Internet culture has given us several images and symbols that we cannot help but associate with certain ideas. Perhaps one of the most memorable is that of the Guy Fawkes mask, most easily identified with the Anonymous movement of online activism and their efforts. However, the idea of anonymity has existed far before the group’s beginnings, and far before the birth of the internet. Perhaps one of the biggest problems that arise with our generation’s current passion for the internet is just how much we now seem to think of it as a simple human right rather than a privilege. Don’t mistake this for me belittling invasion of privacy though, it is a very serious issue. Especially considering how much talk there already is concerning the NSA and spying. The main issue is when we confuse our rights as humans with our rights to safety.
The new bill passed by the Canadian government is not one aimed to strip people of their freedom to speak, or their freedom to protest or any other liberty that they currently possess. It is one aimed to keep protests peaceful, and to minimize illegal activity during such large, public events.
One of the biggest factors to consider during any large assembly of people is the authorities’ concern for public safety. Most often the number of police available for security during such gatherings is insignificant in comparison to the amount of civilians and protesters. As many of these events are fueled by legitimate sentiments and passions for change, there are also worries of emotions running too high, and dangerous actions can be incited given the right circumstances.
People who seek to start riots and perform other destructive activities at protests can be easily lost in the mayhem, and so successfully identifying them during the event itself is often the difference between charges being pressed and the agitator getting off scott-free. When authorities are facing a sea of identical faceless protesters in masks, the task of identifying perpetrators can become impossible. Investigation quickly reduces to an endless process of interrogation and finger-pointing, with minimal success rates.
In extreme cases police are sometimes left with no choice but to detain absurd numbers of protesters. Sometimes they even have to detain all people present at the event just to settle matters. Not only is this a huge undertaking both in magnitude of size and time, but it pleases neither the protesters nor the authorities and often more harm is accomplished than good in the process. Such undertakings can be avoided with the new law prohibiting concealed identities —violators of public safety can be identified, detained, and charged in a much more efficient manner.
One of the biggest issues people have against the new law seems to be for people who have legitimate reasons for wanting their identities hidden, such as risk of losing their job if they are recognized at the protests and their employers do not agree with their political views. While this is most definitely an unfortunate circumstance, and one that I personally do sympathize with and hope will change in the future, I do also believe that sometimes such sacrifices increase the impact — and are sometimes necessary—when conducting such politically-sensitive protests. By allowing your own identity to be attributed to the movement, you are committing to it far more seriously than those who feel the need to shield themselves from potential ridicule and consequences. If one felt strong enough about a cause to proactively protest and seek change in the matter, one should also be willing to commit personal sacrifices to the cause. One human face at a protest should be worth one hundred masks.
In short, the Canadian bill should be the first in many steps towards cleaner, safer protesting in the country. Anonymity has a time and a place when it comes to activism, but unfortunately physical protests is not one of them. The time has come for people to start valuing personal safety over attempts at artistic symbolism. It is time to respect our protesters as the humans they are, risking more than just their time, and not just a mask on the street or another statistic in tomorrow’s headline.