The jury has spoken, and everything about the Rutgers University webcam spying case is still wrong.
Tyler Clementi is dead, a suicide victim three weeks into his freshman year.
Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate, faces up to 10 years in prison and possible deportation because of a verdict that many legal experts say was wildly off target.
The definition of a hate crime, meant to protect minorities from acts of overt violence, has been stretched to include Peeping Tom behavior in a college dormitory. Ravi turned on his computer’s webcam to capture images of Clementi kissing another man and told the world about it on Twitter.
The webcam verdict lends no clarity or advice for navigating the uncharted frontier of digital protocol. If anything, it leads further into the murk.
Ravi showed signs of being uncomfortable with having a gay roommate, but nothing indicates that he wanted to drive Clementi to harm because of his homosexuality. The jurors acknowledged that but found Ravi guilty on a bias intimidation charge, among other things, meaning he created circumstances that caused Clementi to be intimidated, even if he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong.
In other words, Ravi stands to be severely punished not so much for his actions but for the reaction they caused. And although Clementi was troubled by Ravi’s boorish insensitivity – he requested a room change and checked Ravi’s Twitter account repeatedly – no one knows why he took his life. Clementi, a shy, 18-year-old violinist who had recently told his parents he was gay, spoke to no one and left only a cursory Facebook message before he jumped off New York’s George Washington Bridge.
In September 2010, when he spied on his roommate, Ravi was an 18-year-old high school graduate who knew a lot about the digital world and not enough about respecting another person’s privacy.
“I didn’t realize it was anything so private,” Ravi told police in an interview later heard by jurors, in which he acknowledged viewing his roommate in an intimate moment. “It was my room, too.”
The erosion of privacy is perhaps the one clear element in this sorry mess. Ravi, an intelligent young man in many respects, clearly had no understanding of what privacy is or means. He is far from alone in that deficit.
According to an exhaustive New Yorker magazine profile, Ravi viewed his college admission scores, a photo of his fake New York driver’s license, and his routine comings and goings as Internet fodder. He posted on multiple social media sites and was prolific on Twitter, reporting at one point being “stoned out of my mind.”
If you’re willing to sacrifice your own privacy to the gods of cyberspace, it stands to reason that you may not value someone else’s.
“Found out my roommate is gay,” Ravi announced on Twitter in the run-up to starting college, after some online snooping turned up a part of Clementi’s email address on a gay chat forum. Apparently it didn’t cross Ravi’s mind that Clementi should be the one to decide if, when and how to disseminate that information.
Forget the locked diary. Technology today encourages users to leave an online trail that can be picked up by just about anyone. Cyberspace has a boundless hunger for your thoughts, your photos, your good and bad moments, your convictions, your prejudices.
But the Internet beast is also indiscreet. After Clementi’s death and the eruption of outrage it provoked, investigators turned up a trail of tweets, instant messages, text messages and other communications that found their way into the public record.
It is too late to stuff this beast back into the bottle. But I think it falls to those of us who remember a time when communications were privileged to tell upcoming generations that privacy matters.
A closed door in a college dorm means you don’t intrude. Your roommate’s romantic life is not your business or your friends’. You don’t need to reveal everything about yourself. And once you put information into cyberspace, you cannot control where it goes or what it might provoke.
That’s the sort of information we should be sharing.