When Does Your Google Search Become a Crime?

Gilberto Valle typed many things into his Google search bar.

Where to buy the world's largest baking dish? How to properly tie a woman to a rotating life-size barbeque spit? "How to chloroform a girl"?

The questions Valle asked were bizarre, disturbing, misogynist, and, to many of us, unthinkable. But Valle thought them. He typed them. And he hit the "enter" button.

But in doing so, did he commit a crime?

The New York Police Department officer, crowned the "Cannibal Cop" by New York papers, is the subject of the new documentary "Thought Crimes," premiering this week on HBO. The film uses the lens of Valle's incredible story to peer into the world of online fetish and fantasy. It is disturbing, interesting, and even funny. (Full disclosure: I have a brief appearance as a talking head in the film.)

In short, the judge noted that fantasy alone cannot be a conspiracy.

After his day job as a cop, Valle came home every night and lived a second life online as a member of the "Vore" community. Vore — short for "Carnivore" — describes a fetish too disturbing for mainstream fiction or pornography, yet common enough to have a community of like-minded wannabe woman-eaters on the darker pages of the web.

Valle's (now ex-)wife, to her horror, discovered his online life and turned his web activity — his Google searches, his online Vore identity, his graphic cannibal fantasy chats — over to the NYPD. Valle instantly went from employee to suspect. He was indicted on federal charges of, among other things, conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The charge was based on his search history and the volumes of online chats with other men about kidnapping, raping, tying up, and roasting women to death.

And not just any women: real women. Real women Valle knew — his friends from school, and even his wife. He even abused his authority by looking up their names, street addresses, ages, and sizes in the NYPD's database. (He was separately convicted of misusing police resources.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the jury wasn't sympathetic to Valle's defense that his actions were nothing more than online role-playing. They voted to convict him. But the judge presiding over Valle's trial granted the defense's motion to set aside the jury verdict, holding Valle couldn't be found guilty for conspiracy to kidnap.

The judge, in a 100-plus page opinion, focused on the fact that over and over again Valle and his Vore contacts made plans to meet up to kidnap women — and the days for those plans came and went, time after time, with no real-world action. In short, the judge noted that fantasy alone cannot be a conspiracy.

The judge's ruling rightly highlights the problems with finding someone guilty of a "conspiracy" or an "attempt" to commit a crime when the evidence of a crime is nothing but words. It's one thing to use a Google search as evidence of intent or knowledge, when an actual crime has resulted and there's a real victim. But in the Cannibal Cop case, no women were hurt. No kidnapping plans were consummated. For Valle, the words were the crime. The online world was the conspiracy.

Valle's case is now before the federal appeals court, which is deciding whether to uphold the judge's determination that Valle committed no crime. The court heard oral argument in the case yesterday, where one judge asked the prosecutor on the case:

"You'd concede that trying to draw lines in this unbelievable collection of emails about what is fantasy and what's not is a difficult if not surreal exercise, wouldn't you?"

The documentary's director, Erin Carr, has said she was prompted to make "Thought Crimes" because she wanted to wrestle with thorny questions about online anonymity, the meaning of our online search history, and the line between fantasy and action. She deserves credit for taking such a sensational story and teasing out the bigger questions about how we behave online, and what it all means.

After all, you might be surprised to find out what you Googled last year, or five years ago. And while what you've typed into your search bar might not be as sensational as Valle's queries, it's not a bad idea to check out your Google search history — and delete it as you like. (As a free speech attorney, my own history is a virtual smorgasbord of sociopathy, since nothing is NSFW.) Or better yet, use a search engine that doesn’t track your searches. My colleague Jay Stanley has written a great guide to protect the privacy of your online inquiries.

Apparently, Valle himself was aware of how a review of his Google searches might read. Slate reporter Daniel Engber, whose constant and excellent coverage of the Valle trial first hooked Carr, reported that Valle had also read a Techdirt blog entitled "If You're Kidnapping Someone, Maybe Don't Search Google for Kidnapping." 

But what if you do, and no crime is committed and no one is hurt? Simple: That search is fully protected by the First Amendment.

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Anonymous

Its about morality folks, doing the right thing and not indulging in crap like that just because you can.

Anonymous

Its about morality folks, doing the right thing and not indulging in crap like that just because you can.

Anonymous

Right now someone, a real human just like us, a victim of a real crime, is hoping that a law enforcement officer will rescue them. Not just one either, many. Police hours, surveillance time, it is a very valuable thing. It does not come for free and should not be wasted on people who are never going to harm anyone. There is too much of that going on. I hope he gets his job back. Morality is important but as a mechanism to choose actions. Each persons morality is personal. That is a disturbing subject but he was not tying me to a chair and forcing me to ponder it. Our judges made the right decision, among, if not THE smartest people in the world and always should be.

Anonymous

hmm... made a coment. Now im back. i mentioned surveillance time. Since the guy made the decision to use real names and even dig into his real, (make believe) subjects' personal records, looking at the description of his internet usage habits, it seems like it may be appropriate to log his activity. just as precise as the (real) (personal) facts he uses to create his fantasies are.

Anonymous

And someone mentioned duckduckgo... it may have been easy in his case to backtrack his actions which, in his case, seems to have come to his own benefit. Duckduckgo is what it is. Its a great engine, actually much more eco friendly than the others, but it is not made to be a solution for people who want a free pass to use the internet to commit horrible crimes against humanity. That is a funny context for the recommendation. Rather dumb but it comforts me to know that some of those who would connect those dots are... on second thought of course they are...

Anonymous

vore is voraphilia

Anonymous

, when you break the law

ProDigit

The line between a joke (or 'just a comment') and real action, is very thin.
All they need is someone to help push them over the edge.

I think, depending on how they present their communication, their words should be taken into consideration as half of a real threat!
If they joke about things it should be obvious; but when a man has a passion, and fantasy, to harm a woman (or baby), he should be silenced, or brought into therapy.

The Anonymous A...

The first amendment covers this.

Anonymous

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