Freedom in the time of 4chan
“It’s the armpit of the Internet” a friend of mine declared, “but it’s a strong weight-lifting armpit”.
He was referring to 4Chan, the infamous image board. 4Chan, or more specifically its random section, /b/, is known for three things: 1) its ability to start memes, 2) the twisted and disgusting things that can be found there, 3) its power online.
On Sunday one of the Internet service providers in the USA, AT&T, blocked 4Chan. Within hours the ban was removed and an explanation was put forward that it had been necessary to prevent a DDOS attack. Nevertheless, in those few hours AT&T was targeted by thousands of users worldwide.
In the information age one of the key debates has been one of cyber-freedom (sometimes erroneously referred to as “net neutrality”). Should anyone be able to say anything on the Internet (including, for example, white supremacist sites)? Or should the Internet be regulated (and therefore the power placed in the hands of a few)? The 4Chan case is an interesting one because it shows ways in which regulation is at times both necessary and impossible.
Land of Niggertits and Pedobears
4Chan was launched in October 2003 by a teenager who called himself “Moot” and was intended to be an English discussion board like the Japanese 2Chan. However, 4Chan allowed people to post anonymously which meant that they were free to post whatever they liked without any fear of consequences. While technically there are topics and subjects out of bounds (such as child pornography), in reality 4Chan has no rules. Aside from anonymity, the update rate of the site is so fast that posts become unavailable before they can be reported, let alone traced to an IP.
As a result, /b/ includes content such as “please remember that all women secretly enjoy being raped” and “death penalty for fags!”. One of the site’s mascots is a bear called Pedobear which is both a joke and an icon to summon child porn links.
The Anonymous Army
One may well ask, “how much can a bunch of people really do when all of them come from different corners of the world and don’t know each other from pedobear?”
Scientologists may be able to offer an answer. On 10 February 2008, thousands of 4chanians all over the world showed up outside churches in masks claiming the religion to be a cult. The protests in London, the USA, Canada and Australia were large enough to make the news. Many found the protests entertaining, particularly since several incorporated 4Chan memes. But what humour cannot hide is the fact that the protest was a strategically planned, coordinated attack that spanned the Internet-faring globe.
But what if AT&T, as many suspected, had banned 4chan because of reports of child porn, racism or sexism?
Firstly, would limiting of freedom of speech in that case be justified? Our South African constitution says “Yes”. It excludes hate speech from that freedom. However, if this is a rule that should be applied to the Internet, who is to apply it? The ISPs (such as AT&T)? Some places in the world are in the process of charging them with the duty of stamping out digital piracy, so why not monitor the Internet while at it? The problems as I can see them are twofold:
- Practicality – the Internet is a very big place.
- The word “some”. Such monitoring of the Internet by ISPs would require that all ISPs around the world follow the same standard, and who is to define this standard? Who would we give that power? And where would we draw the line between limits and censorship? The case of The Great Livejournal Deletion of 07 points out that the lines are not always clear-cut.
Secondly, would it be possible? The outcry of 4Chan still echoing around the Internet says, “No”.
Dahlberg (2000) refers to the Internet as bio-evolutionary. It has evolved much like an organism, through the concept of “survival of the fittest”. If it is an organism, it is one that has been left to its own devices and relied on self-moderation for long enough to form a self-awareness .
4Chan, whether we like it or not, is the product of this self-awareness. It has the ways, means and most importantly desire to defend the Internet as it knows it and maintain its own place in it.
As one of the anti-Scientology rallying cries went:
/b/rothers, our time has come for us to rise as not only heroes of the internets, but as its guardians. /b/rothers. let the demons of the intarwebs become the angels that shall vanquish the evil that dare turn its face to us. /b/rothers…. man the harpoons!
- 4Chan’s /b/ (go there at own risk)
- Blow-by-blow details of the AT&T saga
- AT&T’s Statement
- 4Chan’s unofficial sister site, Encyclopaedia Dramatica, wrote about the AT&T saga from the 4Chan point-of-view (possibly NSFW)