Security vs. Liberty in the Digital Age

Hi readers; today, I want to present something off my current topic of Milo Yiannopoulos. I’m still preparing a last post about him, but it isn’t ready yet. Today, I want to talk about something completely different: censorship and Internet security.

It’s strange to me that angry men online have taken up anti-censorship as their banner; how vociferously #Gamergate dudes contend that theirs is the side of free speech and anon liberty. Time and time again these idiots mob private individuals like an angry murder of crows, ostensibly because of ‘ethics in games journalism’, but really because those individuals have an opinion #Gamergate doesn’t like.  Speak favorably about Anita Sarkeesian videos and soon enough you’ll have a platoon of weeaboo white supremacists marching through your feed, comments section, Steam page, email inbox, and whatever other accounts they can find to lecture you about Anita the scam artist/not a gamer/Jew/Orwellian folk demon. So I find it really hypocritical that the Volunteer Thought Police are the ones casting themselves as anti-censorship.

Time and time again I’ve been shown how trivial it is for #Gamergate losers to list individuals on a kind of hypervisible online pillory, hoping for the mob to do their worst. It got started with a personal army request thread, and then kind of spread out from there. The whole cycle of finding new women to hate, simmering away at them, and digging through their history in search of a pretext – however flimsy – to justify abuse has become so ritualized it seems people come to #Gamergate now not to harass a particular target, but for the thrill of the chase.

#Gamergate was (and still is) indiscriminate, and the stuff they do is unethical when it’s not outright illegal. For example, I’ve seen #Gamergate try to crumble Sarah Butts’ reputation by spreading malicious rumors about her, I’ve seen #Gamergate brigade online storefronts for video games made by “Literally Who”, and I’ve seen them torpedo other game makers on Metacritic. Baphomet, #Gamergate’s doxxing and raid board, makes a hobby of looking up your phone number & home address and sending unwanted packages, the threat of explosives, or actual SWAT teams. 

Propagandists for groups like #Gamergate repeat outright lies about targeted individuals, in the hopes that their smear campaign will sway the normies. In this I can speak from personal experience. For example, Gamergaters in /r/KotakuinAction hope and pray I’ll face IRL ruination as my justified comeuppance for writing this blog. They scheme about how Mike Cernovich is going to ruin my chances at “med school”, that he’s definitely going to sue me at some point in the indeterminate future over unspecified damages (that is, when he hasn’t got me confused with Zoe Quinn.) And while I don’t think hot takes from Roosh V’s acolytes accusing me of conspiracy to attempted murder or Ralph Ethan repeatedly calling me “Pedo Pless” are going to convince anybody whose opinion really matters, it demonstrates just how easy it is for schlubs with zero technical know-how to hound you online.

Obviously, something is wrong with this picture. Playing MC to a vicious hate mob should not be a paid position, and platforms shouldn’t play host to these hatefests. When companies like Patreon don’t ban profitable abusers like Thunderf00t and Sargon of Akkad, they’re basically endorsing the organization of abuse as acceptable content. Likewise, when Reddit “quarantines” abusive boards by granting them ad-free status, most Redditors are not going to view this as censure. Similarly, if a platform like Twitter insists on giving Nazis a fair shake to use their microblogging service, they’re basically telling everyone else to expect harassment. When these companies fall down on the job of enforcing their own Terms of Service, they embolden would-be trolls to abuse with impunity, and people at risk are basically S.O.L. The solution to this problem is mainly a private one: it’s up to the companies to get real about enforcing their ToS. Sadly, I don’t see that happening. What I do see happening is something a bit more disturbing.

The UN report about “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls” was a pretty mixed bag. On the one hand, I was happy to see two people whom #Gamergate desperately wanted to scare into silence speak out about their experiences at the UN; but on the other, this event had at most 60 attendees, and the report it generated was mediocre. The title, for example, is “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls”, which gets shortened to “VWAG” and ignores the fact that this kind of abuse affects people of all genders, as well as other factors like race, economic class, or sexual orientation.

While much of what is written in the report is correct, the conclusions it draws are pretty terrible. Reading it, I’m suspicious that the report wants to subvert feminists into accepting increased surveillance in exchange for a promise of safety from abuse. But I suspect that mass government surveillance isn’t going to make anyone less vulnerable – most #Gamergate activity took place in surveillance states, with essentially no consequences. If #Gamergate communications were being monitored at all, nobody at the NSA took action. Brianna Wu even informed the FBI she was being harassed, to no apparent result. The one Baphomet troll who did get busted by the FBI caught their attention by pretending to be an ISIS guerrilla, whereas his other impersonations and fake personae (e.g. a white supremacist, a real Jewish lawyer living in Australia, a straw feminist on Daily Kos) basically went unnoticed. These surveillance machines have their priorities, but clearly stopping cyber violence isn’t one of them.

It would be pretty easy for groups like the UN to promise feminists increased security and protection from abuse, if we give up our liberty in exchange. But that’s a fundamentally fucked offer: if we give up our liberty in exchange for security, we’re likely to receive neither of these things. And I’m opposed to feminist views that encourage companies and governments to develop even cozier data-sharing arrangements for the sake of my own good, like the UN report does. Similarly, I don’t think extralegal surveillance of angry men online is going to prevent cyberstalking – it’ll just destroy the integrity of whichever agency does it. Fact is, this stuff is mostly out in the open: that’s why I’ve been able to report on it without any special tools.

So what’s an individual to do? You can report specific issues to social media companies ’til the cows come home, but that’s no guarantee they’ll get serious about ending online abuse – for example, I’ve gotten some posts from Ralph Retort calling me a “pedo” taken off of Twitter (much to his infuriation), but others stay up, and (as of this writing, at least) Ralph’s account is still active. In fact, many of these companies already claim to be serious about preventing online abuse, yet little changes. You could give up your Twitter account, your blog, your Facebook, etc (or choose not to sign up in the first place), but that’s tantamount to letting the abusers win – considering their goal is to silence dissent, scaring people away = mission accomplished. You can become a cryptography bug, throwing up roadblocks between your information and these abusers, but this requires know-how; and not everyone has the time, money, or inclination to keep their online security at Snowden-esque levels.

To be sure, there are basic safeguards everybody should take to protect their accounts. For example, there’s no excuse for anyone to use the same easy-to-hack password for all their accounts; not with password managers readily available and capable of syncing encrypted vaults to all your devices. I’m using 1Password, but there are free options like KeePass, and Apple even has an integrated manager in iCloud. But there’s a difference between reasonable security and encrypting fucking everything; and just because you’re protected doesn’t mean everyone around you is gonna be. In my experience, trolls frustrated by a particular target’s security savvy will generally go after people connected to that target who don’t have that aptitude – they’ll target your Patreon supporters, or your YouTube subscribers, or your Twitter followers, or your family members, just to get to you. 

There are no easy answers here. My personal opinion is that liberty and security both need appropriate limits, because if one is truly unlimited, the other simply can’t exist. Free speech absolutists like 8chan sorta bear this out – without any limits, 8chan quickly became a haven for identity thieves and child porn enthusiasts, as well as #Gamergate. Likewise too many concessions to security hawks simply sell off our privacy for no tangible benefit (at least, not in terms of terror plots stopped, school shootings foiled, or internet flash mobs discouraged from harassment of private individuals.) In some small way, this post is an attempt to work out my own position. It’s my hope that what I’ve written will help you work out yours, regardless of what it is.