Privacy, anonymity, pseudonymity, outing, accountability: where are the boundaries?

The Predditors tumblr outing various redditors who contributed to r/creepshots and the Gawker story by Adrien Chen outing the Reddit user/moderator who went by the nym ViolentAcrez have stirred up a vigorous debate on expectations of online privacy and whether they are warranted, and how far should social sanctions go against those who hide behind anonymity in order to exploit/harm others?  How do online spaces compare to our expectations of privacy in other spaces?

Is there a danger of demonising the very concept of anonymity which is such essential protection for others (whistleblowers/anti-oppression activists/marginalised groups) in order that they can communicate without fear of persecution? (Compare and contrast the outing of anonymous predatory pervert ViolentAcrez to the outing of anonymous political blogger Grog’s Gamut.)

Just how much of this vigorous debate will continue to ignore/minimise the harms done to the people actually victimised by these predators in order to pull the focus towards the people being named and shamed for predatory actions which they engaged in and escalated because of their sense of anonymity?

In the same week, Western Australia has put up a website listing sex offenders:

The launch is being closely watched by other states, but there are concerns it will prompt vigilantism and cases of mistaken identity.

The website will provide information on some of the state’s most dangerous and repeat child sex offenders, including their photos, names and the suburbs in which they live, although it will not give out specific addresses.

Through the website, parents can also ask police about the criminal history of people who have unsupervised contact with their children.

My main question about this initiative is whether it’s the most effective way to protect children against sex offenders, or is it just a very visible tick in the campaign-promises-fulfilled box? If it’s not effective protection, then these sex offenders who have served their sentences are having their privacy invaded for nothing, which does strike me as wrong. If it does aid in protecting children, however, then it may be a lesser wrong than not making the sex offender registry information public, and thus ethically justified.

There are competing ethical imperatives, and there’s a balance to be found. It is basic courtesy to respect a pseudonym or some in-confidence knowledge about a person generally, but should that expected courtesy take precedence over the protection of other people from harm which could be avoided if they knew what you know? There’s been some compelling articles posted about the issue of outing people who are using anonymity to do harmful/exploitative things, and why it’s very hard to muster much sympathy for them (as well as shooting the “free speech” apologia down in flames). [link, link] There have also been some very anxious articles posted about whether these outings for legal behaviour of which we disapprove are the beginning of a slippery slope to where it’s considered equally acceptable to out someone for being gay or trans etc. People want hard bright lines, but they don’t appear to be there; although a very strong fuzzy principle of protecting people who are doing no harm to others from people who choose to do harm to others has to take priority, there’s no one-size-fits-all rule that cannot possibly be unjustly gamed to the detriment of the undeserving.

Even without the slippery slope argument, concerns about vigilantism and mistaken identity are not entirely misplaced, surely? After all, in this same week, Anonymous announced that they had tracked down the cyberstalking bully who had spent years persecuting Amanda Todd to the point where she took her own life in despair – but now it appears that they didn’t get it right.

There’s a lot to explore in where these boundaries lie, where they converge and diverge and how, but I’m still circling around the lemmas and haven’t finalised my thoughts. I’m going to drop one more link here below, and invite you to examine the issues and/or drop more relevant links in comments.

Lindsay Beyerstein: Michael Brutsch, ViolentAcrez, and Online Pseudonyms

We should shun people who frivolously or maliciously reveal the identities of others. We should ostracize those who out others to settle personal scores or silence dissenting views. It’s cruel, it’s destructive, and it’s wrong.

However, sometimes it’s necessary to out a bad actor in order to stop him from hurting other people. Michael Brutsch was doing just that and there was absolutely no other way to make him stop.

Your thoughts?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, Meta, social justice, Sociology, technology

Tags: , , , ,

12 replies

  1. I didn’t know about the Western Australian website. I really hope it helps and protects children, I really do. Sadly, I don’t have much confidence in that – I think it makes it too easy for people to forget just who does the majority of child abuse (hint: it’s not strangers jumping out of bushes, and it’s not always possible to know who it is).
    I remember a while ago a family member who found out that she lived 45 minutes away from Denis Fergusson and had a little freak out, calling for him to be shot and wailing about the safety of her kids. But that same level of concern certainly didn’t translate when I tried to tell her about my father/her brother-in-law, who lives just next door to her children, often babysits them, and who abused me and other girls for years (and I don’t doubt still does).
    I’m just not sure how much good that sort of initiative will do considering the amount of double-think in the community at large.

  2. re: sex offender registries
    There is no empirical evidence that I am aware of (and trust me, I have LOOKED – recently did my thesis on a related issue and have been staying abreast of the literature) which has ever found any support for public registries or community notification schemes for sex offenders. Typically these services do not actually provide the relevant information that community members would need to increase their awareness in a meaningful way of the potential threat posed (i.e., the offender’s victim preference, actuarial risk level, information on how to watch for grooming behaviours) nor do people tend to even access the registries – they just like to know they are there.
    On the other hand, hounding an offender out their home, preventing them from being employed, making access to treatment and social support impossible are very good ways of increasing empirically-supported risk factors for new offenses. For all that we hate sex offenders and fear being sexually victimized, we sure do a good job of not helping anything. (“We” as in general public, media, politicians – not necessarily individual community groups or members who actually do good work in some areas).

  3. Jadey, I suspected that to be the case – it’s pretty much a variation on security theatre then?

  4. There is an awful case in the papers at the moment of a Zumba teacher in a small US town who was working as a sex worker on the side. She has been charged and her client list has been released. Unfortunately for some men not involved with her, some of her clients had quite common names and several men have been ‘outed’ by having the same name as a client. I find this problematic for a number of reasons – I don’t think sex work should be criminialised for a start – and I can’t think of any good reason to publish her client list except to embarrass the men involved. But the damage done to families and relationships is far far worse than visiting a sex worker IMHO.
    I have just finished The Fifth Estate. I quie enjoyed it and would recommend it if you were thinking of reading it.

  5. Does it come down to the old punching up vs punching down question? I mean anonymity should be a tool to protect the (relatively) powerless against the (relatively) powerful. The (relatively) powerful should not be using it to abuse the (relatively) powerless. Grey areas, to my mind, arise through misunderstandings of those boundaries.

  6. I like this quote from a commentor on Ophelia Benson’s blog”

    holytape says (October 18, 2012 at 8:01 am):
    There is nothing illegal about outing a person. It too is free speech. So it may not be popular free speech, but that’s the same argument reddit users are using. Either, both the victims of creep shots and the poster of creep shots have privacy rights or neither do. You can’t claim that it’s ok to post creep shots because free speech trumps privacy, and then turn around and say you can’t dox a person because privacy trumps free speech.

    There does seem to be a fundamental ingroup/outgroup dissonance going on in the case of the predditors, as described above. I’m not sure that there is a universal privacy vs free speech standard that we can arrive at anyway, but if there is then it has to be applied consistently.

  7. and I can’t think of any good reason to publish her client list except to embarrass the men involved.

    I don’t disagree with what you said, but I believe that the client list was released because the men on it are also under investigation and the names were released in the context that it is likely they will also be charged. She illegally recorded the men so the situation is a bit clouded as they are potentially both victims and offenders.
    I kind of doubt that the sex offender registry will in practice help much, and it may even make people complacent (ie there’s no one registered living nearby so people think they don’t need to educate their children on potential dangers).
    I did read in the comments on one site a suggestion that sounded reasonable – make it much easier for people to check on other people to see if they have been convicted of a crime. Given that these matters are on the public record anyway it wouldn’t be a significant change in privacy and it would enable people to do some cursory checks before allowing others to babysit or visit neighbours, new friends etc.

  8. T, I’m so sorry.

  9. orlando: T, I’m so sorry.

    Hell yes, I meant to say that too. Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked, but I can imagine the horror of being unable to convince your family members that it’s not the stranger they have to fear, and then not being believed. How unspeakably awful for you.

  10. Thanks Orlando and Tigtog. It’s a thing that happened. I just wish it wasn’t relevant or common.
    On the topic of free speech, I’m sure many of you know how I feel about the predditors issue in particular. In a more general view though, I am quite interested in the differences between what I have heard called the ‘free-market’ version of free speech and the ‘town hall’ version of free speech. The former seems to be the form that most people talk about, particularly in the context of the internet. But I personally feel that if one truly is committed to the values that free speech springs from – equality, etc – then that system is inherently flawed. It just ends up meaning that the most privileged control the dialogue.

  11. Even without the slippery slope argument, concerns about vigilantism and mistaken identity are not entirely misplaced, surely?
    That’s generally been the result in Britain when lists of (suspected rather than convicted, in some cases) sex offenders have been published. Along with the occasional confusion of the words paedophile and paediatrician.
    I’m not positing this as an argument winner or anything, but such concerns are indeed valid.
    T, seconding that Tigtog and Orlando said.

  12. This comment on Butterflies and Wheels makes some nice points on the question of doxxing:

    The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs) says: (October 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm)

    Someone else from FTB mentioned that “it’s a question of the potential and actual harm”. I think it’s clear that doxxing has frequently resulted in abuse of the subject through phone calls, emails, blackballing at places of employment, vandalism etc. This is potential harm frequently realized.

    This is, on its face, a logical argument. Which is why it’s a pity that Reddit isn’t making it; instead, they’re just falling back on “but… but… free speach!!!!1!”.
    That being said, though, you are presupposing that one cannot create broad classes of behavior under which people like Brutsch could be made exempt from protection. This is not true. Even in legal terms, which as suggested is the bare minimum standard, there are cases in which a person is allowed to retain an anonymous identity — whistleblowers, for instance, or victims of blackmail who are pressing charges. If the law can allow some people to remain anonymous and not others, then I think an ethical person who is constructing a system which respects legal niceties can certainly build on that to declare that anonymity should generally be respected, but that a certain class of people should not be allowed to block the collapse of their anonymity.
    If you permit this distinction, then I would suggest that the basis, maybe the entirety, of such a class would be: those who use anonymity to violate the privacy of others. “Do unto others”, after all, dates back much further than Christianity, even if — as Robertson Davies once pointed out — we all get squeamish when it seems to be operating in reverse. (And, in fact, in this case Brutsch was treated better by Chen than Brutsch’s victims were treated by Brutsch. Chen made a point of calling him up, talking to him, and giving him advance notice that the identity of Violentacrez was going to be revealed, and also Chen did it without himself using anonymity to mask his own identity at that time.)

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