On Ethics and Linking Policies (or, Yeah, DNL Doesn’t Work That Way)

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The Internet is a wonderful place. The Internet is a terrible place. The Internet is where dreams go to live and die in a messy conglomeration of joy, hate, madness, rage, love, sadness, and bewilderment.

We want this Internet place to be safe for everyone.1 Yet, so often it is not. Given the right prompting, Internet detectives can hunt down your information, reveal your identity, and really ruin your day. Hell, in some cases, these folks have ruined entire lives, making people feel unsafe in their actual homes.2 It’s an obvious problem, and one that thus far we don’t really have a solution for — at least, not one that doesn’t involve putting your entire online identity behind a firewall of private accounts. Even then, it doesn’t necessarily work, since your private accounts can be infiltrated by especially motivated people.

In this unfortunate new reality of the Internet,3 many of us have had to rethink how we engage on the Internet.  Linking to something may no longer be an innocent act; in fact, it may have dramatic consequences for someone else, especially in cases of particular controversy.  So, we come up with (personal) Do Not Link policies to protect ourselves and others, to keep malicious parties from hunting people down and doing what they do best — be assholes.4 The intent is noble.

But that’s not how Do Not Links work.  By openly discussing a topic, you provide those with the desire to uncover a hidden or redacted identity little more than a delay.  If we know what you’re talking about — especially if you say it can be Googled for the curious — it really doesn’t take much time to conduct that Google search.  It’s a nuisance in the most limited sense of the word.  And it may not even work if you vaguely discuss the topic. If there’s enough in your post to give the reader an impression of the actual issue, they can find it on their own. To declare a DNL for the purposes of protecting someone’s identity is sort of like absolving ourselves of the responsibility to protect the identities of others.  Whether we want to admit it or not, saying “I will not link to this thing because I want to protect their identity, but I will continue to talk about that thing in specific enough terms that you can easily find them with a quick Google search” is not much more than shifting the guilt to those who choose to do that work.

Let me give you an example that doesn’t involve the threat of doxxing. Remember when there was that enormous scandal over the release of photos acquired through celebrity cell phone hacks? Remember what happened in the immediate aftermath? A lot of us talked about the ethics of viewing the photos (no arguments there). But in talking about it, we drew attention to the photos, which inevitably meant that Google searches for those photos increased; more people sought out those photos for any number of reasons, from curiosity to perversion. Obviously, this is a different kind of situation, but the point still stands: talking about the thing increased the likelihood that someone would seek that thing out. That isn’t always a malicious act, by the way; in this case, intent matters, since the people seeking out those photos were essentially viewing illegally acquired materials of a private nature — they were voyeurs.5

To bring it back: if simply talking about a thing increases the likelihood that otherwise good people will do bad things (i.e., looking at illegally acquired private images), imagine what someone with the motivation can do. Now add personal investment into that equation and you can see the problem with DNL policies: we might feel like we’re doing the right thing, but we’re really only making it a little more difficult for an otherwise terrible person to hurt someone. If our intent is to protect people by talking “cryptically” about a subject, we need to consider carefully whether doing so is actually in someone else’s best interest. Can we justify discussing that subject if we know we could potentially make matters worse for an individual? Do we have a greater responsibility to protection even if that means we have to self-censor? How do we keep talking about difficult topics without causing harm to someone else?

I honestly don’t know the answer to this problem. I really don’t. I just know that simply not linking while still talking about something only protects people from the lazy; those bastards with the motivation to hurt someone will go out of their way to make things worse. Sure, they probably would have gone out of their way regardless, but I’m not convinced that we can extricate ourselves from the problem with a DNL. We are still part of it, even if we don’t want to be.

It seems kind of hopeless, doesn’t it? But this has to change at some point. Sooner or later, this culture has to get tired of the endless hatemongering. It has to. There’s no way we can sustain a society in which the Internet is so unpleasant that a lot of us don’t feel safe. Then again, maybe this is only the beginning of our slow descent into an episode of Black Mirror. If that’s the case, well, it was fun while it lasted…

  1. OK, so that’s not exactly true. We don’t want the Internet to be safe for the truly awful among us. The murderers and rapists and scummy butt blisters who are the subject-adjacent of this post. Though, in fairness, the meaning of “safe” in this instance means “safe from physical harm” rather than the more universal safe implied in this post. At least, I think I have the right of it here…
  2. How these jackasses make people feel unsafe is rather varied: rude tweets, doxxing, mailing knives and letters full of threats, or even showing up at someone’s house.
  3. Not so much “new” as “more visible,” if we’re being honest…
  4. In this case, I’m not referring to the other side of the DNL policy, which involves refusing to link to someone’s post because you don’t want to give them web traffic; in a lot of cases, people who do this resort to using a third party to “host a link” so people can view it without giving the original creator page hits. I don’t know how useful that actually is, though, since the only way to legally do this would be to have a site that simply masks your IP with a generic “This Website’s IP,” so the creator surely knows people are reading. Then again, they don’t know who is reading, which is something.
  5. Hell, evening voting on a thing increases the likelihood people will seek out new information; you all remember the increase in searches by British people for “What is the EU?” right?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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