March 11, 2012

The cost of privacy

By the time you read this, the trial of Dharun Ravi may already be over and a verdict delivered.

He is a freshman at Rutgers University who has been accused of "invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and hindering apprehension" associated with the suicide death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi. While the terms "invasion of privacy" and "hindering apprehension" are somewhat self-explanatory, "bias intimidation" needs some clarification.

Briefly, it occurs when an act is committed "with a purpose to intimidate the victim because of their race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ethnicity." This is a particularly important charge because the criminal penalties for bias discrimination are much more severe than the other two charges: up to 10 years in prison and/or possible deportation.

So, what happened that caused these accusations to be made against Ravi? That is a very long and complicated story that has been minutely described by Ian Parker in the Feb. 6 New Yorker magazine, "The Story of a Suicide — Two college roommates, a webcam, and a tragedy."

Here is a short version, which leaves out many of the details: Ravi set up a webcam on his computer to secretly view a liaison between his roommate, Clementi, and an unidentified male, known only as "M.B" in the court records. Along with Ravi's friend, Molly Wei, they viewed (but did not record) part of the rendezvous. After the encounter, Ravi tweeted, "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

As Ravi's Twitter account was public, Clementi found and read that tweet, and although initially reticent to start any "drama," he eventually filled out the online form for a room change, reporting that his roommate had spied on him with a webcam. Afterward, he went to the George Washington Bridge and jumped, killing himself by suicide.

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