Point of honor
When Robin Page, "a farmer, conservationist, columnist for The Daily Telegraph, and the chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust" spoke at a pro-hunting rally in 2002, he opened his speech with this sentence. "If you are a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged lesbian lorry driver, I want the same rights as you." Page was arrested a month later for "hate crime". No surprises there. Mr. Page was subsequently exonerated, but in the process of preparing his defense he discovered that "his name was put on a 'Homo-phobic Incidents Register'". One of my steady interests is examining the phenomenon of the online reputation. I set out to discover what this 'Homo-phobic Incidents Register' was.
I could find no direct reference, but by implication it is the database where reported Hate Crimes go to live. The Northumbria Police site in Britain has the following entry. "There is a national online reporting service available for victims of homophobic incidents who would feel happier reporting a crime online. ... To make an online report, use the 'How can I report a 'hate' incident online?' link on this page." Online hate crime reporting forms write to a database and eventually, after some further cleanup and validation, eventually become part of the mysterious "homo-phobic register".
But the phenomenon of creating online "hate crime" registers is not confined to Britain. For example, UCLA's website has a "Hate Crime and Hate Incident Reporting Form" with the ominous disclaimer, "ALL information submitted will be maintained as confidential to the extent permitted by law" (the italics are mine). If you run this Google search query, it will be evident that there are literally thousands of ways of report criminal activity online.
The police have solicited tips from the public since time immemorial. And it would probably be impossible to mount an effective defense against terrorist activity without enlisting community informants. But as anyone familiar with well-protected databases understands, records unless deleted are forever. Somewhere, someplace a record that Robin Page was arrested for "hate crime" exists. It's part of his reputation. And as far as anyone with the smarts or legal authority to access his records is concerned, it is part of his online reputation. For now and all time to come, for better or worse, you are in part what other people think you are. Even legal action cannot wholly define an online reputation. The action itself becomes part of the reputation and the derogatory information may be repeated and spread even more by the very process of challenging it. Unless a way can be found ...
One of the more interesting ways societies in the past dealt with questions of reputation was through the duel.
As practiced from the 15th to 20th centuries in Western societies, a duel was a consensual fight between two people, with matched, usually deadly weapons in accordance with rules explicitly or implicitly agreed upon, over a point of honor, usually accompanied by a trusted representative (who might themselves fight), often in contravention of the law.
The duel usually developed out of the desire of one party (the challenger) to redress a perceived insult to his honor. The goal of the duel was often not so much to kill the opponent as to gain "satisfaction," that is, to restore one's honor by demonstrating a willingness to risk one's life for it.
The key feature of the duel is that it implicitly created a 'register of accepted truth'; that is to say it created an accepted fact. It settled things and expunged derogatory information (to the degree such a thing was possible). The interesting question is whether the Internet can be structured in such a way as to make an online duel possible. Like its physical counterpart, a online duel would entail great cost and risk; but the outcome of a Truth Duel would be the power to create an entry in a Truth Register. All the derogatory information online would still exist, but the final act of any online reputational evaluation would be a lookup to the Truth Register and any contrary information would be nulled.
The technology to do this may someday exist. Until then, our online reputations will be somewhat at the mercy of factors beyond our control. En garde!.