Crime & Punishment on the Internet: Should we forgive a thief?

01/31/2010

This is a story of what not to do on the internet. It’s a story of theft, of law suits, of a community coming together to fight a common foe. It’s a story that I thought was over years ago (2006 is ancient history in internet time). It may yet turn out to be a story of forgiveness. But before we get to the story, let me share with you the email that prompted this post:

Brian,

My name is [Kevin C].  A few years ago you posted a photo about me stealing photos on the internet. I am looking for you to delete the photo on flickr:

(link withheld, here’s a screenshot)

What I did was extremely wrong and I was able to apologize to the other photographers and mend fences a week after the incident happened. I was younger at that time and much more immature than I am now after a few years.  I’m not a photographer by any means – in fact I sold my last camera last year and have no intention of doing any photography work in the future.

However, the internet is not as forgiving and that image has sat at the top of Google results for my name for at least four years.  In this time I have struggled to find adequate employment and do simple things like form new friendships with people in fear of them finding out my last name.   It has been mentally draining on my psyche to say the least.

In 2010, I am looking to get a new start in life and looking for a second chance.  I am asking for you to look into your heart and help me move forward in my life.  This will give me greater peace of mind and help with future employment opportunities which will lead me to live a meaningful and fulfilling life which is what I want more than anything.

Thank you for your time and consideration, please write me back when you get a chance.

– [Kevin C]

It’s a very nice letter, and a lot nicer than what some of my photographer friends received from him when they blogged about him stealing their work in 2006. Back then he had a lawyer send them letters threatening a defamation lawsuit if they didn’t take down posts showing that he had stolen their photos. Of course they wisely responded by posting the threatening letters, resulting in a flood of attention to the matter that spread over the internet in dozens of blogs (see: Streisand effect).

Kevin felt the full wrath of the internet, and rightly so. He was blatantly taking credit for work he did not do, and then had the balls to sue those who called him on it. I commented at the time that this mistake would haunt him forever, and he’d likely have to legally change his name if he ever wanted to work in the creative industry. Looks like I was right, because here we are 4 years later and he’s still trying to recover.

Kevin’s email this morning asking me to help him put all this behind him stirred up a mix of feelings for me. One the one hand, I am not sure the punishment of a scarlet letter for the rest of his life is fair. We were all young and stupid once. I was actually guilty of plagiarism when I was young as well, but  fortunately for me I learned my lesson in third grade, not in college.

On the other hand, he really should have known better. He wasn’t in the third grade, he was an adult, and should have the foresight of consequences. It was a real dick move, compounded by the fact that he stole from really high profile people with really high profile friends. By all standards he deserves to have a hard time finding work in a field where this sort of thing is not just embarrassing, but potentially a multi-million dollar liability for an employer.

Crime and punishment on the internet is a strange thing. There’s no judge, no sentence, no debt to repay. You’re judged by everyone, perpetually, forever.

Crime and punishment on the internet is a strange thing. There’s no judge, no sentence, no debt to repay. You’re judged by everyone, perpetually, forever. I don’t think that’s really a good thing. Maybe Kevin deserves the consequences he’s served in the last 4 years, but does he deserve them in the next 4? Or 40?
So I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with my little piece of his sins. I’m not sure it should be entirely up to me. His punishment was doled out by the community, perhaps the community should be involved in lifting it.

So what do we think, viewers? Should Kevin get a fresh start, or should the scars of lessons learned remain as a reminder and as a warning to others? Sound off in the comments.

(Please note that I have withheld Kevin’s full name in the hope that this post will not add anything more about him to Google. If you know his full name, please just keep it to first name only in the comments. I’ll edit it if you don’t)