Net voyeurs: a national resource?

If only we could utilize Internet voyeurs properly, how much could we get done?

[Finnish version: click here].

Recent tragedies in Finland have shown a gap between official communications and what is available on the Internet. Official communications are terse and protect the privacy of the people involved. The mainstream media, for the most part, does not publish the names of victims. However, any and all information can be found on the Internet. There are forums for everything, in good taste and bad. We haven’t yet gotten to the stage where crime scene photos are circulated, but that day may come. Petteri Järvinen summarizes this well in his blog (my translation).

“The Finnish police communicate very little about accidents and their victims. Names are withheld, based on privacy arguments or “tactical reasons”. The principle is good, but is it valid anymore in the Internet age? Net detectives can sometimes know more even than the police … Voyeurism is improper and insensitive, but it is an unavoidable consequence of the information society”.

That is true. Where transparency, there voyeurism. And especially now, with the recession, Finland is filled with thousands of people who have nothing better to do than sit at a computer. Net detectives have competence and time, and everything that can be found will be found.

The old-fashioned high-quality media does seem lost. Names are only published when everyone knows them already. Details are omitted, even when everyone knows them. Old-fashioned.

So? Why are professionalism and ethics a bad thing? Let it be old-fashioned. It is no one’s loss if the real media reports with professionalism and respect, and lets others dig in the dirt. After all, if all information is available elsewhere, then everyone can find a source that suits his mental level.

In fact there is no need for the media to lower itself, because the “bottom” is already raising itself. I admit (with shame) that I have followed (with interest) on the Internet as people have filled in the puzzles of these tragedies. The motives of these detectives are fuzzy at best, but there is one uncomfortable fact about them: they are good.

Not good journalists, but good intelligence operatives, as it were. Which begs the question: since the net detectives have the time and resources to find out things that the police cannot find, what could they achieve if they turned their energies to something socially useful?

Here is a concrete example whose details I have fuzzified (the exact information can be found on the Internet).

A Finnish city wants to expand its municipal waste landfill. The operator has tried to use a “light” approval process rather than the “heavy” one needed for all projects with a major environmental impact. The decision-makers did wake up, and are requiring the heavier process. Much of the information is secret, but public documents and information on the Internet can be used to piece together a rough picture.

The amount of waste is planned to increase by a factor of five. The heavy process is needed if certain thresholds are exceeded; perhaps by coincidence, all projected values are exactly below these thresholds. The application cites a change in the municipal waste strategy. This strategy, however, is not yet public (which only becomes apparent by searching through multiple sources).

Nothing illegal has happened, this may not even be in the grey zone, but it should still raise some alarm bells. In fact it has, and the situation in now being monitored (on the Internet). With near-zero resources, but monitored nonetheless.

There are hundreds or thousands of such cases. If even a fraction of the best Internet voyeurs put their energy into these issues, what would happen? A lot, I would claim. I am not an optimist, and I do not expect to see anything happen, but there is a lot of potential.

More on open monitoring: here.