Queer Ghosts in the Machine

Queer Ghosts in the Machine
The Mechanics of Networked Anonymity in the TOR Project
In the United States, freedom, democracy, anonymity, and the individual are misunderstood entities within, and in relationship to, digital spaces. Digital technologies have, until recently, been popularly considered to be open, democratic networks of distributed and decentralized power, allowing individual people equal access to receive and share information. United States cultural stories of the Internet also misplaced digital technologies within the utopian ideal of a democratic society, a free space – free as in freedom- where people could leave discrimination behind, simply by becoming anonymous. Of course, academics and everyday users came to realize that socio-cultural biases repeat themselves, regardless of anonymity, across digital social spaces in much the same ways as other public spheres.
This paper argues that if we take the always already entanglement of civil rights and the code and protocols that structure our information economy as foundational to any study of digital networks, we understand that these networks have never been democratic or free.
What then are the possibilities for civil rights, for freedom? How do race, gender, sexuality, and code mutually constitute each other? What happens when we interrogate the code itself as a way of moving beyond real names policies as the singular understanding of anonymity on the Internet? What are the tensions between identity, anonymity and queerness, especially when considering their vexed status with technology and each other?
This paper uses the Tor Project, an open-source, distributed network which allows private communications over public networks through the protection of the transport of data, as a foundation for thinking through how queerness (inclusive of non-normative sub-cultures) is central to any analysis of digital networks and the protocols and code that embody digital subjectivities.
Untangling these mechanics requires a close reading and queer interpretation of the Tor Project’s network. Using queer theory and critical code studies, I uncover anonymity’s queerness: the meaning embedded in the actions, the mechanics and the rules of the network itself.
Screenshot of the Vidalia control panel, Tor’s user interface to access the Tor network.

Related Conference Presentations / Talks

Queer Ghosts in the Machine: the mechanics of networked anonymity in the Tor Project Theorizing the Web, University of Maryland, 2012