Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reddit, Jezebel, Free Speech and Anonymity on the Internet

For those of you who don't follow Internet drama, congratulations. You almost certainly have a more fulfilling day-to-day life than I do. But there were some pretty interesting events over the past week that I feel compelled to write about.

Reddit is an extraordinarily popular website. It's basically an open slate -- users can submit links (or simply text, like questions or statements), other users vote these links up or down and the most highly upvoted jump to the top. Reddit has something of a problem with misogyny and racism, as you'd expect with an unmoderated site. One community in particular, known as /r/CreepShots, is wholly devoted to taking pictures of unknowing, non-consenting women's body parts in public (usually in tight pants or low-cut shirts) and posting them for users to masturbate to.

ShitRedditSays, a group formed to call out misogynist, racist bullshit on Reddit, started a media campaign to get CreepShots shut down. This was mostly a failure ... until yesterday, when all hell broke loose. A (now defunct) tumblr popped up detailing names and personal information of several of the CreepShots creeps, and Jezebel posted an in-depth story covering the controversy. Needless to say, Reddit was outraged. Partially because they love creepy shit, partially because they are of the mindset that unfettered free speech is an unassailable ideal in every single case, and that to censor anything will mean the death of a free society, and partially because they have an aversion to the concept of "doxxing," or posting the personal information of anonymous posters.

I'm not going to talk about Reddit loving creepy shit, because SRS does a fine job of that. Instead, I'll talk about the free speech/doxxing issue.

1) On free speech: Reddit is not the government. I'm completely behind the concept of free speech when it pertains to laws and government intervention. I'm not at all behind it when it comes to private spaces moderating what speech is acceptable. You are free to post whatever horrible racist drivel you want on the Internet. You are not free to post it on my website. Reddit moderating objectively terrible content like CreepShots is not a violation of free speech in any way, regardless of the legality of creepy pictures.

2) On doxxing: there's a hilarious double-standard for the Reddit hivemind here. Reddit defends CreepShots in the name of "free speech", and yet, is completely unwilling to do so for doxxing. Newsflash -- doxxing is legal and morally ambiguous in the same way CreepShots is. If you're defending CreepShots in the name of "it's legal speech," you have no ground to object to doxxing. Absolutely none.

All of this leads to an interesting idea: what if there was no anonymity on the Internet?

A radical idea, I know, though I'm hardly the first one to think about it. One of my college professors (Computer Science, natch) advocated this approach, and at the time, I had a knee-jerk reaction against it. But if you think about it a bit further, there are some benefits. For one, no more doxxing. If everything you post on the Internet has your real name right there for everyone to see, the worry that someone's going to out you, well ... disappears. In addition, some (not nearly all, unfortunately) of the consequence-free marginalizing blather will dry up as well. John Q. Smith is going to be a lot less willing to post a creepy picture of a woman's ass without her knowledge when an employer searching for "John Q. Smith" will bring up John's creepiness.

Downsides? Of course. It fucking sucks that the Internet has the mindset of "default = straight white male," and stepping outside of that opens you up to attacks. Many people choose not to fight against this, and refrain from identifying themselves as a woman, or gay, or transgender, to protect themselves. I totally understand. A non-anonymous Internet would take that strategy away from marginalized peoples, which I'm not totally comfortable doing. On the other hand, it's quite possible that the default assumption might disappear once the diversity of people on the Internet is made more clear.

There's also a host of smaller issues. It becomes a lot more difficult to do anything of questionable legality online, which is sort of ... good and bad. While I'm not really an advocate of piracy, I don't relish the idea of the RIAA having full access to torrent logs and the ability to match IP addresses to names. And I don't like the idea of being outed for your interest in fully legal, fully consensual furry pony porn.

But there needs to be some sort of solution. The idea that the Internet should be a consequence-free zone for the worst sorts of behavior going into the future is not acceptable to me. And while I know that to Reddit and 4Chan, this unrestrained nature is the very key to the Internet, but I simply don't see that as sustainable. When these doxxing and counter-doxxing and triple-reverse-revenge-doxxing start to happen everyday, I think we'll see a lot of people naturally move from the "what happens on the Internet doesn't count" model. The best course of action is likely for the Internet to remain anonymous, but for the vast majority of people to pretend like it isn't.

What do y'all think? Do the benefits of an anonymous Internet outweigh the use of anonymity as a shield for deplorable actions?


Tex said...

This sounds like an ACT essay question. I love your breakdown of it, though!

There was a really cool episode of Extra Credits that tackled a similar issue with online gaming - you know, where consequence-free harassment and abuse of other players is just sickeningly rampant. (It's here, if you're interested: )

I don't know that I would want my real-life identity used everywhere I go online (because like you said, Dunder-Mifflin would probably not be thrilled if they discovered the aforementioned furry pony porn). But I sure wouldn't mind folks having a persistent virtual identity to match their persistent real-life one. Maybe you won't wanna be a grade-A skeezbag if all your downvotes on Reddit show up as soon as you try to create an account on a Star Trek forum, knowmsayn?

Because that's what happens in real life, too - you know, the waitress at Denny's doesn't have to know your name and home address to learn over time that you're a lousy tipper, and she certainly won't call your boss to tell him how you make her life miserable. But she can sure as hell make sure the rest of the staff knows to spit in your pancakes, no matter who's on shift when you walk in the door.

Matt Borgard said...

That's an interesting idea -- not necessarily tying real life to Internet life, but making sure you only have one Internet life.

We're already starting to see that happen as we move to websites using Facebook and Google logins. Yes, you *can* be anonymous if you really need to be, but for 90% of your interactions, it's much easier to click "Use my Facebook Login" and get on with your life. A lot of people have disparaged this as the end of privacy, but I like to think of it as the rise of accountability ;-)