The debate that is unfolding online about crowdsourced surveillance — what Christopher Parson referred to as Vancouver’s Human Flesh Search Engine — rests on two implicit assumptions. It’s time to get clear about what they are, so that people can talk more constructively across their differences, and perhaps even rethink their positions.
As I wrote in the Sun:
We are the founding generation of social media culture, and what we do with social media matters deeply for the long run of our society, on and offline….We can decide that we want to not only accept but actively encourage the use of social media as a way for law enforcement, employers and curious neighbors to keep track of suspicious activity (however that’s defined). We can decide to use the online court of public opinion as an alternative to the formal legal system, administering shame, social stigma and professional ostracism where needed (as perceived by even one person). We can decide that your online profile and images will reflect not what you have chosen to share but what it is in the public interest to see (whatever that means). We can decide (as many people apparently have) that crowdsourcing law enforcement is no more problematic than crowdsourcing the work of holding government and law enforcement accountable: that using YouTube or Facebook to document the actions of private citizens is no different from using those channels to document the actions of people who are paid and mandated to work on our behalf.
This brings me to the second assumption underpinning this debate: It can’t happen here.
By “it”, I mean the emergence of repressive, authoritarian or violent government (or just as frightening: repressive, authoritarian or violent social movements). This is the implicit assumption of everyone who has weighed in with a comment to the effect that “I can see why you worry about online surveillance, but it’s ok in this particular case.” It’s OK in this case because what they are doing was criminal. It’s OK in this case because we are just trying to help our city. It’s OK in this case because we can see they actually did it.
Well, guess what: everyone who has ever participated in mass violence or repression can tell a story about why their actions were appropriate “in this case”. It’s OK to take away their right to a trial in this case because we need to catch the terrorists. It’s OK to inform on my neighbors in this case because otherwise my family will be in danger. It’s OK to hang him in this case because we saw him with a white woman. It’s OK to kill people in this case because those people don’t belong here.
Yes, these are inflammatory examples. They are inflammatory because they refer to the cruelest, most terrifying moments in human history. And those moments happened because somewhere along the line, citizens became more invested in ensuring the security of the community as a whole than in protecting the individual civil liberties of its members. They’re moments that can happen again if we become so afraid of invoking history — so afraid of triggering Godwin’s Law — that we fail to remind one another of what is at stake when we give into a mob mentality. Today’s mob may have (today’s) justice on its side, but once a new way of catalyzing mass vigilantism is uncovered, there’s no way of predicting how it might be applied.
No, I don’t expect jackbooted thugs to take to the streets of Vancouver tomorrow. But the world is watching how we respond to another set of thugs this week, and how we strike a balance between love of our community and passion for individual rights. If we Canadians have been blessed with a relatively clean record as far as mass repression is concerned (and if we’re ready to overlook the blemishes on that record), there are plenty of places where mob violence, vigilantism and a mass culture of informants are recent memory or present reality. And in a networked world, those places now have access to the precedent and lessons of our online mobilization against the Stanley Cup rioters. The choices we make will not only determine what happens here, but shape how citizens and governments and police forces around the world understand their relationship to one another in this new online society we are creating.
That can be a society in which democratic principles, due process and civil liberties are held to be sacrosanct. It can be a society in which Internet users recognize the power of the enormous amount of personal information now available online, and advocate passionately for its careful and limited use. It can be a society in which online information plays a role in law enforcement, but subject to the same kind of parameters and oversight we apply to offline policing. A society in which citizens may sometimes feel a duty to assist the police, but will be just as conscious of their duty to one another. A society in which we make conscious, complicated decisions about how to live as a community, and use the Internet to discuss those decisions together.
Or it can be a society in which action takes precedence over discussion: one in which the Internet’s magic ability to let us do something helps us overlook the question of whether it’s the right thing to do. A society in which the sheer volume of online information leads us to accept the use and abuse of that information as equally inevitable. A society that connects us through personal computers and home networks that are no longer just an extension of our minds and relationships and creativity, but of our governments and our courts and our cops. A society in which my neighbor is also my juror, whether or not I’ve ever been brought to trial. A society that encourages people to band together to fight crime, trusting in the wisdom of crowds. The same crowd that might come together around a hockey game, or a street party, or a full-out riot.
Thank goodness it can’t happen here.