Not Connected (A Short Poem) – Day XXVIII – NaPoWriMo

No matter how much I try-ay

It’s hard to get by-ay

It’s make me want to cry-ay

There just is no Wi-Fi

Online Anonymity – Protecting the Bold or the Bully?

The Internet provides the average person with the power to speak on a level that was unimaginable a mere decade ago. Web 2.0 and social networking has effectively opened the door for people to express their views in seconds and have millions of people the world over access those views, and contribute their own in return. But the downside is that people don’t always use this freedom responsibly. It’s not like anonymous speech didn’t exist before the online revolution, but there was a far greater element of control – either by law or by the constraints of the physical world – a published work had to have an established publisher to reach a greater audience and elements of costs and distribution restricted the power of the average person to have his views reach large numbers.

With the explosion of blogging, greater interactivity of websites and social media, these constraints no longer exist. Everyone has an opinion and everyone now has the power to have it heard – well, as long as they have access to a computer and an Internet connection. And of course this is a wonderful development! The average person can now have his voice heard; people under dictators can now speak out and have the world know of their plight; it has brought the world together like never before. And the necessity to protect the right of such individuals to speak anonymously cannot be contested – the freedom to speak out is nothing if you have to fear a bullet in the head in exchange.

But in protecting the freedom fighter, we also protect the bully. You have but to go to the comments section of any blog or YouTube video to see people flood pages with obscenity, graphic language and just unimaginable cruelty. Is it not a sad state of affairs where the right to free speech becomes a right of hate speech? One has to wonder if the same people would be brash, cruel or “brave” enough to spew such hate in person? Then why do they freely do so online? The obvious answer is because they feel they cannot be held responsible for such behavior. They feel invisible and invincible behind avatars and online aliases and freely speak in a manner that would shame them in person.

But it isn’t so cut and dry. The individual is far less hidden than he thinks. The world of Cyberspace has become far more pervaded by law than imagined by John Perry Barlow when he made his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. For example, in the UK, a party can apply to the courts for a Norwich Pharmacal Order under which an ISP can be compelled to disclose information enabling a party to identify a user through his IP Address where a party can show that an anonymous user has engaged in an activity that commits some criminal or civil wrong, such as an act of Copyright infringement or Defamation. Similar provisions for disclosure exist in many if not most jurisdictions with established cyberspace law including India. So people should think twice before feeling that they cannot be found out just because they leave belligerent comments under an alias. But let’s face it. Though the remedy exists, due to practical considerations it will employed rarely. Few people would go through the hassle and costs necessary for disclosure when they are likely to get little from an action for damages, especially in a jurisdiction which might require evidential proof of damage to reputation.

But it’s not just about going after the individual. A faster and less costly approach may just be to contact the online service provider asking them to take down the defamatory or infringing material. In the UK and the US, online service providers like Social Networking sites or blogging platforms enjoy protection from liability for such acts under “safe harbor” provisions, as long as they respond promptly to notices making them sufficiently aware of the act in question. This may be a slippery slope though, as service providers would likely take down content as soon as they get a notice, without actually bothering to judge whether the complaint is credible, so that they protect themselves from liability. Though some precautions do exist against such an action – in the US the Digital Millennium Copyright Act specifies that in the event of a counter-notice from a user the ISP must put back the material unless the copyright owner starts proceeding in 14 days.

Though the developments in “the Law of Cyberspace” have done much to help draw the line between protecting the Freedom of Expression, which inherently includes the right of Anonymous Speech, and the right of persons to protect their reputations and personality, these solutions have far from curbed the problem. Real change can only come once people begin to take responsibility for their actions. Individuals need to recognize that while traditional legal constraints may not translate to the online world, this does not mean that one is free to act as wildly and brashly as one wishes. If you would not insult a stranger on the street, why is it okay to do it on twitter? Why do we insist on defying Shaw’s Principle: “Liberty means Responsibility: to be allowed to speak in a public forum one must respect other members of that forum.

This post scarcely covers the problems created by the supposed unlimited freedom online and the solutions developed by law to tackle them. It is meant only to initiate some form of dialogue or possibly just encourage readers to maybe think twice next time they leave a hurtful comment on someone’s blog or twitter feed.

Though it may seem idealistic now, I am drawn by John Perry Barlow’s words, spoken when the Internet was still in its fledgling phase and held unlimited potential for greatness and unprecedented growth, and I am saddened at how far we have come from the vision its pioneers had for it in its inception – “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” – Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, John perry Barlow

I was almost in a good mood, then I went online

I am probably the last person to want to comment on the state of the nation, whatever that nation may be; or talk about the degeneration of society; or get into fights with people over “one man’s terrorist…” and all that bull. I’m not saying I don’t get into those skirmishes once in a while. I’m just saying, I’m not a fan.

And its not that I don’t know whats going. Of course I have opinions. And even though I may not be the most well-informed when it comes to world politics, I know the gist. I log on to the news apps on my phone – Time, The New Yorker, TOI, HT – and I fill myself in on what’s going on. I watch the highlight reel if you will. And more importantly, I listen to what people say and I try to open my mind to new ideas and perspectives.

And trust me I care. It truly causes me physical pain to read some of the things that people say online. And I want so much to comment or try and add to their dialogue, but its just scary and disheartening how some people refuse to open their minds to any opinion other than their own. Of course I care, but sometimes you get to the point where you would rather just log off and let people just be, as long as they don’t get in your face about it. It just feels sometimes likes there is no way to make a difference in the face of the overwhelming tides of ignorance and hate.

The truth is that the internet has forced us to try and actually come to grips with the idea of “The Freedom of Speech” on a level that I do not think humanity could have ever imagined when we first lauded such ideals. With the exception of a few dictatorial and fascist states everyone in the world believes in the right to free speech or expression or the voice of the people – whatever you want to call it. But how far should we go to protect that right? It seems that every time I go online I come across people who say things that I would find truly reprehensible, if I wasn’t genuinely dumbfounded that someone could be that ignorant or biased or hateful. At what point do we need to step in and draw the line between “the freedom of speech” and “the freedom of hate speech”. Traditionally that line is where it hurts someone. But how can you say that someone spewing hate speech online where anyone can access it isn’t hurting people. Sure maybe he doesn’t pick up a knife or a gun himself, but speech like this antagonizes people who are already frustrated and angry and want someone to blame. You may not be putting the gun in their hand, but you are telling them where to aim.

I actually came across a site today that was dedicated to highlighting the “problem” of “Islamic terrorists”. The site has a ticker widget which shows the supposed number of terrorist attacks that have carried out by Islamic Terrorists since 9/11, a scrolling list of various media articles about Muslims getting arrested, a tab which takes you to various “Mohammed Cartoons” and various propaganda advocating the impeachment of “Obozo” – I ‘m presuming you can figure that one out – Clever as it is (sarcastic eye roll). And why did I go onto a site like this? Because I was looking to pick a fight? Because I wanted to reach out as a “peaceful loving Muslim figure”? No! I went there because this particular blog was on WordPress.com’s list of the “Top Blog Posts” of the day – which it suggested I check out. So basically anyone with a wordpress blog may have landed up here today, now matter how old they are. Wonderful! The blog by the way is called “Creeping Sharia” and I suppose in an alternate universe this person would actually be the exact person that he himself villainizes. I mean is he really that far off from the so called hate mongering terrorist leaders who seduce disillusioned young muslim kids into “fighting for a greater cause” so they can be used as pawns in geo-political battles? I was tempted to share some of the comments that people shared on this blog, to really give you an idea of the level of inhumanity that people like this can bring out in people, but I just cannot make myself do it. I do not want to be responsible for someone who should not be exposed to such material seeing hateful things like that on my blog. If you’re actually interested go see for yourself.

So where does that leave us? Laissez-faire? Freedom for everyone and we’ll just have to deal with the abusers? Enlightened despotism like the old Prussian Czars?

I don’t have an answer. I don’t think anyone does. Its not an easy question.

But its sad that great people have lived lives dedicated to fighting for the right for people to stand up to bullies and despots who have kept them down. Great men like Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru; like George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.; like Winston Churchill and Voltaire.

I’m not sure why I really wrote this. Its no great treatise on the human condition. Its not a call to arms for people to fight back against hate. I think its just me trying to say, maybe lets not be so angry. Maybe lets try and be a little nicer online. Just because we can say whatever we want, doesn’t mean that we should.

John Milton, an english poet said “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” Lets just try and remember to more than just exercise the “argue freely” part.

reCAPTCHA-D

Most if not all internet users are familiar with CAPTCHAs. They are possibly one of the most infuriating things ever. Everytime you go to share something from Stumble on your Facebook wall, everytime you think you’re almost done signing up for something, they spring up, throwing one more task for the ever in a hurry short attention span user (which is an ever growing demographic). However, though they can be quite annoying (and at times down right illegible) they do serve a purpose. They help fend off the only thing about the internet that is more annoying than CAPTCHAs themselves – SPAM. Lets face it, if you’re running  an online service or subscribing to one, SPAM can be a real hurdle. And the simple step of identification by verification of text can keep a lot of SPAM at bay. This blog itself receives dozens of SPAM comments per week (that number is low because for now I have a fairly limited web presence). This makes it tough to balance between convenience and security. On the one hand I would prefer not to have to go through these annoying SPAM comments, but once in a while there is actually a valid comment from an unkown poster that gets dragged into the net. On the other hand, I personally understand that many people read/comment on the fly and are deterred from doing so if it entails a further layer of verification.

There is another side to these CAPTCHAs though, one which some of you out there may already familiar with, but which I only recently stumbled upon. reCAPTCHA, a free online service, uses CAPTCHAs to digitize old books, newspapers and other media. The book pages are scanned, and then transformed into text using “Optical Character Recognition” (OCR). Only problem is, its not a perfect. So they ask the help of the individual users to help them out. Sounds great right? I mean why not contribute to the endeavour to preserve humanity’s literary culture and history while you keep away unwanted online messages? But is it really as simple as all that? Google provides this service free of charge for any online service. Think of the number of different sites that are using it. According to the reCAPTCHA site about 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved by humans worldwide everyday! This means a lot of free labour for Google’s book reader project. I mean would you stand for this in the real world – if someone asked you to come by and digitize books for them, free of charge, even if it was just say a few dozen words per day? Okay so maybe its not actually feasible to reward the individual for their efforts, but it still feels a bit unfair for you to help digitize a book for Google, and then maybe pay to read it later.

Google’s reCAPTCHA uses a two word CAPTCHA verification – one of which is usually easily legible while the otehr is distorted. The first of these is a control word, they have already digitized it, so even if you mess it up it won’t affect the verification. The second word, the distorted one, is the one that they need your help with. No software can read a distorted or angled word from the image produced by scanning the page. Once enough people have verified the word and they have a constant answer they assign it to that word (I’m not sure how many it actually takes). Theoretically then, if enough people wrote the wrong word for that particular image, it would be recorded in Google’s data banks as the incorrect word – which is exactly what a blog I recently read suggested, prompting people to type in a particular derogatory word, used to refer to people of African descent, in an effort to have that word then show up in digitized copies of books worldwide. The standard two word CAPTCHA isn’t the only one you encounter ofcourse. There are other options – ones that contain an image of a number and an image of a distorted word; ones that pose a question and have a drop down list of answers; ones that are quotes or pop culture references. These don’t work for Google’s digitizing project (I believe) but serve the purpose of verification to avoid Spamming activities.

To some extent though I suppose this a moot point. This tech has been running for ages. And fot the most part, despite how it may annoy us, we’ve made our peace with it. CAPTCHA exists, and if the site you’re using employs it, there’s really no way around it. The question is whether we’re going to see better methods of online verificationin the future (I’m betting Google hopes not).

For more information on the reCAPTCHA service and how it use it for yourself go here: Google’s reCAPTCHA