Because like the other cases brought against hackers across the country, the case against Aaron isn’t just about technology providing new means for people to act independently and enact democracy. It isn’t even really about justice and national security. It’s about a broader, systemic battle.
It’s about power.
More information does not make a more informed population. We need to think about what it actually means to create a more informed society. We’re a long way away from that. But I don’t have some nostalgic lust for the past, because I don’t think we’ve ever been truly informed.
General news is not relevant to young people because they don’t have context. It’s a lot of abstract storytelling and arguing among adults that makes no sense. So most young people end up consuming celebrity news. To top it off, news agencies, for obvious reasons, are trying to limit access to their content by making you pay for it. Well, guess what: Young people aren’t going out of their way to try to find this news, so you put up one little wall, and poof, done. They’re not even going to bother.
As we go deeper into an information age, I think that we need to have serious conversations about what is colloquially termed piracy. We need to distinguish media piracy from software piracy because they’re not the same thing. We need to seriously interrogate fairness and equality, creative production and cultural engagement. And we need to seriously take into consideration why people do what they do. I strongly believe that when people work en masse to route around a system, the system is most likely the thing that needs the fixing, not the people.
Google’s caught a lot of heat over its G+ real name policy. Part of it’s simply the arbitrary nature of the real name enforcement: many people using their real names — and well known nicknames — have been kicked off Plus.
But there’s a much deeper and more important conversation taking place that has to do with identity, privacy and the right to anonymity.
Danah Boyd, a researcher with Microsoft and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, considers real name policies an abuse of power:
I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue, because while they are the least likely to actually be harmed by “real names” policies, they have the authority to be able to speak truth to power. And across the web, I’m seeing people highlight that this issue has more depth to it than fun names (and is a whole lot more complicated than boiling it down to being about anonymity, as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg foolishly did).
What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.
News sites are continuously grappling with how to elevate the tone of reader comments. One chosen way is to make people use their real names in order to comment on stories. For example, some sites require you to swipe your credit card for a nominal one-time fee (say, a dollar) in order to prove you’re you.
Site’s that have done this (or found other ways to implement “real name” systems) generally report that while the overall number of comments goes down, the quality of discussion improves. That is, there’s less of an impulse to lob rhetorical bombs when people know exactly who you are.
But apply what Boyd writes here to the newspaper rather than the social network and we have the same dynamic. Namely, the paper dictating who can comment and participate, and ignoring the very real reasons why some in a community would need to anonymously contribute to a conversation about sensitive issues.
If news sites want to clean up comment sections, create a civil culture within them by having moderators, reporters and editors set the tone by actively participating in them. Otherwise, your crazies with an axe to grind will continue to ruin the roost.