Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Huh. Who *is* a rat?

So, as part of a class, I was directed to take a look at Who's a Rat?

Essentially, we were asked to contemplate the site and what it does, and be prepared to finish the sentence "This site makes me feel..."

Unsurprisingly, the site has been the source of controversy ever since it was unveiled. It's received numerous requests from the law enforcement community to shut down or remove information, which it has declined. It's been the subject of lawsuits, which it won.

I'm not going to lie, the site makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I don't doubt that what the site does is legal- the information contained on it is apparently information that is available to the public via public records, and it's my understanding that you're required to provide substantiation for reports about informants that you're adding to the site. So, probably legal. Fine and good.

Legal doesn't necessarily equate to ethical, though. And I've got some real reservations there. Despite the site's disclaimer that it doesn't endorse violence, it doesn't take a brain trust to figure out that violence is a reasonable expectation when you're dealing with something like this. We're talking about criminal informants and undercover agents who deal with, you know... criminals. One of the site's spokespeople said of the risk of violent retaliation against informants and undercover officers:

I think it’s pretty safe to say that informants and cops know that there is danger involved in that line of work, and it would be unfair to burden whosarat.com with one’s career choice. In our opinion, the only potential danger that exists due to the site, is the danger of the government losing at trial, due to defendants using the website to gather information to prove that the informants and agents that are testifying against them are not credible.

Now, the site claims that it's only for non-violent crimes. The site was created when the site's creator was charged with drug-related offenses, and was upset about the use of informants in the charges that were brought against him. So, one can assume that he's okay with outing drug informants.

Because, clearly, retaliation against drug informants isn't an obvious consequence of being outed. Unless you were Rachel Hoffman, who was murdered back in May. Or Kenneth Smith, murdered in January. Or Chad MacDonald.

Is corruption a violent offense? I wouldn't have thought so, but informants Christine and Terrence Hodson would probably disagree.

But, the site's owners wash their hands of all this. After all, they don't endorse violence, and they're not calling for retaliation against informants. They just offer things like a $500 award for posting the most interesting or best informant to the site (this was back in Jan). And call them "rats".

There seems to be a pretty clear conflict here between the right to free speech and the expectation of privacy on the part of informants. Informants rely on secrecy and privacy to ensure their safety. Many informants are just like Hoffman- young people busted for possession for their personal use who get the book thrown at them in order to increase the odds that they'll turn over their source. Faced with the prospect of the years in jail and a destroyed future, it's not surprising that people would take a deal, even if it means becoming an informant.

And if the point of the site is just to give defendants a chance to learn about the person who informed on them, to test that person's credibility (the stated purpose of the site), then why are they also outing undercover agents? I can sort of understand the idea that a criminal informant might have some credibility issues by virtue of being a criminal and an informant. Now, maybe I'm overly optimistic, but isn't the idea of an undercover police officer supposed to be that they are so credible that the police are willing to put them undercover in a criminal situation in order to capture someone? I know that the police aren't always trustworthy, but the fact that they're undercover doesn't make them less credible than any other cop is. And while being a cop is already a dangerous job in many places, outing an undercover officer most certainly raises the danger level.

So, there you go. We didn't really get a chance to talk about it in class, but I really wanted to, so those are my thoughts at the moment.


ouyangdan said...

That site makes me thirteen kinds of uneasy.

old said...

I think sites like this are brilliant. As most people sit back and watch their rights be stripped away, law enforcement agencies are expanding their powers and reach. It is refreshing to see that someone will stand up to the establishment.
I'm not naive enough to believe that their motives are anything other than selfish monetary gain, however, the result is the same. Fight the system. Fight for your rights. Fight the police state. Fight the growing elements of fascism in our society. Fight rats and those who betray their friends, family, and coworkers. Respect love, honesty, trust, and loyalty as these traits are so hard to come by in an increasingly selfish world.
Rant over.

Sabertoothed Screaming Lemur said...

On one hand, I'm not eager to see the establishment gain power either, and I too worry about our rights being taken.
But instead of making things more dangerous for undercover cops (which is probably illegal) and mostly-innocent people who, as Roy argued, are usually just pressured into informing, why not fight a different way?
Don't out informants- they're victims of the system too. Instead, fight to change the system that criminalizes pot use, fight against overcrowded jails and more violence.