ResearchGruppen, the Disqus ruckus and the moral issues involved
Martin Fredriksson of ResearchGruppen, the Swedish investigative journalists behind the Disqus ruckus, made an interesting statement late last night: “We’re not very concerned about a criminal case in the US. It would give this issue the attention it deserves.” He was commenting on my post about the security/legal issues around ResearchGruppen’s Disqus expose, which was I believe more politically/morally motivated.
That latter is by far the more important issue, for security can be relatively easily cured while morality cannot. And the implication from Martin’s statement is that it is one he is willing to face prison over. Just ask Julian Assange to what ends the Swedish/US political/intelligence alliance will go to get their man. Add to that Martin’s further comment, “I just heard that Disqus had changed stance. From ‘there has been no breach’ to ‘we have contacted law enforcement’.”
The moral issue raised by ResearchGruppen is this: how do you balance freedom of speech (and the right to anonymity that supports it) with the protection of minorities (and the limitations to freedom of speech it requires) and a right to know what our political and judicial and police masters actually believe?
The rule of law
The easy, and erroneous, answer is to use the rule of law. This is a concept that is pushed by governing authorities to emasculate their people. It states simply that you must always and absolutely obey the law of the land. The opposite is true. People have a duty to obey their conscience above their national laws. And if that means defying or breaking the law, so be it.
A right to freedom of expression.
This should be a statement of fact, but it rarely exists in reality. It is often considered to be a primary distinction between democracy and authoritarianism. Western governments, ostensibly democratic, use ‘national security’ to severely curtail that right – to such an extent that we need to ask ourselves whether they are genuinely democratic countries. It is also, and in my opinion quite rightly, curbed in order to protect minorities. But the difference between jokes, satire, political licence and hate speech becomes very confused.
If I was to say that 90% of the UK Cabinet are dangerous, lying bastards who should be burned at the stake, I would probably get away with just a wry smile. But if I was to say that 90% of blacks/Jews/immigrants/Moslems/unmarried mothers (take your pick) are dangerous, lying bastards who should be burned at the stake, then I would get a very different reaction.
A right to anonymity on the Internet
This should be a given. Without it, freedom of expression could be bullied out of existence by political, criminal and just plain thuggish elements. The problem is that those same political, criminal and just plain thuggish elements use that same anonymity to peddle their own particular brand of hate speech. So while freedom fighters and libertarians demand and need it, governments, law enforcement and intelligence agencies seek to remove it.
The conflict comes when anonymity is used to hide the identity, and therefore give free rein, to hate speech aimed at minorities who can little defend themselves. Minorities deserve protection in a free country, and anonymity weakens that protection.
The right to know what society’s shapers really believe
There is a second category wherein the right to anonymity should perhaps be curtailed: one we could define as ‘society’s shapers’. This would include politicians (who make our laws), the judiciary (who interpret those laws), the police (who enforce the laws), and the influencers (who manipulate the making of our laws, such as leading economists, top bankers, captains of industry and lobbyists). When we the people accept or reject the laws imposed upon us, we have a right to know the real motivations of those involved in the making of those laws. This can be and sometimes is hidden behind the cloak of anonymity.
I believe it is this last aspect of anonymity that concerns ResearchGruppen; and it is one with which I can sympathise. But it still carries enormous moral problems. In order to expose the secret thoughts of a few of Sweden’s shapers, the group has compromised the anonymity of millions who deserve that anonymity. I think the group is aware of this. “We focused on swedish hate sites,” commented Martin Fredriksson. As for the rest of the 19 million-strong database, “I still don’t know what to do with it. Delete it or see what politicians, economists and lobbyists are really concerned about, when they think they’re anonymous.”
But there are two further issues that we need to consider. Firstly, if Disqus was a European country, it would almost certainly be prosecuted, as the data controller, for breach of the Data Protection Directive. In the UK, Sony was fined £250,000 because it was breached by LulzSec. Disqus, I suspect, would receive similar treatment for being breached by ResearchGruppen.
Secondly, if journalists can find such a gaping hole in Disqus’ logic, then you can guarantee that the NSA, GCHQ and FRA were already aware of it. And who else? Hate sites and user comments would be a perfect recruitment centre for both spies and jihadists. When all is said and done, and irrespective of either legal or moral issues, ResearchGruppen has done the world a favour by forcing Disqus to close this hole.
You might also be interested in a new article: Disqus breach + IRS theft = fraudulently obtained credit reports and political coercion in Sweden