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.]