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.
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.