The internet’s two-sided freedom | Charles Arthur

Saturday, June 16th 2012. | Internet News

It hasn’t been a great week for the internet: highly sexualised and violent imagery on Habbo Hotel, which is meant to be a hangout for children and young teens; Frank Zimmerman, the 60-year-old who threatened the children of MP Louise Mensch given a suspended jail sentence; and the news that Nicola Brookes, who was hounded on Facebook, has felt goaded enough to apply to the company for the details of those who were making her life unbearable.

But then it’s rarely a great week for the internet, if we’re honest. The assumption has long been that getting more people online is going to be a universal good – rather like getting more people into work. Once everyone is connected to the internet, we’ll all be lovely, shiny and happy, helping each other with homework (except when we shouldn’t, when we’ll blithely laugh and say “oh no, you have to work that out yourself!”). Not angry, snarky, blinkered and impotent, like some seem to be.

The more time I spend online, the more I notice that people are really struggling with the double-edged sword of freedom that the web provides. The freedom at last to make your voice heard, but also to use that voice to insult or hassle, while assuming that there won’t be any retribution for saying things you wouldn’t on a street or across a table in a pub. Some think they can swing that sword with impunity; Zimmerman is the poster boy who shows you can’t.

While we’re almost inured to the criminal or semi-destructive elements of the web (such as the business network LinkedIn being hacked last week – if you’re a member, change your password), we know that police do have an interest in pursuing the perpetrators. A major figure behind a stolen credit card exchange has been arrested after a multinational effort, and the FBI caught the leader of LulzSec early in its campaign, which began in May 2011.

But the police are less interested in people being simply antisocial online. (You can understand they might find, say, gang violence on the streets a higher priority.) That leaves the rest of us to deal with those who find it very easy – pleasing, even – to do just that. Given online equivalent of what they think is anonymity, harassment becomes almost a way of life for some for them. The denizens of 4chan, which delights in protecting its users’ identities, have frequently tried to make life very difficult for people on the web. It seems to have been 4chan’s members who discovered the identity of Mary Bale – she of the cat bin – and then followed it up with prank calls and death threats. Not because they cared deeply about the cat; just because they could without fearing the retribution they were visiting on her. (What retribution? See death threats and Zimmerman, above.)

So should we all have to use our real names when we go online, to force us to respect each others’ boundaries? But then the internet’s own lack of boundaries stymies you. You can say things in the US that you can’t in the UK because of the First Amendment. You can say things in the UK that you can’t in Saudi Arabia. If people live in the US and post on a British forum, which country tries them? And anyway, there is value in making everyone equal through pseudonymity: it means that those who make the best arguments, marshal the best facts, should prevail in debates, and anyone can point out that an emperor has no clothes on.

Online incivility isn’t an intractable problem. The Mensch and Brookes cases (and many before them) show that in fact, you can track people down. But the pseudonymity that’s so useful for us in forums can coexist with that. The Habbo Hotel example points to a quite different issue – that the internet is so big, and the membership of sites is so huge and can alter so rapidly, that it’s hard to keep on top of what’s happening without effectively snooping on everything your members do. (This seems to be the government’s solution; it’s not clear that it’s workable or desirable.)

The real problem is that so many people have thought the internet would be an unalloyed good; in part that’s because it has had plenty of cheerleaders, especially companies that stand to benefit from it – especially companies that stand to benefit from its growth. And nobody likes to be the one saying “hold on” as everyone’s rushing to the door. But we don’t have to break the internet to improve it – just make people more aware that we’re social animals first and internet users second. Maybe having a little sign that occasionally flashed up, saying “what you’re doing here might not remain private”, would give enough pause for thought.

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