Blake Richards, an Alberta MP (Conservative, of course) has introduced a private members bill which would make wearing masks at a protest illegal.

“What this does is target those people who will try to take advantage of a protest to be able to cause trouble. It’s those people who are masking up, trying to disguise themselves that are looking to cause trouble, it’s not the people who are legitimately trying to make a point on a matter that they have concern for and I think what this bill will do is protect those people and protect their right to be able to protest without having it turn into a situation,” – Blake Richards, MP

It’s the same old line. If you aren’t doing something bad, why would you have any reason to fear?

Perhaps this Member of Parliament hasn’t been to a protest in the last decade. Maybe he hasn’t seen the ever-present police photography squads filming everybody in sight. He may not know quite how many death threats many activists are used to receiving, how or easy it is to track most people online these days with malicious intent. I’m sure, given the cushy nature of his job, that he doesn’t have a clue what it’s like to have to worry about being fired for showing up at a controversial protest.

I could go on, but you probably get the point. There are hundreds of reasons one might want to attend a protest to add to the numbers, see their friends and support a cause without revealing their identity. Maybe they don’t want to explain to their friends from work why they were marching with the Queer bloc, or perhaps they have hostile and abusive family members who hold very conservative views. Hell, like the first Anonymous members who donned the infamous Guy Fawkes mask, maybe they’re worried about being sued by the Church of Scientology. The sheer number of people who show up masked and don’t riot should give you a sense of this. Protesting is not safe, and for that the Conservatives share a large part of the blame. And if there were any rioters around, I’m sure Mr. Richards wouldn’t think twice about covering his face.

Political repression is real. It happens, even in places like Hamilton. In Steeltown alone I’ve seen people face the loss of their homes through lawsuits, do jail time based on thoroughly bogus charges and get death threats.

This issue is just as present online. Bloggers and posters are increasingly being attacked for using pseudonyms or remaining anonymous while stating their critical views. The assumption seems to be that anonymity is only used by “cowards” to hide while making malicious comments, and while it usually comes from the “trolls” themselves, it’s also a favourite complaint of professional journalists. Again, this totally ignores the fact that there can be some very serious consequences in real life, but it also has consequences in the online arena. I choose to remain anonymous online because it keeps the conversation focused on what I’m saying rather than the ugly, ad hominem, personal attacks which are so common. These attacks play the same role as their real-life equivalents, serving to shut down debate and restrict conversation to those who are “worthy” through what pretty much account to public shamings. The endless and often slanderous tirades launched against Hamilton’s Matt Jelly would be a good example – though thankfully not an effective one.

The growth of “social media” has meant a whole new dimension to these problems. It’s not just police photographers and surveillance cameras anymore – nowadays its possible to be caught on camera any time – protests or parties, at work or in your own bedroom, and a horrendous amount of it ends up online. It’s easy enough to cheer when abuses of authority get posted on Youtube, but unfortunately that’s led to an attitude that everything belongs online, for the public to judge. How about two girls making out at a house party? Do they want to be “outed” to their family and prospective employers, or posted to a porn site? The personal implications of these actions are only now beginning to be understood, as google and Facebook searches are becoming a standard part of hirings and college admissions. Amid all the warnings about not posting public pictures of your drunken tomfoolery, there’s a staggering silence when it comes to posting such pictures of others, even when you’re “tagging” their pictures with names and links.

Ask yourself if this kind of publishing is actually an example of being a good journalist, activist or friend? Everything which goes up on the internet has the potential to stay online forever, and reach truly massive audiences. You are responsible for what you publish, and the predictable consequences, not those who end up suffering from your actions. It’s no excuse to say that you “didn’t know”, it’s nobody’s job to go around explaining the most personal and painful details of their live with everyone who sports a camera. It’s the responsibility of everyone with a camera to make sure they’re not putting people at risk, and that can be as simple as asking first, or at least letting people know that you’re snapping pictures in their direction.

While I’m not always one to talk of “privilege”, but this is one case where no other word will do. Even in this day and age, “freedom of speech” is not a universal right in practical terms. Just because white guys from the west end like Matt Jelly or myself can get away with it doesn’t mean everybody in Hamilton can. Those who face personal repercussions for speaking their minds often have the most crucial input – that’s what oppression looks like in the real world. It’s exactly why you so rarely hear about it from the perspective of those most affected. If all voices are equal, and truth and justice are really blind, then why must people put forward a resume before being allowed to speak out?

Treasure your rights to anonymity, they’re becoming scarcer every day. Whether it’s at a protest, shopping mall or sitting on your own computer, privacy is increasingly being redefined as a public threat. This should set off alarm bells everywhere. The fact that people feel they need to wear masks proves we all have something to be afraid of. Don’t be too quick to assume you don’t have anything worth hiding – you likely won’t know you’re long until it’s too late.