Why even trolls deserve the right to privacy – a study on how to win all the battles and still lose the war

April 7, 2009


gToday is big cycling day – so let’s dive straight in – Question: is privacy under siege? Let’s put it another way; how many of you really agree with what the admin of wayang party did when they revealed the IP’s of these so called trolls? SHOCKING: IP addresses of internet trolls traced to various government agencies and stat boards!!! Why was that so disturbing? And how does it really affect you and me?

The short answer is: if it can happen to them; then it can probably happen to you and me as well  its conceivable what the team in wayang may have done in their zeal to track down and name and shame these trolls is they have effectively broadcasted the message to the entire blogosphere and beyond – you don’t have ANY rights to privacy i.e it’s a commodity that’s not even worth upholding.

And I have a problem with that; as this brings into sharp focus – the question: what’s the real cost of pursuing this short term strategy of annihilation?

I am not referring to whether it managed to produce the desired results i.e by putting an end to the spamming and cyber harassment (for all we know that may be all they wanted us to do, to cross that mythical line and turn on ourselves) – just as all us probably know the most expedient way to get information out of enemy combatants may be by torturing them with a blow torch – but would you condone it? 

That a thing may work as a theoretical matter doesn’t necessarily make it rightnot if it comes at a price that suggest one’s constitutional theory is so reducible that it even condones pursuing an idea solely on the basis of cost and benefit calculations.

That illustrates the glaring moral dilemma when we place convenience, congeniality and expediency above principles i.e the right to privacy.What happens to the whole idea of privacy when we cross the line by denying it to even trolls?

To paraphrase what do we forfeit when we go down this slippery road?

I understand, it’s very easy to buy into this whole idea that privacy these days is worth squat – as Vivian Balakrishnan recently proclaimed “online privacy is an illusion.” But hang on there – what’s he saying? Just because something no longer has the power of agency in our age means that it no longer has any intrinsic value worth upholding and even protecting? Is that what he’s implying?

If that were really true; then we could just as well save millions in tax dollars by dispensing completely with the criminal justice system which requires law makers to impute innocence on the accused by perhaps outsourcing the judicial process to Guantanamo prison interrogators – but one reason why we still expect judges and not super computers to decide on criminal and constitutional cases is because many of us perceive the need to uphold the indelible rights of the individual even if it comes at an exhorbitant cost to society – taking the principled and not expedient approach it seems is the price of living in a civilized society.

And here, what we may all need to consider is what sort of net culture are we propagating when we deny these trolls their elemental right to privacy?

Are we perhaps trading in the long and high principled road approach that guarantees rights for you and me for the seat-in-the-pants, cost benefit approach?

Because if you want the former gold standard – then we need to pay the price! We need to give these trolls the same rights that we enjoy ourselves. It’s hardly a matter of choice as it remains one of moral congruence, clarity and consistency. The converse is if we choose to settle for the latter – then don’t be surprise if someday someone just puts a policeman into your head – by leveraging on that dumb argument: if you got nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.

The whole problem with that justification is it’s never ever made one molecule of sense; only because that idea would only work in a perfect system where abuses can never occur – and we all know, no such system exist any where in the world – that is why smart people build in checks and balances – and one of the best ways of doing this is setting limits – that’s probably why no one knows the PIN number to your ATM.

As I said, no one disputes the fact we may already be living as Vivian says in age where the notion of privacy has diminished – and this leaching, chelating or scouring is only too clear when we consider how even benign everyday technologies such as cell phones, EZ link card, credit cards can be so easily used to monitor, track and snoop in limitless ways – neither does it pay to nurture the minstrel illusion as we barrel deeper into the digital age; our idea of privacy would be able to have the resilience to remain intact against the digital onslaught – it cannot, but the solution to the erosion of privacy problem doesn’t lie somewhere in throwing up our hands and saying – Vivian style, “anonymity is an illusion” That’s not how smart people have traditionally reacted to an erosion of anything from seawalls,mud slides and receeding hairlines – they profile ever more creative ways and means to ensure that the erosion is stemmed, arrested and mitigated – and this may take the form and shape of insisting that information should not be freely bandied around or used only under very controlled circumstances – that’s how smart people get on top of the privacy hubris – as technology increases so does the means to protect privacy increase correspondingly.

As I said no one disagrees real privacy is in a dreadful state – but what cannot be so easily discounted away, is just because technology has diminished our right to remain truly private; it does not prevent us as a community from working to develop an online culture to ensure abuses of private information is kept to a minimum.

And it’s this wispy notion of protecting our privacy – that we as netizens need to keep very much alive as what’s a stake is not merely the issue of law & order, the constitution and politics, but they also involve very human questions – as the lost of privacy (real or imagine) provokes anxiety and a whole range of feelings as to how each and everyone of us wants to define themselves online as free people – I have no doubt, by instilling the quotient of responsibility by erasing anonymity, this may very well solve 99.9% of the governments problem when it comes to getting a handle on the internet – but in what way does this nourish understanding? How does it even add value to the ongoing social narrative? It cannot – at best, it would amount to going through the motions – aping the form without the content – that’s why I am not too concerned about Teo Ser Luck’s internet YP forays (can even go and use the best consultants, I’ve even talked to some of them here – one word as our Northern cousins will say, “tak boleh pakai lah.”) – granted for the first 2 months, it may get the hits, but as time goes by without a solid philosophy on how to sustain and nourish the ongoing Singapore social narrative – it simply doesn’t have the stamina to see it through to fruition – no chance in hell.That’s why I feel, it was wrong for wayang to have revealed privileged information concerning these trolls – as what is require may not be accepting the idea privacy is death, but rather the reverse –  a collective commitment that because privacy may be imperiled, it needs to defended even more vigorously and robustly – and how do we accomplish this? Except by subjecting us all to one set of laws – and this would compel us all to consider whether, we should extend the same rights to trolls? I would even go as far as to say it behooves each and everyone of us to keep this crumbly idea of privacy alive – as I cannot think of a better way to destroy the policeman in our heads and to drive out fear. (if you have a better way please share it with me, because I really don’t know)

I suspect one reason why the custodians of power loathe the idea of online anonymity has nothing to do with credibility and everything to do with their lack of imagination in being able to manage conflict in this new environment – and against that overwhelming deficit the most expedient way to deal with it is by putting a policeman in the head of every netizen – that way the real world status quo ante is replicated online.

The question is can wayang afford to play that zero imagination lackadaisical game? Can it use the hammer to solve every problem? I don’t doubt those trolls may have stopped spamming your site – but at what price did this come by? Did it come at the expense of giving up the high moral ground? And when you think about it, that’s everything in the internet. As privacy isn’t really just a worthless idea like what Vivian shared with us so candidly – it’s much more than that as what it really ungrids is the classical liberal conception of personal autonomy, independence and liberty – and you could just as well go back all the way to 1890 when the right to be let alone was first defined by Louis Brandies and Samuel Warren and see how the internet has managed to articulate that idea so beautifully in our age – in short, its everything that makes up the whole idea of the internet. Had Vivian hit the books, before he opened his big mouth, he would have never have said what he said – as what he says can never resonate in the hearts and minds of netizens. If anything all he’s doing is glossing over a doctrine, by attempting to repackage it without a comparable thoughtware – that’s what happens when ministers are lazy and so complacent that they dont even bother to read broadly and deeply.

Now you understand why when you reveal private information on even trolls – then you’re no better than those who you regularly criticize – as you have in effect become the very thing which you despise and wish to change – and with that it could be said although you may win all the battles, you will also do the impossible and lose the war – as the real war is waged in the hearts and minds – and to win there, one simply cannot cross those lines – and broadest line in blogosphere that runs deeper and truer than anything else is the privacy line – if those people want to cross it; go ahead, be my guest, but we should never be the ones. As we are really nothing more than custodians and keepers of these lines for perhaps the next generation that will come after us – do you now understand?

And there lies the paradox of our age when privacy is increasingly under attack from various seige machines – and the more we believe what we may be experiencing is the passing of an age; the more covetted and cherished the whole idea of privacy becomes – very much like how freedom in a repressive regime usually acquires an exaggerated likeness of being – that can only really happen in conditions of acute scarcity.

The ultimate irony of the whole privacy tussle may well be; it’s precisely because we are already living in the age where anonymity is a myth – or how sneaky CCTV’s can so easily put an end to the simple pleasures of life where a man could scratch his balls without having to discover the offending footage plastered in youtube – what may yet bear out from this medley is the perverse effect instead of all of us accepting the notion privacy is already dead; the reverse may yet be we would like to revive it; as it can only be a highly sought after commodity – in the same way sperm whales continue to enjoy a moratorium on whaling as they are endangered and run the very real risk of extinction. 

This paradox of privacy under siege bears out only too clearly when we look at how the marketing manifesto makes brisk business of tagging the word private from everything to private banking to having your private mile high queen sized bed at 35,000 ft.

Believe it or not, you can sell anything if you put the word private in front of it – and the wayang team would do well to buy into this idea, if they really want to succeed.

Darkness 2009


The brotherhood press 2009


To read more essays click here!Brotherhood   


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