Losing your identity on the internet is horribly easy. In fact, you don’t need to do anything other than to create a profile on a social networking site that shows your picture. At least, this is what a 13 year-old boy experienced in a shocking series of events that may negatively impact his reputation for the rest of his life.
Online identity abuse is not a new phenomenon. Identity theft is a growing problem and leaving digital traces greatly facilitates such criminal activities. As was plainly demonstrated in a seemingly funny video of the Belgian financial sector, albeit with a serious and alarming undertone. But our online identities are also constructed and sometimes compromised by the people around us — people we know or passing strangers. One of the most well-known examples is the 2005 case of the South-Korean girl who refused to clean up after her dog pooped in the subway. Photos of her were posted on a popular Korean site and very quickly spread across the internet while parodies emerged. The girl was branded dog-poo girl and eventually she reportedly quit university out of shame. Humiliating the girl in such a way was a very harsh punishment for the minor offense she had committed. Another famous example is the Star Wars Kid in which a teenager filmed himself in an imaginary star wars fight, a video that was posted online by some of his classmates and also quickly went viral. Although, both the girl and the boy seem to have gotten their lives back on track after these devastating experiences, they’ll always remain the dog-poo-girl and the star wars kid on the internet.
Something similar is now happening to a Dutch boy called Freek. A picture on his private Twitter account was taken, photoshopped and displayed in fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter showing offensive and embarrassing pictures and parodies. Videos about Freek were also posted on YouTube. After his real name was found out, he started receiving insulting, and sometimes threatening, messages. Anyone who googles his name is confronted with shocking sites and nasty information. Some people even thought he was an imaginary boy, not real at all. Both Freek and his parents have ended up in a disturbing nightmare they can’t escape. The Dutch foundation My Child Online has posted a disquieting and sad video to raise awareness of identity hacking and called for action to protect children.
What is particularly bothersome is the fact that the law is limited in how it can help victims of identity hacking. Although the police has tracked down the guy that started this, criminal law will be too slow to make a difference when it is needed and only steps in after the fact. The abusive stuff is already out there in the digital world and the internet doesn’t forget — ever. Victims and their parents can ask internet providers, like Twitter and Facebook, to take down illegal information and they will if they’re properly notified. However, these what are called notice and take down procedures often lack transparency and each further incident needs to be reported anew — it’s like fighting a running battle. So for the moment we need to look beyond the rules and find ways to effectively address online identity hacking in the real world, even if we may not be able to solve the problem completely — yet. Presently, the only hope for Freek and other victims of identity hacking is that internet providers step in and make notice-and-take-down procedures more effective for those situations where people are clearly harmed and their personal information is abused. In the future, perhaps, individual internet users will be able to exercise a new right to be forgotten (or right to erasure as it is now called) to address these issues, but this is a another story…