Editor’s note: On the 14th the twitter account for Social Autopsy put out a challenge of sorts, they wanted a guest blog from someone in the gaming world to tell them our concerns. I immediately responded and told them I’d be happy to write up something based on my concerns and what I’m seeing in the community based on my social media followers. They didn’t respond much until I said I was going to post it here anyway. Then they responded, thinking that their upcoming interview with The Ralph Retort might change my perspective. It didn’t, how could it? Nothing below has anything to do with their interaction with Zoe Quinn or Randi Harper. So, doing my due diligence I DMed them for an email contact for questions. I got the email and sent it out on Saturday Morning.
I gave them 48 hours to respond to the questions about my concerns, and they basically follow the format of what I wrote below. I planned to add their comments, clarify points, quote where needed, but basically make sure my understanding of the project matched what they were doing. I got no response. The entire time they were responding to other outlets, tweeting endlessly about their interaction with ZQ and RLH, and quite active on Twitter. I figured I’d get something back in the meantime, but I contacted them on the 19th to let them know I was prepared to send the post where it needed to go. I contacted them via DM and more than once publicly on Twitter. I still have not heard back from their press contact.
I have given them another 48 hours to respond to a request for where to send the article, with no response from the twitter account for the project, which is purported to be run by Candice Owens, or from the press contact I was provided. As promised when I started this, the post was going to go live whether it was on their blog or mine. I feel that nearly 6 days is more than adequate time to receive a response to press questions, and request for publication info based on a public promise of publication. If anything I’d have expected something from one of the many contacts letting me know they were busy, to send it somewhere but it might take another couple of days, but since receiving the press contact it has been radio silence. So, without further blathering, below is the post I was going to send to the blog 180degrees about a gamer’s concerns over the project. As stated, I’m not claiming to represent anyone but myself, as a gamer, and share the concerns I have and those I’ve seen. Enjoy.
First, my impression of how the site will work, based on the description on Kickstarter, the video, and the twitter feed of the site. They intend to ask people who see ‘hate speech’ online to submit a screenshot of the alleged speech along with the user’s real name. They’ll then, according to the KS page, verify the post, the individual, and then add their information, along with their place of employment, to a database which will be searchable by anyone just by typing in a name. They claim that people will not be able to search on any keywords and that no one can comment on the pages. They’ve also claimed that they cannot keyword images used so that people won’t stumble upon them in a web search. People can then use the site to look up people they know to see if they are on the database, but then do what with that information? What is the intent, just to name and shame or to offer people a way to get back at others marked as hateful? We all know how the internet works. There are a lot of people out there who enjoy harassing others and don’t sit on any side of anything. They’re just as happy to target anyone, and this will put real names and places of work with faces and anonymous profiles. Right away it strikes me as a tool that will be used to harass, bully, and seek revenge by other self-styled vigilantes.
Historically questionable, morally ethical?
The first thing that stood out and felt wrong were the ethical and historical implications of this project. Very rarely do things go well when people take the law into their own hands. Naming and shaming people, scarlet letters, putting people in the stocks, public floggings, and so on, have never been a very productive or shining part of humanity’s past. Besides that, asking people to turn in their friends and neighbors? I can’t think of any time in the history of the world where this has carried anything but the most nefarious implications. It has been a tactic of totalitarian regimes, fascist dictators, and oppressive religions for as long as humans have been recording history, and probably longer.
To add to that the loss of anonymity can be detrimental to a lot of people, and it has been the backbone of free speech since the rise of personal liberty in Europe and North America. Writers during the American Revolution used anonymity to speak out against England. Women used pseudonyms to be able to get published in Europe before the turn of the last century, and anonymity protected Jewish refugees in Russia in the 30s and 40s. Even now many people online use anonymity in order to find a way to interact, often being their only way to reach out to others and overcome social or mental disorders that would otherwise make social interaction impossible. There are few places I know of where this is more prevalent than in gaming, where anonymity and gaming create an environment where many can interact with people that they never would be able to in real life, whether it be extreme cases of anxiety, social and mental issues, marginalized people, or people who are bullied and just want a place where they don’t have a face or a name and can enjoy their hobby. The fear that this anonymity will be taken away should they speak out in the wrong way, or post something someone else doesn’t like could be a detriment to the one thing many people have to look forward to. Like everything else in this world, nothing good comes without its bad side and you don’t take it away just because it’s uncomfortable.
To offer examples I have personal knowledge of, my cousin and a friend of my sister-in-law both have anonymous Facebook accounts. My cousin because he is a police officer and does not want anyone he arrests to be able to look him up on Facebook and be able to find his family, friends, address and possibly put his life and the life of his family in danger. My sister-in-law’s friend is a psychiatrist who often works with very troubled people. To protect her friends and family she also has an anonymous page. If either of them were to cross the wrong person, post the wrong thing, or somehow wind up on such a name and shame database their lives and the lives of others could literally be put in danger. We cannot underestimate the lengths people might go through to harm others. Some years ago in a neighboring city a woman was hiding from her abusive ex but due to a parking ticket and faulty record keeping he found out where she lived, showed up at her place and killed her and himself while her kids were in the apartment. None of us gets to decide who loses their right to anonymity, even when we think we have just cause, the risks can be far worse than one can imagine.
How is this getting past GoDaddy and the FTC?
As I said, I reported the site to both GoDaddy as the host and the FTC. You can do a simple WHOIS search to see that the site is hosted by godaddy.com. According to GoDaddy we (I’m a customer of theirs as well) cannot use their service in a way that:
- Violates the privacy or publicity rights of another User or any other person or entity, or breaches any duty of confidentiality that you owe to another User or any other person or entity;
Of course beyond that GoDaddy has rules about not using the site to exploit children or cause violence or incite harassment. I’d argue that this tool will turn into something that incites harassment, but I’m not looking for GoDaddy to take proactive steps on anything that might happen. The above should be enough cause for concern.
In regards to the FTC, things are a little less concrete. In regards to children it’s easy, COPPA protects children under 13 in the U.S. from data collection without express parental consent. In regards to adults the FTC regulates privacy and publicity online. It is not illegal, but it is not something just anyone can do without FTC oversight. Their site has a plethora of articles, rulings and cases involving the collection and misuse of personal data.
According to the Youtube FAQ from March 22nd it’s stated that minors will be included on the site. Now there seems to be some waffling about this:
We haven’t made any decisions about including minors, for those of you that were asking. We’ve been speaking schools and parents.
— SocialAutopsy (@socialcoroner) April 15, 2016
So my concern is how will the site conform to COPPA laws, and if they decide to include minors between 13 and 18, or no minors at all how will they verify age? If they do include people who are still in High School how will they prevent further bullying of people on the database? This is a major concern for me, as a parent. If my son posts something in a fit of youthful recklessness should he really be subjected to a year of shaming because of someone else’s ‘righteous quest’?
Involving law enforcement? Aren’t you just vigilantes?
In most western countries we have a right to due process and to face our accusers. Being labeled an abuser, or harasser isn’t something that should be taken lightly. Will the site be involving law enforcement, or any other elected officials and lawyers to insure that people’s rights aren’t being infringed upon? Right on the Kickstarter page they invoke the right to free speech, but callously ignore the rest of people’s rights with this project.
In the project description people will be added to the database if they post hate speech as defined by law, but whose law? There is no law against hate speech in the U.S., and U.S. citizens are not subject to the laws of other countries unless committing a crime on their soil. So upon whose legal standards are people going to be branded with this scarlet letter? How is a system that has an obviously subjective definition supposed to be fair? We’re concerned because it will basically be internet vigilantes determining whether to label people abusers or not with no legal authority or training to do so. Abuse and harassment is a crime, and accusing people of crimes isn’t something one just does based on a few screenshots.
How will you prevent outside searches?
It’s said that you won’t be able to find an entry in the database without a name, but how will it be prevented? Images, pages, posts and tags all come up on Google searches based on a lot of factors. If an image is on a page connected to a name, topic or phrase that someone searches then the image comes up, and all one has to do is click ‘visit page’. Despite all the information we have about how searches work, we don’t even know it all because companies like Google and others are secretive about their methods of indexing and data collection. How can the organizers of this site actually promise that the only way to come across a user’s profile is to have their name?
In the end there are just too many questions and too foul a taste in the mouth. I talked to a friend of mine last night, a gamer, but completely disconnected from social media. He had never heard of Social Autopsy until last night. I explained the basics, a site that would accept submissions from people with screenshots of offensive or hateful posts. That they would then determine if the posts should be added to a database of harassers and abusers along with their real name and place of employment. Right away he said that sounds like a terrible idea that could be misused pretty easily. If one’s gut reaction is that definitive and immediate, it’s probably a good sign that something’s not right. Even if this one site doesn’t misuse the information, and no one is harmed because of it, what about the next one, or the one after that? If this sort of thing becomes a trend, do we really trust a bunch of people we don’t know to do this sort of thing?