Sunday, February 10, 2008

Accountability of an SNS user

In a major Japanese SNS mixi, I feel I have been always exposed to a strong peer pressure, which I find common in Japanese society, that you should not argue with others unless you really want to break up with those people. This sort of fuzzy feelings covers over the whole society of Japan, including that on the Internet.

I really don't like the fuzzy Japanese social atmosphere, though I don't favor the hostile and negative environment which I always find in anonymous and open bulletin boards and blogs in Japan nowadays either. I always want to have a creative discussion with a constructive criticism. People tend to go the opposite way, however, in most of the times. This is what I've learned both from the real and Internet communications.

One of my friends claimed to me that the warm fuzziness surrounded him in 1980s in the Japanese online community of bulletin boards was something completely different from that after the popularization of Internet in Japan. He told me the fuzziness which I don't like actually helped the self-governance of the users. I asked him why.

He told me that the bulletin board operators could individually locate and even persecute each account holder, by exchanging the written agreement in paper, and charging access fee individually from each user's bank account, automatically drawn each month. He said he had many anonymous or pseudonymous friends there, because he could trust those people even without knowing the real names, by the guarantee of financial and social accountabilities for each users that the BBS operator provided. In other words, the participants were supposed to behave nicely online, and the participants could prevent each other from the extreme cases of disputes.

The friend and I agreed, however, that you could no longer expect such a high degree of individual responsibility on the current SNSes and other Internet communities. Many people belong to many different systems, and those systems are usually supposed to keep the personal information undisclosed except for a legal request for the authorities. This means all disputes between Internet participants have to become legal issues, or lawsuits.

And even if you win a legal battle, you can't really collect the compensation justified by the law, unless the law enforcement officers really pursue the defendant to do so. The legally-responsible individual of one of the largest anonymous BBSes in Japan keeps refusing paying the money he has been requested from the court, though he loses on multiple lawsuits, and he is actually winning the battle by not adhering to the legal requests, because those lawsuits are all civil law issues and not the criminal ones. This is a good example of the limitation of depending resolution of individual disputes over Internet on the legal procedures. Forcing people to use "real" names will not solve this problem at all.

How can an SNS user be held accountable, for his/her legal and social activities? This is not a direct technology issue, but technology can and must help the issue to be resolved. And I think tagging individuals and restricting online identifiers do not necessarily effectively work on this issue.