Web Info Leads To “Shocking” Crime
Putting to use knowledge gained from the Internet, a Connecticut teen was arrested for attempting to shock a classmate—literally shock a classmate—with a rigged disposable camera.
Twenty years ago, this would have earned you detention. In light of certain third graders, though (among other nightmarish events), it means calling the cops.
The student modified the camera’s wiring so that if a person pushed the shutter button, they would be shocked. It is not known yet if the student accessed instructions for the prank from PyroElectro.com’s detailed video and step-by-step tutoring for creating its "Stunning Camera," but it would have been a good start.
Or it’s possible (and likely) the student found the instructions via YouTube, where the video was originally uploaded by PyroElectro.com, or from Digg.com or BoingBoing, where links to the modification video also appeared. The video shows equipment needed, the method of rewiring, and a lineup of camera users receiving a mild, but apparently painful, shock.
Oh, the hilarity. Until you’re escorted out of school in cuffs and charged with possession of a dangerous weapon on school grounds. Clinton, Conn. police equated the modified camera to "an improvised electronic demobilizing device similar to a Taser" potentially capable of producing a 600 volt shock.
The student didn’t have a chance to try it out, though. A teacher intervened beforehand.
We contacted Eric Goldman, Assistant Professor and Director of Santa Clara University’s High Tech Law Institute, about the potential liability PyroElectro.com or a similar site could face if someone were harmed because of instructions posted online.
Goldman said that if the site published third party content, as is the case with Digg, BoingBoing, and YouTube, then it would be protected under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects website operators from third-party liability.
"If the site originated the content, then this is governed by the laws applicable to the publication of ‘harmful’ information." However, the laws regarding the publication of harmful material are complicated and not uniform.
There are free speech issues as well. "There are strong First Amendment limits on imposing liability for such information," said Goldman.
Determining whether fault lay with the person acting on the information or the publisher of the information, or both, could also be difficult.
The instructions at PyroElectro.com were posted with a disclaimer, which did not appear on the YouTube video nor the Digg submission, stating the project could be dangerous and is only intended for educational purposes. It also warns someone could be seriously injured.
"I don’t think the disclaimer makes a lot of difference legally," said Goldman. "But it does reinforce that the real harm occurred when someone tried to replicate the process rather than merely publishing information about the process."
Commentators in the Digg thread were amused, with one of them expressing on March 19th the intent to give it a try. The instructions were submitted to Digg on March 18th, the same day the video was posted on YouTube. One Digger warned, though, that the technique was highly dangerous and stupid, especially if the target of the prank had an undiagnosed heart problem.
But does intent to prank your friends, especially from a 14 year old, constitute grounds for arrest? Perhaps these days, it does.
"Back in the old days," said Goldman, "pranks were just pranks. Now, they are crimes. I’m not sure if that change is good or bad, but it’s definitely occurred."
PyroElectro did not respond to request for comment in time for publication.