22 January 2001
The ruling that the killers of James Bulger will have their new lives protected from intrusion from the English and Welsh media was immediately pounced on by net-savvy lawyers who pointed out that the judgment could be rendered farcical if details of Venables' and Thomson's identities appeared online.
Not only would such an event have direct implications for the young men but it could render any English paper that republishes, or even links to the information, open to... well that's the point. The lawyers shook their heads, threw their hands in the air and said: "Well, that's internet law for you!"
Similarly, the busting of paedophile ring the Wonderland Club allowed lawyers (as well as tabloid headline writers) cause to muse about the "new opportunities for crime" and "new spaces beyond the law".
But it's not just those whose job it is to keep up-to-date with the latest case law that have lessons to learn from these cases. The new breed of e-practice managers should take time to cut through the hype and the moral panics.
The first law of new media is that it is built on a network. Technically speaking, data is split into packets, given an address and allowed to find their own, fastest route to their destination, where they are recombined. Culturally speaking, an increasing number of people living and working in netspace fire off packets of information - gossip, half truths, opinions, sexual confessions, facts, whatever - with no clear knowledge of where they will end up and often not caring.
Organisations can fight against it. They can try their damnedest to control it but they never will. Just as the http protocol enables data packets to find their way around obstacles, so the network effect means that information will out.
This is no comfort to Venables and Thompson, nor to a paranoid practice manager, but it is a fact. Just as those charged with protecting the pair will have to deal with the fact that the law will not provide anonymity, so those charged with managing legal networks will have to work with the fact that they can never be closed. Those who use them, are characters on them, or are talked about on them (bosses and fellow workers), are continually remade as data circulates. A sensible and confident manager allows or even encourages those conversations, owning them and facilitating them, enabling them to build relationships on which a successful business prospers.
The Wonderland Club also illustrates an aspect of the new networked culture - communities are primary, technologies secondary. Contrary to new media rhetoric and countless business plans, communities are not built, they happen, and those communities adopt technologies if they serve their purpose.
Paedophiles have taken to the net and will adopt mobile media because it enables the seamless and cheap production and exchange of material with relative anonymity. They did not adopt it because someone designed a "paedophile community" and marketed it to them, nor because they prefer to look at porn on a screen.
You will only make your new network a "club" when members want to join because they get something out of it. It is the network effect that is primary and it is that which needs to drive the strategy.