Wiki-Orwellianism

Could transparency be used as a tool of oppression? The idea occurred to me soon after filing my most recent blog post with RFE/RL on the latest — and scariest — WikiLeaks spawn, Porn WikiLeaks.

What strikes me about Porn WikiLeaks is that it appears to essentially be the community of the pornography industry turned upon itself, as one vigilante ex-member seeks to expose the private identities of the industry’s pseudonymous actors and actresses. Many men and women have taken recourse to stints in front of the camera to pay for university or just put food on the table.

So, what’s at stake here are normal people — lawyers, doctors, teachers and home makers — with real reputations to lose, which is why the institution of the pseudonym is so important (society’s own double-standard of using the product but condemning the producer is the crucial factor to this sad reality, but that’s a topic for another blog post). This is counter to the logic of the original WikiLeaks, which Guy Rundle eloquently explains thus:

WikiLeaks has never been about an unedited, unconsidered process. Assange has argued that the degree of power exercised and the right to leak should also be considered in implicitly mathematical terms: total power licenses total exposure; zero power implies a total right to personal privacy. Such an ethic presumably lies across the boundary of a single life – the personal circumstances of someone in power should not be fair game for leaking, unless the circumstances of that private life are generating corrupt activities.

But here’s the really disturbing catch: besides the fact that Porn WikiLeaks’ webmaster may have had some help from inside the industry in terms of gathering the basic profile data of over 23,756 individuals that serves as the foundation of the site’s database, the deeply private data that he’s also accruing — from photographs of residences and family members to phone numbers — is most likely coming from colleagues and otherwise normal people like you and me, i.e., neighbors, supposed friends and other acquaintances. In other words, emphasis here is on the Wiki part of the site’s name.

On one level, the whole enterprise is sickeningly masturbatory: Porn WikiLeaks is itself pornographic, for the site essentially applies crowdsourcing to voyeurism. On another even more disturbing level, for me the site constitutes nothing less than Wiki-Orwellianism, that is to say, crowdsourcing used as a means to invade privacy. That’s profoundly worrying because this is a methodology that could be put to authoritarian ends. Imagine: what if the East German secret police had access to today’s Internet technology, and one day simply decided to publish their vast database of the citizenry’s private lives as a mass-readable/mass-editable Wikipedia-like website?

I think that in the short-term, such a move would unleash a storm of personal vendettas and recriminations. That’s certainly a very effective way to throw a population off balance, especially if, say, that population was teeming with malcontents preparing to overthrow the regime.*

In the long-term, it might also prove to be a useful way to get the population to police and spy upon itself for the authorities. Indeed, the citizenry would simply be too seduced by curiosity to resist exploring the site and would thus fall right into the trap. Consider: it wouldn’t take long before everyday people began trying to edit their own profiles, and then those of their loved ones, then of their enemies, eventually publishing more and more personal information, onto accusing each other of ever grosser offenses, up to and including trying to undermine the state — the witch-hunt of yesteryear in vicious new digital form.

And now comes a really scary thought (as if this wasn’t already scary enough): what if we’re not far from that point right now? Yes, I’m thinking of Facebook or more specifically it’s Russia- and China-specific rip-offs, vkontakte.ru and imqq.com, qzone.qq.com and Renren. Facebook is too transnational, but could these sites, which theoretically encompass much of their specific national communities, be convertible, with the combination of a little dirt from security service and secret police records, into the very Wiki-style public database of private information that I’m dreading?

Wow, yet one more reason to delete all my social networking accounts. The damage’s been done in the sense that I’ve lived a very disclosed online life for several years now, especially since coming to Belgium, but I’ll definitely think more carefully about what I tweet or update in the future. Anyway, what do you, my readers, think? Is this Wiki-Orwellianism a real possibility? Could it work the way I’ve predicted, or would it backfire? Is there another facet to this idea that I may be missing? I’d love to hear your responses.

* Update: Prior to publishing this post, I already received some very useful remarks from Luke Allnutt, RFE/RL’s web editor, whose blog, Tangled Web, covers “the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments. It also covers the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web”:

I think it’s an interesting idea, although not sure how it work, although interesting to see how it would develop. It might [throw people off balance], but it might also be too risky for govs, as it could bring in chaos and a loss of control. [It] would be interesting to look into cyber-vigilantism in China with the Human Flesh Searches, but also I remember reading how in India the traffic police, I think, launched a website encouraging people to photo and post clear traffic or parking violations (that’s only one step away from ratting on them to the secret police).

[Note: The photograph accompanying this post is by Adrienne Nakissa.]

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4 thoughts on “Wiki-Orwellianism

  1. “Take heed that ye enter no house in the absence of its owner, except with his permission.”

    (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 72)

    I take this to be a pretty definitive statement on privacy.

  2. The guy that runs Porn Wikileaks is a self absorbed jackass (of course I also think Julian is a self absorbed ego maniac but that’s just my opinion). The Porn Wiki guy is clearly doing this as a personal vendetta against the industry or he couldn’t hack it in the industry.

    I think the problem here goes beyond the obvious reputation damage to people who work/have worked in porn. The other problem this whole thing brings up is society’s problem with porn and more importantly society’s problem with what people do in their past. Its shallow and misguided that being a former porn actor/actress should have any bearing on one’s ability to be a productive member of society/do a job they are capable of doing.

    I don’t care if my lawyer or doctor was a former porn actor having threesomes with beautiful women (or men); if he/she is a good doctor/lawyer today…they are doing their job. People like the founder of Porn Wiki Leaks need to get over themselves.

  3. Really interesting stuff. I’ve always been really paranoid about social networking, but I never really thought about things in a Wiki environment.

    I guess when it comes to keeping things private there is always the one rule which I always keep in mind: “if you don’t want anyone to know about it, don’t tell anyone. Don’t put it on the internet”

    No matter how many privacy settings we put on something, no matter how securely you browse the internet, if someone really wants the information, they will find it. I am a Computer Science student, and although this is not my area of study, we had a talk by a professor, who showed that it is *always* possible to retrieve information. It just depends on how determined you are to get it.

    What is scary is that things are already taking place. Facebook sure is a transnational company,but who is to say that is stopping it from selling your information, or giving it away to who asks for it? Just recently we have seen 2 people in England arrested over what they wrote on Facebook, in terms of trying to incite more riots (well,one of them was, the other case was of a water balloon fight or something…).

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