This is actually an issue I've been meaning to write about for a week or two, but it has taken a tweet earlier this evening to get me to write about the issue. The tweet – the person writing it declares herself to be age 17 – reads
"My mom doesn't like me having a twitter any more. She thinks you all are some paedophiles or something. I'm not joking."
Thing is, just as it was once said that on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, on the internet it is also true that you have very little idea whether what the person at the other end of your tweet or blog post may claim as their age, sex, location, gender, politics, everything really has any basis in truth. More to the point, most people use pseudonymous handles and don't specify personal anything about themselves.
Which has meant that – sometimes – I wonder just how innocent I might be behaving if someone engages me in a spot of mild online flirtation and I respond in a similar manner. Are they under-age? More importantly, being in mind the global nature of the internet and the commonality of the widespread use of English, what is the age of consent which applies for them? We all know that such things vary widely around the world. For that matter maybe I am chatting about something completely neutral with an agent provocative for some police service! Back in 1995 when I worked on the Microsoft Network (msn) I had to create a second, artificial, user identity separate from my 'working' one. I clearly did it so well my fake user received three offers of marriage within the first couple of weeks!
Which brings us back to the main issue. Who takes responsibility for what happens online when people exchange messages? Does it make a difference if they are public or private? If I talk about particular subjects could I be accused of what is called " grooming", indeed what actually comprises evidence of that? Entirely innocent statements or activities everywhere, not just online, are frequently misunderstood. Similarly there are few, if any, effective ways to confirm what anyone online says about themselves; indeed this fact is one of the prime issues about internet usage generally – how do you prove who are 'are'. We take so much on the internet on trust, just as we often find ourselves doing 'in real life' too.
So is it right there could be a penalty for being ignorant about whom we are talking to online when there is no way to discover that you have been misled? "Natural justice" would suggest not.