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Songs on the Security of Networks
a blog by Michał "rysiek" Woźniak

On being careful with words

This is an ancient post, published more than 4 years ago.
As such, it might not anymore reflect the views of the author or the state of the world. It is provided as historical record.

A certain whirli, on Diaspora, dropped a nice text on Google’s Real Name Policy and how it can affect the whole industry – and our lives.

I agree with the basic premise and the reasoning that once Google gets away with that, probably many other companies and websites will follow; that puts online anonymity and privacy in huge jeopardy (for more on that, read the linked article, not much I can add to what’s there).

However, I do have a problem with use of certain words and phrases in the text. “Transparency”, someone/something being “open for scrutiny”, “accountability” – have been applied by authors to private persons, regular users of online services. That should not be.

“Accountability”, “transparency”, “openness to scrutiny” are terms/qualities that in our democratic society have inherent positive air to them, we feel that those properties are good and important.

Governments, companies, public servants, officials, treaties, negotiations, lawmaking, etc. – these are examples of what should be “accountable”, “transparent” and “open for scrutiny” in a democratic state. All of these have big influence on private persons’ lives and hence must be possible to observe and control by those same persons.

On the other hand, when the situation gets reversed (as it can be feared once Real Name Policy gets enacted across the web) and it will be private persons being watched and controlled by governments, companies, public servants and officials, something wrong happens and the state of affairs seems to drift towards totalitarianism.

In such a case using words and phrases with positive emotional load – like “accountability” or “transparency” – doesn’t play well: if Google or a government official tried to use those terms in such a context, I would even say it’s an intentional manipulation meant to show something inherently bad (total state/corporate control of private persons’ lives) as inherently good.

I feel that words like “invigilation” and “surveillance” much better fit the purpose then.


I had a very constructive and interesting discussion, first by e-mail, then on Diaspora, with (among others) the author of the article.

To sum it up – I might have overreacted a bit due to my engagement in both:

  • fighting for privacy and anonymity of private persons, against surveillance;
  • advocating transparency and accountability of official dealings, governments, corporations, etc.

To the first stipulation, written above, I would like to add a second one: using such positively-loaded words to describe negative phenoena dilutes that positive emotional load, making it harder to use it in the positive context (e.g. advocating transparency of government).

Mind you, that’s just for the record, a Gedankenexperiment if you will; I fully accept that in the case of that particular article this might not apply.