Friday, March 5, 2010

Human Flesh Search

Like most people, when  I read George Orwell's futuristic novel, 1984, the premise seemed entirely fictional.  The concept of "Big Brother is always watching" was chilling, but with the exception of rough resemblances to true totalitarian governments, it was far from any reality I knew.  Orwell intended for his Big Brother to represent a figure head, god-like dictator who, like the Boogie Man, instilled fear in the hearts of civilians, consequently ensuring that they behaved themselves and adhered to the Party's laws.

When Orwell wrote 1984 in the 1940's, he probably never imagined that decades later his fiction would not be so far from reality.  On Wednesday, an article in the New York Times, "China's Cyberposse", describes the growing power of cyberspace's version of Orwell's Big Brother.  In China, online forums have become meeting places for computer savvy vigilantes.  The forums offer a place for people to air their grievances against seemingly anyone who colors outside of the lines of society's implicit rules.  With discussions surrounding the issues raised (cheating husbands, animal abusers, child molesters, opinionated bloggers), the angry cybermob gains momentum until someone calls for a lynching, or in their terms a "human flesh search".  This is where the frighting consequences of connectivity come into play.  Through diligent research and detective work, the web community tracks down all available personal information of the perp, including phone number, address, license plate, work place, friends, family, government ID, etc., and makes it public whilst demonizing the offender, leading to job loss, embarrassment, and ultimately, self-banishment.

The idea of a cyberposse is very similar to Big Brother, potentially keeping citizens in check through its powerful omnipresence and omnipotence.  While it's inspiring to see a group of people working together to fight injustices, the human flesh search raises some important questions regarding human rights, particularly personal privacy and the right to due process (which is not considered a right in all parts of the world).  

Are cyberposses as law enforcers a wave of the future or will privacy laws and the desire to preserve personal rights stamp out this vigilante movement? 

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