YOYOW vs. privacy and anonymity

Laura DeNardis, in her presentation for the “Technologies of Dissent” panel at the Access to Knowledge and Human Rights conference today, illustrated the dangers of too much openness and access to certain kinds of knowledge by pointing to eightmaps.com, a mashup of Google Maps and donor data for the Prop 8 anti-same-sex-marriage campaign in California: you can find out right where these donors live in San Francisco.

Later in the panel, Eddan Katz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation was emphasizing the virtues of online anonymity for facilitating free expression and dissent (with EFF’s Tor software, for example).

Obviously, most people at this conference think Prop 8 is a bad thing while anonymous communication between dissidents in places with oppressive and censorious governments is a good thing.  But is there a principled argument that eightmaps.com is good and legitimate and those Prop 8 donors ought not be able to hide from the public, while dissidents in Iran or China ought to be able to organize and speak out and push for their favored kinds of political change behind the cloak of anonymity?

It’s the tension, as panelist Anupam Chander explained it, between the Foulcault and the Habermas versions of the Internet’s potential: universal panopticon surveillance state vs. universal public sphere for rational discourse.

My own view is that there’s a balance to be struck between the classic net principle of YOYOW (“You Own Your Own Words” meaning both that you can say what you want to say and you are responsible for what you say) and the right to speak anonymously.  The balance (one of the driving tensions in the history of the Wikipedia community, incidentally) is essentially the question of  the limits of anonymous speech and action.

(Shooting from the hip here) I suggest a rule of thumb: the closer the political environment approximates an ideal Habermasian public sphere, the stronger the imperative that that people own their own words when they choose to engage in public discourse.  Likewise, the more limits on what people are allowed to say, the more right they have to engage in a wider variety of anonymous speech and action.  (For speech that is not intended to be part of the public sphere, things are quite different and there is more of an argument for privacy and anonymity.)

[A summary of the whole panel is up on the Yale ISP blog: A2K4 Panel II: Technologies of Dissent: Information and Expression in a Digital World]

Access to Knowledge, academics, and IP

I spent this weekend attending the Access to Knowledge (A2K) conference (see wiki). A2K is a would-be social movement that ties together a number of existing intellectual property-related activism issues, ranging from free/libre open source software and copyleft, to copyright reform and fair use, to (abolishing) software patents, to patented crops and gene patents, to access to patented medicines in the developing world, to digital rights and privacy, to media regulation. I got to spend some time with Wikimedia board member and wiki developer Erik Möller, had a wonderful evening with a few friends, and met some interesting new people. And since I was in town for the weekend, I also got a chance to hear a wonderful talk by bad-ass historian of science Lorraine Daston on Enlightenment “observers” (naturalists, microscopists, and all-purpose obsessives) such as Charles Bonnet, who spent days on end (sleeping only occasionally and reluctantly) observing the every move of a single aphid, from birth to death, and on through several generations of parthenogenetic reproduction . Though their observations were considered a waste by their peers, Bonnet and other dedicated observers were consumed by their passion for observations (often sinking inherited fortunes into their projects); they never considered it work.

What, you ask, does A2K have to do with crazy Enlightenment patricians? After Daston’s talk, I was chatting with one of the authority figures in my department and let slip my own occasionally obsessive pastime. When I mentioned the Wikipedia history of biology article I had been working on (which became a Featured Article over the weekend–hooray!), I got a grumbling reply about peer reviewed publications and my C.V. This was the strongest disapproval this good-natured prof can project. He only perked up when I told him I had been invited to submit an opinion piece about Wikipedia and the history of science to the upcoming inaugural edition of Spontaneous Generations, a new open access history and philosophy of science journal. Now that there is an open access journal in the field, I said, I have somewhere to publish future work without feeling guilty. At this point I was reminded of what I already knew: it’s really tough to get humanists fired up about IP issues, even though these things ought to be high on their lists of social/political/cultural priorities (especially given the dreadful state of academic publishing).

The lawyers of the Yale Law School, on the other hand, are on the forefront of IP activism (hence hosting the A2K event). The conference was a mixed bag of interesting talks, old news, and random acts of scholarship. For the most part, the presenters from organizations I already liked (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Internet Archive, Electronic Frontier Foundation) or should have already liked (Free Press) had the most interesting things to say, though presentations from Microsoft, Google, and Intel were also worth mentioning .

Erik encouraged me to put together a talk proposal for Wikimania 2007; if I can manage the logitistics, it’s an outside possibility.