The broken web? A summary.

By Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger

The broken web derived from the broken window

Broken web is a theoretical approach that describes how the possibility of prosecution of ones action in cyberspace is so small that crimes involving information and communication technologies (ICTs) seem to occur nearly free of law and thus free of prosecution.

Broken web derives from the criminological theory of broken window, which was established by Wilson and Kelling in 1982. The broken window model of policing focuses on the importance of disorder or signs of disorder such as a broken window. Disorder might then generate and sustain more serious crimes and most of all leading to increased fear and withdrawal from a certain physical space by residents. Abandoned objects and locations that show signs of disorder then allow serious crime due to the absence of increased levels of informal social control.
When looking at behaviour that might motivate and thus support the potential of criminal criminal behaviour or behaviour against the norm, one might look at the routine activity theory. Routine activity theory was first used by Cohen and Felson. Additionally, a connection can be drawn to the rational choice approach. According to routine activity theory, an act, criminal or against the norm, will only be committed when there is a motivated offender, a profitable outcome and low protective mechanisms. If one of the factors is unusually strong in comparison to the other two, it can also result into a criminal behaviour depending on each individuals assessment or evaluation of a given situation.
This triangle of occurrences can then be applied to any daily routines or procedures and thus forms of crime, in the physical space as well as cyberspace.

Both theoretical approaches, the broken window and the routine activity theory are considered as approaches for situational crime prevention.

So what does that mean when applied to cyberspace?

“Law without enforcement, is just good advice” (Abraham Lincoln)

It is argued that the internet is not considered as a space without prosecution. The difference between an constitutional state and its appliance of rule of law and the opposing threat of a legal vacuum if you will, is not the theoretical validity of the responsible judicial system but in the possibility that criminal activity and therefore an act of breaking the law will be sanctioned.   

Consequently, this would mean that in order to counter-act such a perception of a law-free space such as cyberspace, policing measurements such as police presence and the an increased possibility of prosecution is essential. This does not mean resulting into a total surveillance but to increase visibility of security authorities and thus find a healthy middle between lack of prosecution and an overly motivated surveillance state. This means that police presence would show the appliance of rule of law by its constitutional state as well as the willingness to prosecute criminal activities that would be otherwise unpunished. Using the routine activity approach once again, this means that protective measurements are visible and in place.

Similar to physical space, an individual that normally does not take the time to wait for a green traffic light, would hesitate and most likely not decide to cross an intersection with a red signal due to the presence of a police officer. The possibility of sanction would be too high. It is not the sanction that is in the centre of this approach but the presence of police.

Keeping these theoretical-criminological approaches in mind, can the broken web approach be applied to the internet? As internet I consider only the German-speaking part including the public site of social media. The internet has been, only recently, recognised as interactive and communicative platform that inherits normal actions and problematic behaviour alike. Problematic and thus criminal behaviour can then expand to the physical space such as recent cases of #cybergrooming, #cybermobbing, #sextortion and #romancescam show.

According to an online survey by ARD/ZDF, 58 million Germans use the internet. Cybergrooming and other crimes online are increasing but also inherit a dark number that can only be estimated vaguely – depending on its definition. Nevertheless, researchers say that criminal occurrences such as cybergrooming can be considered as a mass crime on the internet. Representatives of the public prosecution have recently experienced a for them shocking outcome while testing online platforms with a child avatar. They were shocked how many inappropriate messages they received in such a small period of time.  So what does that show? Representatives of law enforcement are surprised of how much risks children and adolescents face on a daily basis. Which means that law enforcement agencies have had not much contact with these phenomena in the past, which might explain the low number of filing complaints. Other reasons can be that criminals might not be aware of the fact that they are committing a crime. In 35% of cybergrooming cases, the suspect are children and adolescents themselves. Another example shows that offenders do not fear possibilities of prosecution in cyberspace when publicly posting hate comments. Hatespeech is one occurrence that is most often committed in ones real name, showing that individuals do not fear consequences of their behaviour such as sanction and prosecution. This means that anonymity is not always the key factor when it comes to crimes online.

Consequently, there are many other criminal activities that can be applied to the above mentioned schemata. All of them show, that there is a certain attitude evident that does not worry about the possibility of prosecution. This means the following conclusion can be drawn:

1.) Many individuals grew up in the digital space without any form of social control

2.) The only form of judicial review is experienced through responsibility of social media provides such as deleting, blocking, reporting posts and comments; or one’s own responsibility

3.) Due to low judicial review and thus social control, behaviour against the norm/ criminal activity can be enhanced. A perception of a law-free space evolves.

4.) This perception is underlined through the low number of complaints and minimal visibility of police presence.

5.) Every breach of norms, shows users that there is almost no prosecution and low protective mechanisms. These breaches can last for several years without consequences and strengthen the perception of cyberspace without prosecution.

6.) When only one aspect of the routine activity approach is very strong, the other two factors can be influenced. Which means if low protective mechanisms are in place, offenders might also only have a low motivation of acting, if there is a reward for the taking.

7. This circle will intensify more and more, if criminal behaviour is left without any judicial reaction (possibility of prosecution).

How can we counteract the broken web?

I think an active discussion about security in digital space is essential to overcome and address the phenomenon of broken web. In doing so, according to the routine activity approach, there are three issues to address: missing protective mechanisms, motivation of offender and profitable taking.

Morality of the offender

One possibility is to start a discussion about digital ethical thinking of potential cyber criminals and how to raise the inhibition threshold. Such a discussion would lead into the direction of reducing motivations for offenders. One obstacle to overcome is to address the younger generation, which until now, seemed unsuccessful. Until today, we are facing increasing number of youth delinquency in cyberspace. Here, parents ad well as other institution such as school and society are needed to teach an understanding of values in the digital context. This includes not only to protect children and adolescents but also help them to understand which norms and rules are applied within cyberspace as well as the possibility of prosecution.

The profitable loot

The profitable loot can be either something to take or the victim itself. Here it depends on which crime we are looking at. Reducing the possibility of the loot and thus the possibility of victimisation is essential. A discussion about digital behaviour such as digital narcism is needed to recognise the exposure and thus vulnerability of such behaviour. It does not mean that preventing individuals to publicly post information about themselves prevents criminal activities all in all, no, but it can have a positive impact on impeding acts of the broken web.

Low protective mechanisms  

Protective mechanisms might be the one with the most potential, namely the increasing of visibility and possibility of enforcing the law. Therefore, a discussion about visibility of security agencies online is needed to address this issue. One possibility could be online patrol with the task of reacting towards criminal-relevant comments, sexual harassment of children and interacting with the public. More importantly would be the thought that online patrols could directly respond to such activities through posting on a relevant comment or write messages on a certain platform, etc. One example in Germany is the police in Berlin, who recently reacted to a post on social media that announced a rather big party in public space but did not seem to have permission for it. Other countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherland have online practices already established such as creating a digital community policing with 2000 digital police officers. In comparison, in 2016, Germany had approx.130 active social media police accounts online. Here definitions of what is public and what private in order to access information are needed for further police practices. All in all, online patrol could mean to be present in digital space as well as make announcement for preventive purposes. This can only be accomplished when realistically investing in personal, financial budget and the institutional placing of media competence to young professional. On the other hand, a reform of the German federal structure of the judicial systems regarding cyberspace, including the principle of legality might be in order (to the discussion).

If adjustments are not being made, it could appear to the public that governmental authority is absence in cyberspace.

How to fix the broken window?      

A discussion in society about norm and enforcement of such norms in digital space is largely missing. In truth, we have let this space develop on completely freely. This leads to a tendencies to transfer responsibilities to social media provider instead of the state due to the fact that the constitutional state might not feel comfortable enough to sanction behaviour against the norm it on its own. For example provider are now responsible to react towards hatespeech, prevent cybermobbing and to act against fake news.

Personally, I think that this is a wrong development. Society should have an interest in enabling a state to transform its rule of law to the digital space under certain adaptions. If the state under the rule of law is not able to adjust to current developments in digital space, will its importance of its presence loose its meaning. One important question to ask will be: If I don’t need to follow rules in the digital space, why would I need to follow them in physical  space?

Please note: For the full article – click here (in German). The theory of the broken web is very new and will be adapted by Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger as he develops new theses.


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