Harmful Effects of Violent Video Games

Does playing violent video games increase tendencies toward violence?  Researched published today in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, states that it does.  As reported here, “[c]hildren and teenagers who play violent video games show increased physical aggression months afterward.”  The research is based on two studies performed in Japan and one performed in the U.S. and finds consistent results despite the cultural differences in the two countries.  “The study in the United States showed an increased likelihood of getting into a fight at school or being identified by a teacher or peer
as being physically aggressive five to six months later in the same school year.”  The author of one of the studies put the findings in context:  “A healthy, normal, nonviolent child or adolescent who has no other risk factors for high aggression or violence is not going to become a school shooter simply because they play five hours or 10 hours a week of these violent video games.”

This brings me back to last week’s discussion in Internet law about Ashcroft v Free Speech Coalition, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Child Pornography Prevention Act which, among other things, banned virtual child pornography.  The Court relied in part on the lack of a demonstrated causal link (not merely a correlation) between viewing child pornography and engaging in pedophilia.  Based on the reporting about this study, the link may be less tentative than I thought.

Going too far

A few weeks ago Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General of the state of New York, announced that Verizon, Time Warner, and Sprint would “shut down major sources of child pornography.”  California chimed in with a similar plan a week later.  That sounds worthwhile, until you examine how the ISPs are accomplishing the shutdown:  by curbing customer access to part or al of Usenet, the venerable (almost 30 year old) online discussion system.  Time Warner is cutting off Usenet access entirely, Sprint is eliminating access to alt* groups, and Verizon is barring alt* and “tens of thousands” of others.  Cuomo’s office identified only 88 Usenet groups containing child pornography so the ISPs’ announced actions will disable the access of untold numbers of Usenet users to thousands of legitimate news groups.  Were Cuomo compelling the ISPs by force of law to so limit Usenet access then a First Amendment challenge on overbreadth grounds should be a slam dunk, but he is stupid. He is using the power of his office to engage in moral suasion, painting the ISPs as child-porn enablers if they do not go along.  It’s as if Home Depot and Lowe’s agreed no longer to sell lumber because a miniscule percentage contained termites.  This is a breathtaking and insidious display of regulatory over-reaching effected through non-governmental actors.

Internet and Crime

Three articles I read today about Internet crime created an interesting juxtaposition. A c|net article discussed the affordability of tools for sale to facilitate online criminal activity, a Washington Post article discussed how unsecured WiFi connections enable anonymous, roaming access for criminal activity, and a Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) discussed the prosecutorial trend of filing criminal charges in venues that are physically remote from the persons charged.

According to c|net RSA, which monitors transactions on websites and ICQ channels between providers and consumers of hacking tools, reported at a recent conference that the tools are becoming more sophisticated while their prices are falling. Vendors are offering bulk discounts: 1-10 purloined eBay accounts cost $5.00/each, but the price drops to $4.50/each for 10-50 accounts, and to $3.50 for another 50 accounts. The Washington Post article begins with the tale of police, armed with a warrant, closing in on a suspected pedophile who traded child pornography online. Their target location was inhabited by an elderly woman who had nothing to do with the crime, other than being the owner of the wireless router beaming broadband access throughout her apartment building. Apparently one of her neighbors–police could not trace who it was–gained access through her router. There are more than 46,000 public wireless access points around the country, making it easy to log in, do harm, log out, and move on. The Post quoted a law enforcement official: “It’s frustrating for officers . . . If a suspect is going from coffee shop to coffee shop and using free signals to commit crimes, the police probably aren’t going to catch him. That’s the reality.”

The Journal balances the bad-guys-are-winning theme. In the short history of Internet law one thing is axiomatic: the Internet is everywhere. Usually we discuss how the Internet’s ubiquity frustrates regulation. It also enables prosecutors to charge crimes against remote defendants. If a police investigator downloads child porn to a computer in Buffalo, New York from a man residing in Massachusetts, it does not matter that the defendant has never set foot in Buffalo: he can face prosecution there because the crime was committed there. A concern exists that prosecutors will chose venues that will be hostile–or at least inconvenient to–the defendant but, as one attorney notes in this article, “inconvenience isn’t a defense.”