Your Big Brother is Watching You! Actually. – by “Andrew C”

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In1949, George Orwell wrote 1984, a novel describing a nightmarish future in which England, fallen to socialism and renamed Airstrip One, is ruled with an iron fist by an oppressive, authoritarian government. In the novel, Orwell describes how, with adequate technology, a regime could dominate the masses through constant surveillance.  Specifically, in the dystopian nightmare of 1984, “Big Brother” monitors every citizen 24 hours a day through the television set in their living room.  Ultimately, Orwell’s vision never truly came to pass, as in the end it is simply impossible for a government to monitor every individual at all times.  However, as surveillance cameras become increasingly inexpensive and the ability to share media over the internet becomes increasingly efficient, the actions of everyday individuals have come more and more under the eye of public scrutiny.  In today’s world, any individual walking down the street can reasonably expect to be videotaped by anything ranging from remote surveillance cameras, to roving Google Street View vans, to anybody carrying a cell phone purchased within the last five years and to have that video posted online.  As such, those who commit shameful, illegal, or simply bizarre acts can and must accept that their actions may be broadcasted to and scrutinized by an anonymous, faceless horde of users.

Ironically, England, the setting for Orwell’s 1984 has become one of the single most disturbing examples of the loss of privacy in the modern world.  It is currently estimated that there is one camera for every fourteen British citizens. Recently, the British government has quite literally set aside £400 million to install 24 hour surveillance cameras in the homes of 20,000 families in order to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time, and eat proper meals.  Even better, the government plans to hire private security contractors to perform home checks upon the families in question.  The irony is beyond overwhelming.

However, it has nevertheless become increasingly obvious that no one government can monitor an entire population internet-eyes1at all times.  Thankfully, the anonymous masses of the internet have proven to be more than willing to fill in the gaps the government leaves behind.  As such, we increasingly see “Big Brother” being replaced with your actual big brother (and your neighbors, co-workers, and complete strangers).  In England, one program in particular, called Internet Eyes, would have sent George Orwell into fatal convulsive seizures.  The program, which will go live in Stratford-upon-Avon in late November, aims to harness the power of Web 2.0 by directly connecting live feed from surveillance cameras to a vast swarm of users.  The theory behind the program is that with more eyes watching the footage more crimes can be averted.  The website is being promoted as a sort of game which everyday individuals can play in their spare time.  Users, who will be allowed to register for free, will be allowed to view real-time random video feeds from participating establishments across the country.  Any viewer who spots suspicious activity from a specific camera can anonymously inform the camera owner.  Users will then receive a certain amount of points based upon the quality of the alert.  The user with the most points at the end of the month will receive a £1000 prize.  Fantastically, Tony Morgan, one of the founders of Internet Eyes, claims that it will “give people something better to do than watching Big Brother when everyone is asleep.” Put another way: why watch Big Brother when you can be Big Brother?

However, in the end, this website is not simply another game.  Rather, it is a breach of privacy more distasteful than anything ever imagined by George Orwell.  While Internet Eyes may very well be an effective way of preventing vandalism and shoplifting it also encourages private citizens to spy on their neighbors.  Furthermore, if previous cases have shown us anything it is that the scope and potential damage of public scrutiny can be far greater than that of a government investigation or surveillance.  While Internet Eyes will in fact connect users to random video feeds it is impossible to eliminate the possibility that Internet Eyes could reveal potentially damaging private information (i.e. sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc) to one’s loved ones, co-workers, or neighbors.  How could an individual stage a protest knowing that his or her boss might not only disapprove, but be watching him? As such, it is nearly impossible to argue that websites like Internet Eyes, and the general trend towards increased scrutiny in the Web 2.0 world, are increasingly having a chilling effect upon free speech and expression.

However, in the end the question is not necessarily straightforward at all.  The same features that make constant surveillance and public scrutiny such an insidious problem in today’s world have proven to be an incredibly powerful and valuable tool in fighting oppression across the globe.  Easy access to video cameras and internet access, and the rise of the generative Web 2.0, have ensured that, in the modern world, those who are oppressed are finding it increasingly easy to record and disseminate their messages.  As such, in the end, we need to find some way to strike a balance between the benefits of a free and open internet and the dangers of the constant threat of surveillance.

How can we accomplish that? Quite frankly, I’m not sure, but this seems like a fantastic bet.

Two Sides, One Coin: Free Speech and Web Vigilantism in China – by “Chuen-Yee C”

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One of the most well known cases of web vigilantism in China occurred earlier this year when Jiang Nan jumped 24 floors to her death. Before she committed suicide, she wrote multiple blog entries describing the details of her husband’s affair. Chinese netizens, eager to see justice served, tracked down and publicized photos and personal information of her husband and his lover. Jiang Nan’s husband, Wang Fei, an advertising agency executive, suffered extensive invasion of his privacy and was subsequently fired from his job.  Ironically, this alarming example of a peer-surveillance state in action seems to have its roots in the exercise of free speech.

Despite the staggering changes toward modernization that have occurred, Chinese value systems have yet to modernize in line with the country’s evolving posture toward capitalism and its cooperation with the global economy. There are now an estimated 137 million Internet users in China, and the Internet has had a profound effect on the Chinese way of life and the predominantly traditional values it has embodied for over two thousand years. However, the explicit confrontation between distinctively Chinese values and the Western values of free expression and the free flow of information that drive the Internet has resulted in a dramatic conflict.

Web vigilantism is a common problem rife in all societies with access to the Internet, but is a particularly alarming phenomenon in East Asian countries, especially China. On social networking sites, blogs, and other Web 2.0 platforms, destructive groups can publish sensitive information, from private matters to personal information. These groups often threaten forms of physical violence and send damaging statements about victims to employers and manipulate search engines to highlight those statements for business associates and clients to see.

Incidents of “web lynching” and the “human flesh/renrou search engine” 人肉搜索 in East Asian countries, most notably China, demonstrate the underpinnings of a larger social and cultural problem. Acts of vigilantism on the Internet have destroyed the reputations of victims, corroded their privacy, and impaired victims’ abilities to participate in online and offline activities. The benefits of the Internet have left their mark especially in the realm of economic and financial development, but social harm has resulted from the sudden explosion of traditional values operating on a mass scale. While Confucian principles have deeply shaped both the Chinese hypersocial environment and sense of justice, the Internet has enabled transcendence of traditional social roles and a cost-effective means to collective action. These factors have combined to contribute substantially to the trend of extreme Internet vigilantism, digital witch hunts some have dubbed the “New Red Guard.

The Chinese government’s “pro-morality” stance has not deterred vigilantes and may indeed have worsened the situation. At the same time, most of the government’s efforts to promote “social harmony” on the web lay in mass censoring and filtering mechanisms—efforts that mostly center around limiting the freedom of political speech. In protecting Chinese citizens from each other would it be better to implement a more benign approach by imposing checks through tradition and thought, or does the answer lay in restructuring social norms through the law? China’s unique history and social culture mean that traditional Western approaches may not work and could even worsen the situation.

Wang Fei recently won his suit against the blogger who released his wife’s diary online and the website that published his personal information. This verdict sets an important precedent for future online vigilante victim cases, but China’s current legal system is only able to help victims attain meager compensation on a case-by-case victim; Wang Fei’s total awards totaled less than $1,000USD.  While laws could be reformed to adequately address victim compensation, efforts to control Internet vigilantism in China should also reflect a commitment to reforming citizen behavior online. In order to structure an appropriate solution that minimizes attacks on individual citizens while promoting the use of renrou as a check on political corruption , Chinese legislative and political powers must understand the relationship between China’s hypersocial environment, Confucian and traditional values, and the Internet’s influence on group behavior.