Cyberbullying, anonymity, and censorship

Michael Den Tandt’s recent column in the Vancouver Sun is rather a melange, and deserves to have a number of points addressed separately.

First, it is true that the behaviours the “cyberbullying” bill address, those of spreading malicious and false information widely, generally using anonymous or misleading identities, do sound suspiciously close to those behaviours in which politicians engage themselves.  It might be ironic if the politicians got charged under the act.

Secondly, whether bill C-13 is just a thinly veiled re-introduction of the reviled C-30 is an open question.  (As one who works with forensic linguistics, I’d tend to side with those who say that the changes in the bill are primarily cosmetic: minimal changes intended to address the most vociferous objections, without seriously modifying the underlying intent.)

However, Den Tandt closes with an insistence that we need to address the issue of online anonymity.  Removing anonymity from the net has both good points and bad, and it may be that the evil consequences would outweigh the benefits.  (I would have thought that a journalist would have been aware of the importance of anonymous sources of reporting.)

More importantly, this appeal for the banning of anonymity betrays an ignorance of the inherent nature of networked communitcation.  The Internet, and related technologies, have so great an influence on our lives that it is important to know what can, and can’t, be done with it.

The Internet is not a telephone company, where the central office installs all the wires and knows at least where (and therefore likely who) a call came from.  The net is based on technology whish is designed, from the ground up, in such a way that anyone, with any device, can connect to the nearest available source, and have the network, automatically, pass information to or from the relevant person or site.

The fundamental technology that connects the Internet, the Web, social media, and pretty much everything else that is seen as “digital” these days, is not a simple lookup table at a central office.  It is a complex interrelationship of prototcols, servers, and programs that are built to allow anyone to communicate with anyone, without needing to prove your identity or authorization.  Therefore, nobody has the ability to prevent any communication.

There are, currently, a number of proposals to “require” all communications to be identified, or all users to have an identity, or prevent anyone without an authenticated identity from using the Internet.  Any such proposals will ultimately fail, since they ignore the inherent foundational nature of the net.  People can voluntarily participate in such programs–but those people probably wouldn’t have engaged in cyberbullying in any case.

John Gilmore, one of the people who built the basics of the Internet, famously stated that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  This fact allows those under oppressive regimes to communicate with the rest of the world–but it also means that pornography and hate speech can’t be prevented.  The price of reasonable commuincations is constant vigilance and taking the time to build awareness.  A wish for a technical or legal shortcut that will be a magic pill and “fix” everything is doomed to fail.

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