Friday, November 19, 2010

Crowd-Sourced Justice: the Resurgence of Mob Rule in a Networked Society

Justice 101: the system of laws and courts that most of you, the readership, live with is based on a few precepts:

  • It is, in general, not a good idea to allow individuals to pursue vengeance against wrongdoers, as there will be no consistency or impartiality in the rendition of justice.
  • Law and order should serve to protect the rights of citizens (from excesses of government, murderers, discriminatory hiring practices, etc). Removing a person's liberty is, essentially, the ur-crime.
  • Being that punishment often necessitates removing or curtailing liberties, we have established the presumption of innocence and the system of due process because we believe that false positives are worse than false negatives.

"Crowd-sourced justice" is really just a pretty euphemism for "mob rule in the age of pervasive networked recording devices". Before the internet and camera phones were ubiquitous, the people with enough publishing power to make libelous or slanderous character assassinations were few. Fewer, anyhow. And they had printing presses or radio towers...big, physical landmarks with fairly unambiguous records of ownership. I suppose you could always have spread dirty rumours, but anything you could do verbally or in written communication you can do ten thousand times more efficiently now with a platform like twitter or blogger. It should not be particularly surprising that in the pseudo-anarchy of the internet, you can see aspects of the "state of nature" explored by the likes of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau; the lawless, orderless never-never land which preceded the advent of politics. There are no authorities to which we may transfer our "right" of vengeance to in exchange for a measured response. There might be a Leviathan in the form of China's Great Firewall, but its reach does not yet extend across the whole network. And, if the things we did on the internet had no ramifications on the outside world, that would not be particularly worrisome. Unfortunately, we are seeing the intersection of internet and real-world justice. And, so far, I don't believe anyone has a very good profile for dealing with these situations.

The first example is the response of the US Big Content industry to online file-sharing, which runs flat-out into a brick wall because of internet anonymity. We have seen the RIAA and MPAA sue grandmothers and grandfathers who barely know how to send an e-mail, because their grandchildren have used limewire on their computers. We have seen ISPs subpoenaed to get at the names of their subscribers so that they can be subjected to lawsuit after lawsuit. We are seeing a push toward abandoning the presumption of innocence in favour of so-called "three strikes" laws which not only a) make internet subscribers DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE for EVERYTHING conducted on their connections, but also has them automatically disconnected without recourse after being *accused* of copyright infringement 3 times. And don't mistake this for a copyright rant: we should not let corporations run roughshod over our individual rights simply because it would be TOO HARD to take individual file-sharers to court and make the charges stick. Cry me a fucking river - your monopolies are not worth selling out the fundamental rights of an entire citizenry, end of story.

My second case study is the infamous woman who threw a cat into a garbage can, and was caught on camera. Within a day or so of the footage hitting the internet, 4chan and its ilk had discovered the woman's name, and she went from being a potential suspect to protective custody due to death threats. Here, there was never a shield of anonymity to begin with. This woman wasn't, as far as I know, a significant presence on the web behind some pseudonym or forum guest account. Not an unmasking, this was a kangaroo-court, with but one piece of evidence submitted before the faceless hordes pressed in to deliver their justice. The physical authorities had to step in to defend this woman from their presumption of guilt. No matter how incontrovertible the evidence, no one is to be punished before due process has been observed. If we should fail to uphold that principle even once, it undermines the foundations of a civil and just society. What troubles me is that there is no sensible way in which someone's name could be removed from the internet after being attached to such footage. Countries - for example, the UK, are already having trouble with overzealous libel laws justifying censorship. With the ability to post and mirror and hide content anonymously, and with legions of people willing to do so, there is simply no way to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Once a name and a deed are out there, they are inseparable...and indelible.

Which brings me to my third case study: Noirin Shirley. Reporting that she had been assaulted by a fellow Apache-Con attendee on her blog, she set off the usual shitstorm of slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and vitriolic misogyny that regrettably characterizes about half the total volume of commentary on feminist content on the internet*. The alleged assailant's full name was featured in the post, which was picked up in short order around the tech-news community. The worst comments accused Ms. Shirley of being "crazy", "a tease", "an attention whore", "a character assassin", I would like to note, stark contrast to any and all available evidence in the style and content of her writing elsewhere on her blog. The woman displays a level of self-awareness that I would frankly find painful. Not that I couldn't imagine a circumstance in which even the most level-headed person might want to vilify another...I just think the burden of proof re: Noirin's supposed "craziness" sure as hell ain't on me. I did commend her (I'm "Loud!" in the comments, if you want to see what I said) on her bravery in posting as she did. Her stated motivations were laudable: "I’m tired", she said, "...of the fear. I’m tired of people who think I should wear something different. I’m tired of people who think I should avoid having a beer in case my vigilance lapses for a moment. I’m tired of people who say that guys can’t read me right and I have to read them, and avoid giving the wrong impression.". What's tragic about this, is that if you abuse a cat on the internet, you get threats. The kind of threats that put you into protective custody. If you abuse a woman, the internet...leaps to your defense (some screaming vocal woman-haters do, anyhow)? This is the kind of disproportionate response that justice systems supplant. Of course, calling someone out by name on the internet for a crime they have not been convicted of? Questionable, to be sure. Ms. Shirley's actions will, I hope, be a catalyst for a serious inquiry into sexual harassment at conventions and meet-ups of all kinds. But they also transgress against a fundamental rule of our justice system, and as much as it would pain me to see her face consequences, she might have to.

* What gets me is that you'll see this scum show up in the comments on feminist spaces where they're clearly not members of the normal community/discussion. Is there someone out there shining a giant douche-signal (it's in the shape of a giant cock) like they're calling down the wrath of the goddamn Douche-Bat on any woman who dares to defend her personhood on the internet?

I didn't want to get too much into the nature of the case (being that it is in the hands of the Police now), but I have become sidetracked as I am wont to do. I keep thinking about these cases. Is there way we can ensure ethical use of our internet services without resorting to tyranny? Would it have been better for Ms. Shirley to write her account after the police and the courts had rendered a verdict? What happens if her assailant is guilty, but acquitted? Vice versa? What are we going to do, since it really isn't possible to stop people from doing this sort of thing with the internet without shutting the whole damned thing down?

Last night, I had an argument with some friends about Wikileaks, and I realized that it, too, is a part of this "crowd-sourced justice". On the one hand, I think that we're still dealing with reduced governmental transparency in the wake of 9/11, and that something like Wikileaks is the sort of radical activism that could force governments to publish more and better data about what they are doing. But I can't overlook that - in publishing the names of Afghan informants as part of the "Afghan War Diary" - wikileaks' zeal has made it an accessory to murder most foul. Etarran identified the problem as being a lack of accountability and responsibility. Wikileaks is acting outside any regulatory framework, and one must ask the question "who watches the watchman's watchmen?". Julian Assange (who, by the way, if he turns out to be guilty of rape deserves to burn) has an interest in creating, and profiting from (if not in money, than in publicity) scandal. I can't believe that what we are learning is worth the lives of those informants, and what's worse I can't do anything to effect a change in Wikileaks' policies because it is not a democratic institution, nor does it answer to one. I cannot shake the notion, however, that in light of how internal regulatory measures have failed us in our time of paranoia and hypocrisy, that someone could have done it better. Someone could have shown us a world without lies, but instead all we got was a different kind of corruption.

I am resolute in my belief that there must always be a place where can be found the stories of victims, rebels, visionaries, prophets, and whistle-blowers. Our commitment to freedom in speech, in thought, and in the pursuit of fulfillment demands of us that we should hear the voices of the oppressed, and that we must answer. But, at the same time, our commitment to peace, order, and truth means that both speaker and listener have the most solemn duty to check facts, consider opinions, and act with deliberation and conscience. When we fail to do these things, we are giving in to a kind of knee-jerk lynch-mob insanity that our societies are built to protect us from.


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