Train Sabotage in France

Sometimes it seems like folks such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling might be right in having turned to non-SF in recent years, since, after all, the world is just as surprising as cyberpunk was. Like, for example, with this orchestrated sabotage on the French railway system reported by BBC news:

France’s high-speed TGV rail network has been damaged by a “concerted campaign of sabotage”, the SNCF state-owned rail operator has said.

It said acts of sabotage overnight, including fires, caused huge delays to TGV services already hit by a long transport union strike over reforms.

What’s unsaid is that this kind of orchestrated sabotage is pretty hard to do by postal mail, but cell phones or a few mobile wireless uplinks can pretty much synchronize up a group of saboteurs to the second. One wonders whether the backlash will lead Western governments to promulgate what is such a popular notion already in Korea (though not, according to my exchange students, China or Japan): the idea that a “real name” system and one-way transparency are necessary.

The topic has come up in conversation classes as well as the topic of debates, since it’s a “hot issue” in Korea. It’s a hot issue because the media spin is mostly that the Internet is socially dangerous. A seemingly widespread bit of cant is that many pop stars have killed themselves because of nasty gossip and criticism posted about them online. This is a sign of how “bad” anonymity online is, and shows the need to build a more “positive” internet culture. So say elderly government men in suits whom one cannot help but imagine also would love to put in a few backdoors and criticism-filters while they’re at it. That’s the nature of elderly government men in suits, isn’t it? (There’s a photo of the Congressman  ringleaders of this movement, but I can’t seem to find it online. I almost busted a blood vessel when one of my students showed me her copy of the newspaper with the photo and accompanying article.) Especially in Asia, where for cultural reasons it’s harder than in the Western world for individuals to speak out in public in favour of unpopular or marginalized views, or against nonsensical commonsense.

It’s a meme that’s particularly hard to get people to question or discuss reasonably: I can point out the following:

  1. Many pop stars get criticized this way worldwide and it doesn’t result in worldwide popstar suicides — Yes, but it’s worse in Korea, or yes, but those pop stars are more humiliated in Korea, or whatever special pleading except that yes, in Korea there’s more of a stigma about mental illness and seeking treatment for depression, which disincentivizes proper mental health care, especially for celebrities who risk their treatment being discovered and mocked online.
  2. Even if we could argue that the suicides of a few random pop stars (and netmobbed victims like Dog Poop Girl) were arguably the result of internet behaviour, does this mean that anonymity — with its valid politically and socially important uses — should be forfeited by the vast majority of people? Isn’t that like saying everyone’s alcohol purchases should be tracked because a few jerks drink and drive? Or that every monetary expenditure that law-abiding citizens make should be not only tracked, but also reported to (and scrutinized by) the government, because a few jerks take bribes and launder money? Who watches the watchmen, anyway? Oh, but that’s not the same, of course. We’re talking about forcing people to  be responsible here.
  3. Realname systems don’t prevent jerks from abusing the system; it only gives them stronger incentive to steal other peoples’ ids. Any filtering or tracking system can be circumvented, mostly because law enforcement is inevitably years behind the youngest, smartest geeks around and because whatever is forbidden — including unrestricted communications — is more attractive to more people. There is always a workaround, and the majority of people who are therefore inconvenienced by stupid security protocols (like dunderheaded DRM) are the people who are law-abiding, (or in this case) courteous and unlikely to spew slander and libel about others.
  4. “Slang” — that is, what some people seem to think means swearing and cursing — is hurtful and rude and causes suicide, and should therefore be banned. The best way to ban this is to incentivize polite behaviour by abolishing all anonymity. But, I cry out, doesn’t that also create a disincentive to, say, criticize government corruption, or to agitate against things like widespread negative attitudes or opinions? (Like, for example, Korea’s widespread disapproval of homosexuality, another recent debate topic, again, chosen by the students themselves.) And by the way, if I curse at you, will you kill yourself? Oh, the reply goes, but this is hundreds of people cursing. As if swear words form a beeline to suicide.

And so on and so on it goes. It scares me that with one basic claim — that pop stars like Yu Ni (유니) killed themselves “because of gossip on the internet” — a great deal of important assumptions and claims about netizen behaviour, social priorities, and the causes for suicide in Korean society get skipped over, and the discussion goes straight to how to strip away the last vestiges of anonymity online (or otherwise “control” internet communications here).

Does this sound ridiculous? Consider the government’s belief that it can formulate — and enforce — laws about UCC (User Created Content):

Over half of the nation’s internet users, however, reported uneasiness with the new type of content. They cite UCC’s “rampant exposure and distribution of adulterous or incorrect information,” as well as “language abuses and defamation,” and a “possible leak of personal information and privacy infringement.”

In other words, the right to curse or be wrong, or to post about something sexual in nature, is going to be limited. Funny, when I walk in the street, I hear any number of  cusses on a given say, walk past how many places where sex is for sale (and step on the business cards of women selling it, which are scattered in the street in random areas), and nobody’s stopping the Korean media from publishing ridiculous claims like that eating kimchi can protect you from SARS. (A claim I see repeated in at least a couple of essays a semester, and a claim for which nobody’s ever been able to cite a real scientific source from a peer-reviewed journal. It might not sound so dangerous, the last point, but wait till some major disease hits, and uneducated/rural people don’t seek treatment because they’re giving the medicinal power of kimchi a try, meanwhile spreading the disease even worse. Public disinformation is really, really dangerous.)

Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be a diatribe on Korea — just a note that a striking number of young Koreans seem extraordinarily willing to accept both censorship and the confiscation of all anonymity on the basis of a very, very silly argument. But you know, people everywhere are susceptible to arguments about safety. If it turns out the Net was used by these saboteurs — and it’s quite possible — will people be willing to be convinced to give up anonymity in exchange for safety? And will they have the presence of mind to demand reciprocity, or at least some kind of mechanism that allows them to exert their own check-and-balance power against surveillance?

Here’s hoping they fight for their anonymity instead, and that we focus out energies on more effectively catching the jerks in other ways that don’t disable civil society.

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