Tuesday, 11 May 2010

'Human-flesh Search' in China & JS Mill

Here's an interesting article in the New York Times about a Chinese trend of groups of internet users conducting a distributed form of investigative surveillance to focus upon suspected wrong-doers, find out information about them, and conduct vigilantte campaigns to get them fired from jobs etc.

There's a court case in progress about it relating to the suicide of the wife of a 'human-flesh search' target. Story about that here.

This isn't entirely new, and not isolated to China, although it's been given a name now (although one that sounds very creepy and body-horror to my ears). web-fora such as 4Chan or something awful have demonstrated quite substantial capability in this respect. What would occasionally happen was that commentators making use of the supposed anonymity of the web to make comments that in some way angered a critical mass of forum participants, would find that any online detail was being worked out - traced back along a pathway from their online username and comments they had previously made. Often this involved finding any potentially embarrassing material and firing it back at them in the forums, either to counter claims made (about identity or expertise e.g. 'I'm a former soldier' 'I'm a published writer') or simply in an attempt to embarass. However, in contrast to the Chinese cases discussed in the stories above, my impression is that in these cases, retreat from the forum signalled defeat, and the end of the investigative effort, nor were authorities involved, given the oft-anarchic (or at the very least irreverant) slant of some of the sites.

Here's one example that went a bit further here, the p-p-p-powerbook prank.

It's quite easy to find information online. That we probably all know. We're aware of state surveillance, and we're becoming fairly concerned about the data organisations like facebook, google or amazon might have about us, but there's this third strand where we might become the object of collective attention. It's synoptic but not quite in the way described in that article.

The most obvious political perspective that appears with regard to this is J.S Mill's understanding that society (as well as the state) can be sources of oppression. One of Mill's core contributions to political theory was that society can potentially be more oppressive because of it's willingness to judge and disapprove of individual conduct. The internet is interesting in that it can be potentially supportive of a lot of individuality, allowing people with relatively niche interests (or habits) to find others, establish communities etc, yet at the same time, has the potential to expose us to distributed peer-over-peer surveillance. Marc Andrejevic on lateral surveillance here. There's something here about the importance of compartmentalised identities (both online and offline) and the danger posed by easily linking those identities up online.

[thanks to Chris T for the p-p-p-pointer]

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