular situation. In particular, there is a lack of a global approach or even strategy to combat digital crime. At the same time, security authorities and the police find it difficult to develop the same presence in the digital space as in road traffic, for example.

Police presence, as we know, can be a basic building block for compliance with standards, however. However, if people feel that they can commit offences without the rule of law visibly intervening, this can lead to a lowering of the inhibition threshold and the commission of further offences.

Mass phenomenon – digital offences

To make matters worse, the sheer mass of crimes on the “global playing field of the Internet” alone means that no national security authority can counter them with equal effectiveness. National constitutional states do not even occupy this space in the first place, as the excessive demands are obvious.

The digital space develops its own rules

In an essay on the preventive effect of ignorance, the sociologist Popitz expressed that no legal system can function if every criminal act is actually visible.

However, this situation is partly given on the Internet, where crime can be called up with a mouse click. For example, there could be thousands of criminal comments in a forum alone. If the security authorities were to investigate all these crimes, they would produce more reports within a very short time, as the entire police crime statistics for cybercrime show in one year.

According to Durkheim, however, it is precisely the abstinence of security authorities resulting from this circumstance that is leading to an anomic space in which trust in the rule of law has declined and separate mechanisms for enforcing the law are being developed.

The phenomenon of vigilante justice

A symbol of this is, among other things, the acceptance or spread of vigilante justice. A phenomenon that can already be found on the Internet: think of the hacktivists of Anonymous. But new rules and norms of their own are also developing, as is already evident in netiquette and unwritten rules such as “Don’t feed the troll” or the concept of Counterspeech.

Visible digital offences are not reacted to visibly

A criminological approach (Routine Activity Approach) is that the following things must be present for a crime to be committed: A motivated perpetrator, a suitable victim (or object) and the absence of protection for the victim or object. These requirements are apparently well met on the Internet.

As a rule, there is no visible reaction to “norm violations” on the Internet – this can motivate further perpetrators

Suppose a window is broken and the glass is not repaired in time or the offender is confronted with his crime in a way that is visible to all others – then this can lead to more broken windows (Broken Window Theory).

Since the perpetrators – but also other people – see that apparently nobody cares whether a window is broken or not, the inhibition threshold drops. Because people always weigh up the risk with the added value.

Reality in digital space

Many users are confronted daily with phishing e-mails, insulting or inflammatory comments or even sexual harassment and cybergrooming – attempted initiation of sexual contacts.

At the same time, there is a lack of visible standards control. This shows users that there appears to be little risk of being traced on the net.

This can now increase itself and lead to a further lowering of the inhibition threshold, which in turn leads to more and more offences, which in turn lower the inhibition threshold again.

I refer to this circle as the “Broken Web” or the “Broken Web Circle”.

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