Luke Simcoe is a guest technology blogger. He will be contributing the occasional post on the Internet and the various kooks and cranks who inhabit it.
As Public Safety Minister Vic Toews watches the sordid details of his divorce get published online by an anonymous critic, he might find an unlikely shoulder to cry on.
Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Toews-sponsored Bill C-30, which would grant police warantless access to Internet users’ private records. She’s called the bill a “a major intrusion into our personal lives” and a “gold mine for hackers.” But once this whole “Lawful Access” dust-up is over, Toews and Cavoukian might well be able to sit down, grab a drink and bond over being ridiculed on the Internet.
For the past two years, Cavoukian has been dogged by a satiric doppelganger on Twitter. Dubbed the Fake Ann Cavoukian, the account frequently lampoons the privacy commissioner’s policies. The real Cavoukian’s website says she “encourages the combination of privacy and security in a proactive, positive sum manner when developing new technologies.” In contrast, the counterfeit Cavoukian boasts that she has been “faking concern for privacy since 1997” and dismisses her detractors as “privacytards.”
When contacted via Twitter, the person behind the Fake Cavoukian happily agreed to an anonymous interview via email. Fake Ann has a litany of complaints against the real Ann, including how cozy she is with companies like Facebook and Google, and the way she’s used her office to become “a global privacy celebrity.” However, Fake Ann’s mostly concerned with how Cavoukian promotes her own concept of Privacy by Design to the exclusion of other, more tangible forms of privacy protection.
“I think that Real Ann cares mostly about advancing her own ideas, and little about privacy,” says Fake Ann.
You’ve got to admit, there’s something kind of clever about using an anonymous platform to critique the person whose job it is to protect our privacy. Unfortunately, the real Cavoukian declined an interview request, so we’ll never know exactly how she feels about it. However, she did speak publicly about her Twitter nemesis at Net Change Week in Toronto back in 2010.
“That whole fake Twitter account drives me crazy,” she said. “You want to criticize me. . . be my guest. You have every right to do so, but have the guts to put your own name on it instead of hiding behind my name and associating those messages with my name.”
According to Fake Ann, such a critique misses the point. “This account has always had ‘fake’ in the title, and I never tried to impersonate Real Ann,” they said. “That’s clear to anyone who reads the tweets.”
Fake Ann also claims that Cavoukian attempted to have the parody account shut down last October. According to Fake Ann, the real Cavoukian registered all the various incarnations of her name with “fake” or “not” in the username and then complained to Twitter that the impostor account was in violation of the site’s parody policy.
“That’s free speech by design,” said Fake Ann.
Regardless, the Fake Cavoukian is still up and running and accounts like it are considered a staple of political discourse on Twitter. The now-infamous BPGlobalPR sprung up in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 and ruthlessly mocked British Petroleum’s efforts to manage public opinion after the catastrophe. More recently, MayorEmanuel gained nearly 50,000 followers by offering an obscenity-laced glimpse into the mind of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. In Canada, the short-lived Vikileaks30 was just the latest in a series of fake political accounts. There are over 10 fake accounts dedicated to Stephen Harper (and his cat!) and a few aimed at Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
While these accounts sometimes cross the line into baseless ad hominem attacks, the mixture of anonymity, humour and political reality can often lead to trenchant satire and critique. There’s also something profoundly democratic about them; fake accounts which don’t offer anything substantive to the conversation often languish in obscurity, while the relevant ones allow people to talk back to public officials and show their support for points of view that aren’t being expressed in offline forums.
Perhaps most importantly, the response to these accounts lets us know who among the politically powerful has a sense of humour about themselves, and who doesn’t.