Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In Control

So many people aren’t. It’s apparent anywhere on the Internet. Any half-decent comment thread, on any subject at all, descends into ridiculous chaos if it’s not moderated. Which really just goes to show that no one’s reading these posts here on my blog, because no one’s insulting me about them. Either that, or everyone who reads my opinions agrees with them, and I know better than to hope for that.

Why is it that people on the Internet seem to have no self-control in randomly insulting people for their honest opinions? Well, the most obvious answer is that people in general have issues with impulse control. I remember one memorable incident: I was waiting for the next train at a Boston commuter rail station, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the symbol of Brandeis University. Apparently, that T-shirt inspired someone to come up and tell me that they seriously disapproved of the university.

Open such a declaration of affiliation or opinion to the entire world, as one necessarily does when they post something to the Internet by any means, and the entire world full of people gets to find something to disagree with. No surprise, perhaps, that the kind of flaming or trolling behavior that practically characterizes many forums/comment threads is as common as it is.

Blizzard Entertainment, the company responsible for the ridiculously popular World of Warcraft and the highly-anticipated StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, have apparently decided that they want to do something about it. How are they going to do that? By making everyone accountable for the things that they say on the forums: forcing everyone to use their real names, through the RealID system, on the World of Warcraft and StarCraft II forums.

... I don’t quite know how to respond to that. I first learned about it from this post on the Shakesville blog, a blog I had started reading probably less than 12 hours ago by sheer random chance. Coming from the perspective that it does, the opinion there is openly hostile; by making people use their real names, it opens the door to stalking and similar privacy violations. I have to say, I see the point there. There is a reason why my full name isn’t displayed anywhere on this blog, after all.

Of course, however, there is a “but”. But what about accountability? Couldn’t I say whatever I like in this space, without any fear of retribution? As it stands, someone randomly wandering the Internet that came across this blog wouldn’t have much of an idea who I am. Which may not matter when I’m just randomly yapping about how I like StarCraft II, but if I was encouraging people to actually do something, I think it would matter a little bit more.

As the Internet is now, there is no accountability. And I think there’s something lost as a result. On the 24th of June, the Supreme Court of the U.S. decided the case of Doe v. Reed (link to Supreme Court website), a case in which the Court ruled that the names and addresses of people that sign referendums can be made public. The people that brought the case in the first place argued that they were being harassed as a result of the release of information about themselves, and tried to get the Court to block the public release of the referendum so as to prevent this harassment.

The Court refused. Eight to one, they held that in a broad sense, the disclosure of such information does not violate any First Amendment rights of the plaintiff. (They acknowledged that this specific release may be blocked on narrower grounds; that issue is still pending.) And for me, the most direct and convincing argument came from Justice Scalia. Which was somewhat of a shock for me considering that I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with him in the past.

As quoted by the Washington Post article on the case:

“There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance,” Scalia wrote in a separate concurrence. “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

Now, I admit I’m an idealist. I admit I am from the height of privilege, an upper-middle-class white male. And I admit I’ve never had anyone stalking me before. I can’t change who I am or what I’ve experienced. But I can’t disagree with Scalia here. If you wouldn’t be willing to publicly admit to your beliefs and opinions, why do you even hold them in the first place?

Internet trolling still functions because it’s anonymous. If I post an anonymous comment to a blog saying “you’re an idiot” no one will ever know that I posted it, and so I will never see any consequences for my action. I can hold and express that opinion without any recrimination from society.

Now, with what Blizzard plans to do with their forums, that won’t work anymore. Now, if someone wants to inform someone else on their forums that they think they’re an idiot, the troll will have to stand by that opinion publicly. If someone wants to repeatedly annoy someone else on the Blizzard forums, it’ll be plainly obvious who is doing it. If someone wants to ignore the consequences of those actions, including possible legal recourse... well, that won’t be possible anymore.