Dawn Of The Digilante

It’s hard to say with any conviction where we are in the process of, shall we say, crowd-sourcing justice. Like most things, it is a process, not something achieved, and while some question its utility, it’s no good to question its existence.

Some will see the events this week in Boston as the moment digilantism (convenient portmanteau!) went from undercurrent to cresting wave. But I’m not quite in agreement: This week marked a significant point, not because of the act itself, but because of the consumption of that act (a necessary portion of justice, some would argue). As I watched the streaming video of (absurdly) a police scanner in some stranger’s living room with a quarter million other people, I was struck by how crude the process was and that demand had reached that magical point where something that was always there is suddenly “discovered” by the world at large. The result is usually astronomic growth.

By that measure, we’re near the beginning of the digilante phenomenon — much as we were near the beginning of the digital music movement in the early 2000s. But we await both breakthrough and opposition.

I don’t mean to downplay the versatility and importance of services like Ustream, Twitter, Reddit, and so on for the proliferation of information. But then again, I wouldn’t have downplayed the importance of things like FTP, BBSes, Download.com, and their like towards the end of the 90s.

Think about how strange and inadequate everything about the Internet-at-large response to Boston was! A video of a police scanner was the best source of information to millions! The police were asking listeners not to post information like streets and names — asking, on a publicly accessible broadcast! Reddit and a dozen other major social sites bent under the torrent of information, necessitating meta services to sort and stream it. Even then the level of noise and redundancy was almost intolerable.

Think about the scrutiny of imagery being done by masses of people immediately following the explosions. How admirable, and yet how rudimentary everything about it was! We have powerful and elegant tools for solving the most trivial of everyday problems — apps to organize our apps, for god’s sake — but when it comes to leveraging human ingenuity for the purposes of the highest urgency, it’s posts on 4chan and slapdash pop-up sites?

And yet, despite this, the level of interest was incredible — almost embarrassingly so, considering how the manhunt eclipsed other major disasters and attacks. But this was a demonstration not of supply side of the equation. Important information tends, like liquid, to find its way down from the source to its destination, no matter how tortuous the route. In this case, there were millions (perhaps hundreds of millions, but at any rate more than ever before), who were unsatisfied with the stage at which they were permitted to partake. A few years ago they might have been happy to wait for the morning paper. Now, even people to whom Twitter is still just the noise that birds make are finding an insatiable appetite for real-time data.

That is why we are at what amounts to the beginning of a transformative period, by the middle of which the way we experienced Boston will remind us of how we listened to music before the Walkman.

The other shoe

But it’s not as simple as all that. While one pendulum swings toward the future, another passes it, returning in the other direction.

Part of what made Boston exciting was the fact that we were tapping into something that was, in a way, forbidden. I’m not really sure if I broke any laws yesterday, but I suspect I did. I had no fear, however, because I was clearly beyond the reach of the law. Is the law as happy with the situation as I?

How long do you think it will be until, just as a very basic example, police communicate only on encrypted channels, and relaying information or rebroadcasting it is a serious crime? How long before a law like SOPA or CISPA enables a quick legal takedown of, say, Ustream, which could be said to be complicit in violations of national security if someone were to use it to stream the movements of an FBI team down the street, or the surrender of the user’s real name and location? Ditto Pastebin for hosting bomb-making instructions? Or Thingiverse for proliferation of easily replicable firearms?

The extent of the information to which we have access, and the means with which we communicate it, may be reaching the end of their progressive pendulum swing, and the next few years could bring them crashing backwards, as more restrictive security policies, harsher penalties, and newly granted powers make the process of finding and sharing that information more difficult and more risky.


It’s ironic that the word “vigilante” has come to refer to people who take the law literally into their own hands, although the word itself has its root not in touching, but merely watching. These digilantes, in contrast, are empowered as never before to watch, but not to touch — despite the (admittedly made-up) word’s root lying closer to the latter. But like their street-level counterparts (Vigilantum vulgaris), all it takes is one serious misstep and they raise their own obstruction. Let us suppose, hypothetically, that the broadcast on the Internet of the streets to which police were being deployed in Boston allowed the bomber to slip through the cordon and get away. It’s not so hard to imagine, given the level of access onlookers had.

Can you imagine the outrage that would be erupting now against the tools that are being lionized in bars and on forums everywhere, as a democratization of surveillance (as another column on this website described it) that allowed millions not just to watch, but to aid? If it had not aided but disastrously impeded, we would be witnessing pundits, members of Congress, and perhaps even the president himself inveighing furiously against these “weapons of mass proliferation” with which irresponsible “cyber-hackers” had cheated justice.

The opponents of crowd-sourcing the process of justice are not merely senseless or ignorant — they have legitimate objections (which I will not tire the reader with here, but can be readily imagined). But many of these objections stem from the crudity of the tools and the process, the inescapable fact that foolish rabble and bad actors are at least as common and active as the well-intentioned and insightful, for instance, or that there is no central authority over privileged information, as there has been for much of history.

They have the advantage: Laws, policies, tools ready to deploy, hanging like the sword of Damocles and awaiting only that critical failure. A similar thing happened after September 11th, as we have had ample time to reflect on, and it will happen again. It is not a conspiracy theory that a state of war is conducive to laws that restrict freedom — and as both real life and rhetoric show, these days, the Internet is just another theater of operations. CISPA passed the House on the back of perception of an invisible cyber-war that we are, naturally, losing.

And, as always, the pendulums are in continuous action and the conscientious columnist does not comment too explicitly, for want of complete information. But of this you may be sure: The demand for this kind of information is about to skyrocket, while the liberty of that same information is at severe risk of declining. This tension will brook conflict, as it ever has, though in all likelihood a fragile equilibrium will be struck, as it ever has, like the frontier between battling nations during a holiday.

There will always be a way, of course — of that you can be sure. But when the stakes are raised, the way is not always easy, especially when it is the object of those in positions of power to make it difficult. We live in interesting times, but not charmed ones. Be ready for the backlash.