It is sad, truly, when principles which form the basis of democracy are battered and moulded beyond recognition. So it is that the freedom of speech has been debased to the point where it no longer resembles its true meaning. It has been mutilated into a catch-all excuse for any sort of unethical, offensive, or even illegal behaviour.
The thefts and subsequent publications of celebrity photographs have been mulled over by virtually all news media, but there is an amusing contrast to the NSA revelations. Granted, state surveillance has its differences from the selective stealing of private photos – but at least the NSA has some excuse for its behaviour, however irksome Ben Franklin would have found it. Oddly enough, no-one was saying ‘Shouldn’t have saved your stuff on the iCloud!” when the NSA was found with one hand in their emails. Perhaps if they’d shared some of the juicier material, we would have hundreds of Voltaires in the street, defending mass surveillance to the death.
Invasions of privacy are wearingly routine: the very fact that we have ministers mentioning revenge porn is evidence. Much has been made over the reason that in this case, celebrities were targeted: commentators have called it a power-play, an attempt to put famous women in their place. I’d say the answer is, by and large, a little less profound. It seems to ignore the deluge of other women whose photos have undoubtedly been splashed out across the internet, and downloaded onto thousands of computers. Men want pornography; naked celebrities offer (A) nudity and (B) some rarity and excitement – but (A) probably trumps (B). It feels worryingly unlikely that those who stole the photos or continue to share them even have the capacity to imagine the real people behind them.
The act was a crime, regardless, and although we can quibble over specifics and the apparent favouritism of the FBI, at the least the general outrage of Celebgate might cause some actual changes in certain quarters of the internet. I remain doubtful, because there is a deeper problem when it comes to free speech, and the internet in particular. Granted, there are the typical issues of hate speech which have plagued traditional media. These are amplified online, but for the most part, they exist within communities of likeminded idiots: the Stormfronts and Global Islamic Media Fronts of the world, hives of hatred abusing tolerance for the sake of intolerance. There is a newer phenomenon, however, a slavish devotion to principles, as in the Violentacrez saga.
For those who missed it, Violentacrez (Michael Brutsch) was a member of Reddit. With a keen eye for spotting illegal content, he built strong relationships with moderators, who in turn allowed him to build up his own impressive array of obscene images. Founder of the /r/jailbait subreddit, filled with sexualised photos of underage girls, as well as dozens of other depressingly unpleasant forums, Brutsch was outed by Adrian Chen, a reporter for Gawker, in late 2012. The effects of the ‘doxing’, or release of private information, was unsurprisingly devastating for Brutsch, who lost his job and whose funding by members of Reddit doesn’t appear to have added up to much. Yet the amount of vitriol which Gawker received is stunning.
For violating one of Reddit’s central tenets, the protection of personally identifiable information, the website was banned from Reddit – at first totally, but even after this ban was lifted, numerous sub-reddits continued to block links to Gawker. You can argue about Chen’s ethics in outing Brutsch – you can accuse him of playing vigilante – but this doesn’t take away from what Redditors were defending in the name of free speech. Paedophilic images; pictures of abused women; hideous racism – all were inconsequential, as far as they were concerned. No matter the content, the principle seems to be that you cannot reveal the real names of the monsters.
I’m intrigued as to where they go with this. Certainly, it would be unfair to pretend that doxing doesn’t have the potential to be harmful. Brutsch lost his job, but at the least it was the right person. In the case of the suicide of Amanda Todd, Anonymous succeeded in doxing the wrong one – perhaps an admirable act of vigilante justice, but woefully misdirected.
Nevertheless, the free speech argument remains unsteady. There is an irony to the fact that the same people who criticise ‘white knights’ and ‘social justice warriors’ are driven by equal delusions of grandeur. Perhaps these free-speech defenders really believe that censorship or the outing of paedophiles is a slippery slope to a totalitarian state – that we’ll have our own Tiananmen Square online, where the forces of democracy, standing for truth, justice, and creepshots will be ruled over by the tanks of censorship? If so, I will put the whole length of my name on the line and say, don’t worry. It’ll be fine, really. In the meantime, people are being hurt by having their images ruthlessly plastered across the net to be jeered at by total strangers – and no matter of ‘free speech’ makes that any better.
In the end, if J S Mill clambered into a time machine and ended up on Reddit, I can’t imagine he would be best pleased with the use of ‘free speech’ for so much offence. Arguments that total anonymity is needed or else the edifice of freedom of speech will collapse are illogical at best. If you don’t have the courage or the intellect to admit that what you are doing hurts others, and you have to hide behind some slippery slope argument of fascist oppression, then you don’t really deserve the internet.
But don’t worry; you’ve got plenty of company.