The right to privacy and freedom of the press: where is the line?

I have been planning this post for a while, and the aftermath of Gawker’s outing of a Reddit user for posting photos of clothed underaged girls seems as good a time as any to make this. Lately, teens have been having their identities plastered all over the news for making offensive jokes.

Firstly, reporters, merely by virtue of being reporters, are allowed to violate individuals’ privacy in a way that would be a crime or at least morally questionable for anyone else – posing as other people, raiding bins, stalking, outing anonymous bloggers, etc. And they use “free speech” as their justification – even though free speech has never been available to everyone in all situations (try shouting a racist name at someone or even joking about Madeleine McCann and see what happens) and its purpose is to protect us from government repression, not to ruin the lives of private individuals. As excuses go, it’s also a rather flimsy one – would Britain really be a Nazi state by now if we didn’t know Belle de Jour’s identity or the names of random teens making offensive jokes? Writers and poets have been anonymous since God knows when – since writing was developed, I should imagine – and making it hard for teens to find employment and setting them up for harrassment and notoriety isn’t exactly going to make them well-disposed towards society or empathic towards others.

And as for Gawker’s rather immature reaction to a disagreement over the ‘Creepshots’ subreddit with Reddit, I must say I’m disappointed. As a feminist, I am of course disgusted to learn that a user was moderating and posting photos of underage girls without their consent, often taken from Facebook profiles, and that some members of his subreddit were going even further and taking these pictures themselves. It doesn’t matter that the girls were clothed and in public spaces – it’s still a violation. (The stance of some redditors that ‘if the girls didn’t want their photos on Jailbait, they shouldn’t have posted them to Facebook’ is quite vile to my ears. It’s reminiscent of the ‘if girls don’t want to be raped they shouldn’t wear revealing clothes or go out after dark’ type of victim-blaming. But neither to I buy the Gawker users’ hype that Adrien Chen is a hero – he outed Brutsch for fame and to climb the corporate ladder just like any other normal guy, and Gawker published Chen’s story because it would sell/bring traffic for advertisers, just like any other news media site.)

But a worse violation is Gawker’s casual, boastful outing of Michael Brutsch – even after being told by said user that he thought he might lose his job if he was outed (which should be illegal under employment/labour laws as employees have rights and can only be dismissed for valid reasons, unless they’re working with vulnerable people, which was not the case, but whatever.) Now, that’s just deliberately malicious – especially since posting those photos was not illegal and was allowed by Reddit. So it is Reddit’s policy that should be challenged, not the private individual. The labelling of the user as a “monster”, a ‘troll’ and exaggeration of his influence as the godfather of Reddit’s “seedy underbelly” and the “biggest troll on the web” is reminiscent of tabloid hyperbole – ‘we outed someone for posting stuff we don’t agree with, so now let’s try to make him look bad so we don’t look bad’. Even at first reading Arien Chen’s article, I was unable to take it very seriously because of the constant hyperbole and smug blow-by-blow account – which makes the article very long, when all that was needed was a short article stating what Brutsch had done and his identity. Chen also spins single acts into multiple crimes, such as by accusing Brutsch of posting the photos, trolling and exploiting reddit – three terms to describe the single act of posting the photos. He also makes Brutsch out to be a master manipulator when really he’s far less than that – and this isn’t a compliment to him.

Another red light about Chen’s article which struck me the only time I’ve read it (it really is inexplicably long while neglecting to ask interesting questions such as how Violentacrez’s /r/chokeabitch subreddit could be moderated or created by the man who loves his wife (his wife even knows about his subreddits) is that without the outrage over Creepshots, there would be little reason or legitimacy for Chen to out him. And this is rather controversial, as the Creepshots site had existed for years without anybody being outed by the press. Very recently, a small group of redditors on a subreddit called ‘Shit Reddit Says’ (SRS) began stirring up outrage at previously-unseen levels. So it seems that VA was outed purely by chance; if the SRS redditors hadn’t stirred up that much drama, Chen might not have bothered to out him. So, does that mean that although your site/blog has existed relatively peacefully (although never without its critics) for years, a small number of people getting angry is all the legitimacy the media needs to out you?

Furthermore, Brutsch was only the moderator of Creepshots, brought in to stop pornography being posted there. Outing someone for moderating – not creating or even ever posting to – a site is problematic at the very least. It also doesn’t help the women whose photos are taken and uploaded without their knowledge. If Chen really was a hero of the underage girls, he would out posters to the site, not moderators. Perhaps to counter this problem, Chen makes much of his article about Jailbait (which closed several years ago and is therefore not newsworthy or at all relevant to the controversy over Creepshots) and the five other websites that Brutsch created or was asked to moderate (which also aren’t newsworthy as they didn’t generate large levels of outrage – there are many real – not troll – white supremacist and misogynistic sites whose creators deserve to be outed). There are also many other similar subreddits not moderated by VA. Chen offered no reason for targeting VA out of so many other reddit creeps. It’s a bit odd to be outed simply for moderating, and odd to be outed for Jailbait which is no longer newsworthy as it closed down years ago. It’s like modding creepshots wasn’t a big enough story on its own (its not) so Chen had to drag up the past to justify ruining VA’s life

It’s childish and anti-free speech and also quite blind to possible solutions – after all, the problem here is objectifying women. But if a woman was to create a similar subreddit for photos of underage boys, everything would be equal. Other solutions might be to try to get pornography laws or Reddit’s policy changed, or move ‘Creepshots’ to a secure area of the site so nobody can view it accidentally. But considering the amount of real pornography, by which I mean fiction and anime porn as well, and that mainstream neutral-hued antifeminist BDSM travesty, are this guy’s crimes so bad? Yes, there is the issue of consent, but remember these girls were clothed and in public, and many had publically posted the photos themselves. At least ‘Creepshots’ was devoid of the hatred, misogyny and slut-shaming so characteristic of Facebook ‘slut’ pages, (including a page called ’12 year old slut memes’) where womens’ and girls’ real identies are published alongside their photos and hundreds of users slutshame them. None of the creators and posters to these pages have been outed.

Much of the internet seems united in the consensus that ‘the biggest troll on the web’ (a title that Chen bestowed on Brutsch in the article) is finally getting some karma and that ‘turnabout is fair play’. However, there is little similarity between what Brutsch did and Chen outing him, as so many seem to think. Brutsch did not publicize the womens’ identities, spouse’s identity, address, son’s career, etc. Chen did that. Chen went a step further than Violentacrez ever did. What he did was (objectively) worse than Violentacrez. And at least VA never tried to ruin the lives of the girls whose photos he posted in Jailbait. As for his moderating of Creepshots, that was to prevent child pornography being posted. But Chen knowingly ruined Brutsch’s life (I now know he was fired in less than 24 hours as I type this update). Yes, having a photo of you bending over or dressed in your clubbing gear uploaded to Creepshots could be distressing and make you very angry. However, it probably won’t affect your life as much as being fired, having a permanent Google record going back over 20 pages, recieving death threats and having photos of your house all over the internet. If I had to choose between posting clothed photos of people that were taken in public and are already in the public domain, and knowingly ruining somebody’s life, I know which path I’d choose.

But should I really be so surprised with Gawker for casually deciding that “This offends me so I’m now allowed to violate your privacy”? The media, especially the tabloids, have been doing it for years. And this casual obliteration of human rights, sometimes culminating in witch-hunts and ‘trials by media’ have formed a symbiotic relationship with the lowest common denominator and the van-bangers*. If you commit a crime and aren’t under 18, you too can be publicized – fairly or not – by a fat cat corporation in the name of “free speech”. It seems ludicrous to grant under-18s anonymity but take teens down once they reach their 18th birthday; there should be a gradual decrease in anonymity. Like with the age of consent, which, while also absolute, carries shorter and shorter sentences relative to increasing age (for example, you wouldn’t spend more than 5 years in jail for sex with a 15 year old, but try attacking a 5 year old and quite rightly you’d be locked up for decades.) If three friends commit a crime and two ate 17 and 11 months and one has just turned 18, you can see it is unfair.

In some jurisdictions, everyone is granted partial anonymity (excepting politicians and public figures of course). Only part of their name and an age range (no photo) is published.

Moving on from criminals, outing anonymous authors, bloggers or users does not enable free speech as much as it restricts it. Anonymity is often key to expressing free speech, and without it the author may nt dare to speak. This is true not only when the Taliban is repressing you (in the case of 14 year old blogger Malala being shot in Pakistan) or the government is repressing you, it is also true in any situation where the author fears ridicule, harassment, trolling, or bullying from others. Some people simply feel shy when they speak under their own name; anonymity or a different persona can give them the freedom and confidence to speak out. In fact, this blog wouldn’t exist had I not been blogging anonymously for several months now; anonymity gave me the opportunity to practice blogging and hone my ideas, arguments and writing style until I’m confident enough to start this, my second, more broadly-focused and non-anonymous blog.

More disturbingly, when tabloids (or Gawker) out people randomly, just to boost their sales and rake in the cash, or simply because they don’t agree with an author’s views, others become afraid to blog, post or otherwise express their views. They police their speech in case they are outed. They fear to write what they want in case they are outed. In some cases, a brilliant site or blog may never get to be made because the author fears being outed.

I do think we should have a law to protect our privacy, which according to the ECHR is a human right (Art 8). At the same time, drafting such laws will be very problematic because all politicians and decision-making government/local government workers, as well as doctors, teachers or police should never, ever, be given anonymity. And this list is the problem; everyone will have people they want to add to the list, such as public figures, pundits and celebrities. The case law on who counts as a public figure or a professional or a high-level state employee could become complex. Perhaps people would be protected who shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s just easier to make everyone vulnerable to having their privacy violated.

This is a tough question, and as long as we aren’t safe from the tabloids or even online-based news sites, it isn’t going to go away.

*Those mobs that inexplicably chase after vans taking high-profile criminals to and from court hearings, pounding their fists on the van and screaming. Even though the criminal never hurt them or anyone they know and the whole affair is no business of theirs.

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