Whistleblowing vs Privacy, Again
When Julian Assange and Wikileaks first hit the news, many people were pleased to see the whistles being blown, but I worried that such an agency might also be a threat to the innocent. I wrote Whistleblowing vs Privacy?, comparing Wikileaks to the OBIT device from an old episode of the Outer Limits, which ticked off a lot of Assange fans:
These old scifi writers were more worried about the effects of a loss of privacy for citizens than the boons of what we might find out with the technology. …
Wikileaks … are far less pervasive, and only act when outrage, what Assange calls Courage, trumps self-interest to become the determining filter for revealing secret information. Wikileaks is like a gossip rag that relies on volunteer paparazzi, but these are paparazzi with potentially a lot to lose. So far they have leaked about governments and businesses, the traditional targets of the fourth estate, but individuals seem to have been affected as a result. Like the fictional Lomax, Assange takes the view that if governments and corporations have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. Unlike Lomax, Assange expects his information dumps to ultimately improve our society rather than destroy it. …
You might consider Wikileaks to be essentially the same as 60 Minutes. You figure if Mike Wallace shows up, they must have done something to deserve it, right? But what if investigative journalists had started following everyone around like paparazzi, and broadcasting anything that looked suspicious 24 hours a day? At what point does whistleblower journalism transcend normal expectations of privacy?
We don’t want our government and businesses to operate completely in private, and at present they certainly have the upper hand against traditional journalists, but can we live with the fallout of occasionally complete transparency?
A lot of folk jerked their knees and incorrectly assumed that I disliked Assange or Wikileaks or Anonymous. Far from it, but I did and still do wonder what sort of power has been unleashed. And a story where revelations about private citizens through a combination of social media, private bloggers and anonymous activist hackers has now made headlines.
Anonymous has been vital in getting out at least some of the evidence of the assault to the media. As the group shows no signs of slowing down the hacking, this is a story that could very well develop further. But the role Anonymous now plays in this case is certainly hard to reconcile, morally.
As some initial gleeful Twitter responses from students to the alleged rape demonstrate, one reason rape continues is that communities not only don’t hold perpetrators responsible, but close ranks to defend or even celebrate them. By stepping in and holding people accountable, Anonymous stands a very good chance of taking action that actually does something to stop rape. But: This type of online vigilante justice is potentially invading the privacy of or defaming innocent Steubenville residents, and even if everything published is true, there are very serious legal limits to the Anonymous strategy. Not all of the leaked allegations are attached to Twitter or YouTube accounts—many of the most serious cover-up claims, which we won’t reprint here, are at this point only rumor. The allegations will infuriate you, but they don’t rise to the level of real evidence that can be used to truly hold responsible those who participate in sex crimes.
Since the early origins of Anonymous, there’s always been one truly unsettling thing about it: the fact that it’s accountable to no one. It’s easy to rally around Anonymous and enjoy more than a little schadenfreude when it takes on an entity like the Church of Scientology or the Westboro Baptist lunatics, but its autonomy and ability to indiscriminately decide “who lives and who dies” without consequence makes it dangerous. Sure, you can love its targets one day — but what if it suddenly decides to turn on something you don’t think deserves the kind of brutal takedown Anonymous has become famous for? What if it turns on you, and there isn’t a damn thing you or anybody else can do about it? The videos and tweets it’s currently posting speak for themselves on many levels, and they’re necessary in the pursuit of both justice and answers as to what really went down the night of the incident. But the narrative Anonymous has created, while captivating as a soap opera of small town crime and corruption, has the potential to do real harm to real people who may not have anything at all to do with what happened. I respect Anonymous’s intent and desire to uncover the truth and to force into the light those who may be trying desperately to stay hidden and those who may be helping them stay hidden; it’s only the potential real-world outcome I fear.
While so far Anonymous seems to be on the right sides, meaning the sides I prefer, of issues, they are indeed powerful vigilantes. In a culture where Batman and Spiderman movies abound, it is not that surprising that people expect superheroes to step in where the authorities are unwilling or even compromised. But what if the vigilantes start settling personal scores, or just get the facts wrong?
It was Klansmen vigilantes that lynched Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan – though most evidence pointed to another man who didn’t happen to be Jewish. It was a self-styled vigilante that shot Trayvon Martin.
Update 20130729: The New Yorker has a long piece about the Steubenville case, implying that the Prinniefied blogger and Anonymous were more interested in personal vengeance than justice, and went too far. Like Serena Williams, everyone agrees that what the boys did was wrong, but a lot of people seems don’t think they should have been punished as severely as they were.