Thursday, February 21, 2008

You know, I sympathize with parents' fears for their children's safety, both on- and off-line. But my reaction to this article is...not sympathy.

Ernest and his business partner Jason Thurston put their tech-savvy heads together and created, a database parents can use to zero in on suspect screen names children should stay away from.

The site posts reviews on screen names. It's akin to a movie review. Most are posted by other online users who had a bad experience and want to warn others. With each screen name review comes a sample of their online chats.

"It can get really dirty or nasty, if you want it call it that," Ernest said.

Take Fanfest 2004, for example. The name may sound innocuous enough, but a search of the new database reveals a conversation in which Fanfest, a 30 year old, describes what he wants to do sexually with a 7-year-old girl.
Where to begin? I mean, I'm hardly the queen of all geekdom (in fact, I don't think I'd even qualify to be a duchess of geekdom), but I feel like Inigo Montoya--"You keep talking about the internet. I do not think it works the way you think it does."

First of all, let's fix that last sentence: which Fanfest, who claims to be a 30 year old, describes what he wants to do....
See how that works? You don't know anything about "Fanfest 2004" except what he (or she!) tells you. Isn't rule number one of the internet, "Don't believe a word anything says about themselves unless you can independently verify it?" Teaching that principle to your children would do a heck of a lot more to protect them than building a database of "bad screen names." What, you want your kid to think that anyone whose name isn't in your database must therefore be trustworthy? Way to go with the teaching of the critical thinking skills, there.

Second of all, what parallel internet do these "tech-savvy" people play on? They themselves reluctantly admit, "there's nothing stopping the bad-guys [sic] from changing their screen name." Unfortunately, they make no mention of the corollary: dozens or hundreds of different people across the internet can share the same "screen name" in different venues. Nothing prevents someone else from writing a blog under the name of "Thel," having a livejournal account in the name of "Thel," or signing in as "Thel" in chatrooms for people with very specific kinks. Go do a blog search for variants on the name "Arwen" and see how many thousands of different individuals you can find conducting their online activities in the name of Elrond's daughter, for God's sake.

(Third of all, I feel compelled to note that "talking about wanting to do something" is not actually illegal. Plenty of people get their kink on by roleplaying activities that you [and, often, they!] find repellent and rightfully unlawful in real life. Deal.)

I was going to compare this "" database to the no-fly list--databases that can seriously screw with your plans even if you've done nothing wrong. But this is even worse, in some ways. Who's going to stop the trolls, the disgruntled employees, the unbalanced ex-spouses, and the pranksters from posting people's "screen names" along with a filthy little manufactured snippet of their purported deviancy? What recourse would such a wrongly slandered party have?
Are any measures in place to ensure that folks who share a screen name with one of these "bad guys" don't find all of their own online activities slandered?

I'm pretty sure the answers are "nobody, none, and no," not that anyone gives a damn. Poorly executed vigilantism may be a useless exercise, but (oh, baby) it feels so good.