Thursday, October 18, 2012

on Outing Violentacrez, Pseudonymity, Free Speech, and the Right to Work

tl;dr: Gawker's Adrian Chen knew that if he outed Violentacrez, the moderator of sexually creepy but legal forums on Reddit, Violentacrez would lose his job, his disabled wife would lose her health insurance, and they would be in danger of losing their home. Violentacrez offered to close his forums and cancel his Reddit account if Chen would not out him. Though Chen could have written about him while preserving his anonymity, Chen chose to out Violentacrez. The only practical result of this was to make a family lose their income and health care and put them in danger of losing their home. On Reddit, new forums immediately sprang up to replace the old ones—and Chen's hypocrisy should be obvious, because Gawker still hosts upskirt pics too.


Whenever I discuss free speech with fans of censorship, I have to note that no one ever needs to defend the right to innocuous speech. The price of supporting free speech is supporting the right to speak of people you despise.

So I'll stress this: Violentacrez is as creepy as creepy legally gets—I say "legally" because, from what I've read, he broke no laws. Yet he was outed by Adrian Chen, who knew that V. lived in a "right to work state" (the euphemism for a US state where bosses may fire people at whim) and that when V. was outed, he would be fired, his mortgage would be in jeopardy, and his disabled wife would be at the mercy of the US health care industry.

There are people like John Scalzi who take the simplistic approach that this is not a free speech issue. If you think free speech is only a legal issue, they're quite right. Violentacrez got to say what he wanted, and Chen got to say what he wanted, and V.'s boss got to say what he wanted as he fired him. Legally, it was free speech all around. No one's going to go to jail for anything they said.

But the story raises three important questions:

1. Is free speech an ethical as well as a legal issue?

2. Is pseudonymity a free speech issue?

3. Should bosses be able to fire people for legal activities that occur outside of their working hours?

My answers are yes, yes, and hell no.

Scalzi writes, "Reddit is not a public utility or a public square; it’s a privately owned space on the Internet." That's true, but irrelevant. When the ACLU weighed in on Clark University canceling a speech by Norman Finkelstein, it didn't matter that Clark University is a private school. They acknowledged that Clark had the legal right to do what it did, but they pointed out Clark's ethical shortcoming by citing the example of other private schools.

The president of Tufts, explaining his intention to respect free speech as though Tufts had to abide by the requirements of public schools, wrote:
We must be vigilant in defending individual liberties even if it means that from time to time we must tolerate speech that violates our standards of civility and respect.
And this is from the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences' free speech guidelines:
Because we are a community united by a commitment to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas. We are committed to maintaining a climate in which reason and speech provide the correct response to a disagreeable idea.
The right to photograph freely what happens in public has to include the right to put those photographs in creepy contexts. If it does not, we're left with a meaningless freedom, the right to record and share public things that no one objects to.

In an ideal world, pseudonyms would never be necessary because everyone would be cared for, regardless of what they thought and said. But we live in a world where the safest way to keep a job is to keep silent about anything that may trouble anyone. Our current freedom to speak freely includes the freedom to die homeless. To speak without fear of reprisal, pseudonymity is often necessary.

But what does it mean to be pseudonymous? Whenever the question arises, people ask whether the person made a reasonable effort to be pseudonymous. The fact that Adrian Chen couldn't find Violentacrez's identity by googling says V. made a reasonable effort.

I believe in respecting the wishes of all pseudonymous, law-abiding people who don't mix their legal and pseudonymous identities online. If you can't find someone's identity in thirty seconds of Googling, they probably want to be pseudonymous. Legally, you may out them anyway. Ethically, you may not.

But the Violentacrez case has revealed many people's take on pseudonymity on the internet: It's okay to out people who post things you don't like.

Censorship is the power to keep people from speaking. That power is held by governments, churches, schools, and anyone who has authority to silence anyone. When fear of losing your job keeps you silent during the time when you are supposed to be free, you are being censored by your employer.

If Adrian Chen is ever fired for anything he said or did away from Gawker, he will have no grounds to complain.

None of what I've said here is a defense of what Violentacrez did—creepiness is creepy.

But outing V. has not limited the ability of people who haven't broken laws to be legally creepy. Subreddits have sprung up to replace those that V. closed. Outing him has only added another family to the unemployment rolls. If Chen thought what V. did was wrong, Chen could've called for changing the law. Instead, he got Google juice for Gawker by making a family suffer for committing no crime.

There is a very simple solution to dealing with legal sites that offend you: don't go there.

A song more people should ponder:

ETA: On G+, a question came up about recording the police. I said: "In order to record police power, we have to be able to record freely--which includes some creepy stuff." To be clear, that's "record freely whatever happens in public places".

ETA 2: From Why Gawker Should Lose Its War With Reddit: "You could try to argue that outing Brutsch was the only way to stop him. But when Chen first started poking around, Violentacrez allegedly offered to delete his account and quit Reddit for good, if Gawker refrained from publishing. According to Brutsch, Chen refused."

ETA 3: For anyone who thinks outing V. was effective: CreepShots Is Back and Impersonating Lesbians.

ETA 4: I'm very fond of this comment that Deb Franklin made in a discussion on Google+:
"But we live in a world where the safest way to keep a job is to keep silent about anything that may trouble anyone."
This is really what disturbs me about this whole situation. Yeah, I think the guy is a skeeze. I think people who put pictures up on Peopleofwalmart are skeeze. Why is one skeeze okay and another bad? I find them both repulsive and humilating to the individuals used to fill some jolly in people. 
However do I think someone should be fired over something that isn't illegal? Uh no. Because the slippery slope is there. I don't want to have to spout a party line 24/7 to be considered employable. Shades of Big Brother and the Thought Police! 
Meanwhile the internet mob mentality grows and grows. Humans, we are a vengeful lot, aren't we?
ETA 5: In the comments below, Amolitor made a comment about creepy neighbors on the internet which inspired me to write this:
You notice your neighbor in his upstairs window, photographing your teenaged daughter, who is washing the car in your front driveway. Knowing he has a mortgage to pay and his disabled wife depends on the health insurance he gets at work, is the proper response to get him fired?