From Cecil to McKinney: Desktop Regulatory State Justice

On July 31st, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act (CECIL), crudely named after the slain lion whose death, at the hands of a Dallas dentist, sparked great outcry. The Act seeks to place further restrictions on the import and export of endangered wildlife or the remains thereof in hopes of discouraging senseless trophy-hunting.

One wonders how enforceable such an act would be given that wealthy trophy-hunters will likely always be able to find ways to smuggle their bounties back into the country. A strong case can be made that such laws are increasingly unnecessary in our current internet age. The negative publicity surrounding Cecil’s death greatly harmed his killer’s business and forced him to apologize.

In a similar scenario, the McKinney, Texas cop who assaulted teenage party-goers was forced to resign when a video of his actions surfaced online. This is part of a larger trend of increased awareness of abuses by the police due to the ease of video documentation and online information sharing.

Additionally, there is the Centerplate CEO who was forced to resign after a video of him kicking a dog went viral. Other business have lost customers due to the publicizing of their discrimination against homosexuals, although sympathies have often reversed when the state stepped in to further punish the individuals in question.

All this shows that bad publicity, in and of itself, can penalize bad behavior, without the counterproductive arbitrariness of government action. Government regulations allow their targets to present themselves as victims of unfair persecution. Non-state retribution in the form of bad publicity allows people to voluntarily withhold business without the use of force. This is not to say that the internet does not also allow for those who wish to reward bad behavior to do so as well, which has happened in a few isolated cases. But the overall trend is that Americans are becoming less accepting of homophobia, cruelty towards animals, and abuses by police. Such actions are now far more likely than ever to hurt one’s financial future and social well being. This will only become more true as the spread of information becomes even faster. The voluntary desktop regulatory apparatus will only become more important, as market forces push businesses to maintain positive online reputations.

True, there is occassionally a negative side to online justice. Tragically, many users lack the maturity to understand that death or rape threats, as well as the disclosure of others’ personal information, are neither humane forms of punishment nor are they likely to win others over. As the public becomes increasingly aware of such “negative online justice,” websites will be under increased pressure to curtail it, as Facebook and YouTube do with reported offensive content. We are still learning to protect ourselves from harmful online behavior, and how to teach others not to engage in it. This is part of the learning curve necessary to adapt to a new world where information flows freely. While such a world may be experiencing some growing pains, the proven ability of accelerated information-sharing to reward good and punish evil should make it a welcome development.