Tim Berners-Lee is an idiot for wanting to expose cyberbullies' identities
While there is greater interest than ever before in online privacy there are also calls from some quarters for people who use the web to be fully accountable. This is part of the thinking behind Facebook's real names policy, and it's also what's driven Tim Berners-Lee -- no less than the inventor of the web -- to call for the identities of cyberbullies to be exposed.
In the wake of gamergate and countless other examples of women being abused online for little more than being women, bullying of school children by their contemporaries, and endless racist, sexist, and politically motivated attacks online, the suggestion might seem -- on the face of it -- to make sense. But it fails to stand up to scrutiny and is likely -- ultimately, if anyone were insane enough to follow his advice -- to be completely counterproductive.
Speaking to the BBC, Berners-Lee singled out those who target women online, saying they should be named and shamed so victims have the opportunity to sue. For the man who paved the way for the likes of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress blogs, and every website you visit, he demonstrates a remarkably unrealistic view of how his baby could -- or in his eyes should -- be policed. He says:
Every society and every social network, every government and every country, is going to have to come to an arrangement, where perhaps people have anonymity initially -- but there is a stronger force which can take it away.
And just who might this 'stronger force' be? Due to the largely unpoliceable nature of the web, dear Tim doesn't have the answers -- he's happy to leave little things like details to other people -- but does suggest that cyberbullies should be "judged by an open, accountable judicial process". Yeah... cos judicial processes never result in mistakes do they? And the web is so understanding when false accusations are made, right?
Just the other day we saw how an innocent man was accused of being a pedophile. There are endless cases of online vigilantism from the likes of Anonymous. But people get things wrong. Once someone is accused of something online, that genie is out of the bottle -- that's not going away. Berners-Lee may say that an "open, accountable judicial process" is needed, but it's not that simple. The police make mistakes, just like everyone does. There are instance of people spending years on Death Row only to have their sentence quashed at the last minute because of new evidence -- and there are more harrowing tales of innocence being proven when it's too late.
The web is an absolutely uncontrollable beast, and Berners-Lee of all people should know this. The option of anonymity is absolutely essential to the web. Yes, this will be abused by some, but that's impossible to avoid. The ease with which anonymizing tools can be used means that it is very simple to make the task of unmasking a cyberbully very hard. Google has suggested pushing the likes of ISIS to the dark web, and this is basically what Berners-Lee's suggestions will do for cyberbullies. Dangle the threat of exposure in front of such people, and they will just be driven further underground, driven to use ever more sophisticated tools to mask their identities and cover their tracks. The suggestions might sound nice, but they are ultimately pointless.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Berners-Lee said:
In some ways law enforcement is easier on the internet than it is in real life.
In some ways, maybe -- but only in an ideal world. Tim, you really must realize that the web not only makes it easier to launch vicious attacks on people, but also that it is laughably easy to hide behind all manner of cloaking tools. In the real world -- the one in which we live -- law enforcement on the internet is a complete bitch.
If you really think you can expose cyberbullies' identities to any positive effect, you are an idiot.