Since I’m a relatively happy Internet immigrant, I mostly forget how different the Internet has made my children’s world from the one I grew up in, and continues to change it. But sometimes I’m struck by the ubiquity of the technology. And it doesn’t always happen in the highest tech environment.
This year my daughter competed as part of her high school’s mock trial team. Mock trial is a high school competition, with county, state, and national tournaments. Students study a case, field defense and prosecution teams, and then try the case in front of a real judge and a jury made up of legal experts. When I watched my daughter’s team compete as part of the California Mock Trial Program, the courtroom was as traditional as it gets—an old courthouse, heavy oak furniture, the judge in his black robes.
The case itself, however, a murder trial in which a comedian is accused of killing someone who gave him a bad review on an online ratings site, turned on Internet technology. There were no witnesses, no DNA evidence. There was a little low-tech evidence, in the form of tire tracks, but these only put the defendant’s car at the scene, not the defendant.
Instead, they had an email and two tweets. To me, the Internet immigrant, it seemed odd that both the defense and the prosecution were whipping out this information as evidence; to the Internet natives on the teams, however, it made perfect sense, for what they do on the Internet is as real as what they do in the real world.
First, the email—the defendant sent a personal message to the critic through the online website, “YellUp” (perhaps a loosely disguised “Yelp), giving him a last chance to remove the review, and threatening, if he doesn’t, “to do more than ruin [his] livelihood”. The detective (my daughter) has discovered this during a search; up for pretrial debate--was that search was legal? The detective had a warrant to search the defendant’s car, house, and computer, and all records or information on purchases, no matter where stored. She viewed the browser history, then clicked through into the Yell-Up site to find the message. The pretrial arguments centered on whether or not this was admissible under the search warrant, since YellUp is not a shopping site, or whether only data on the computer itself should have been searched, and not data in the cloud.
Then, there was a twitter message, also introduced by the prosecution. The defendant tweets, "I'm going to kill tonight and shut up the critics once and for all." The defense didn’t argue that tweets should be inadmissible as evidence, but instead brought forward witnesses who explain that “kill” is a term used by comedians to describe putting on a great show.
The prosecution wasn't the only team pulling evidence out of the Internet. The defense brought out a tweet as an alibi, arguing that the defendant couldn’t have murdered the victim at the time in question because he had tweeted from a computer, not a phone, around the same time.
My daughter’s team was knocked out at the county level, having won a few and lost a few. But other teenagers around the country will continue for the next few months to argue a murder case based on Internet evidence. And they won’t realize at all that they really are living in a new world.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.