On the Morality of: Privacy
This week’s all-consuming internet drama was sparked by the journalist Adrien Chen of Gawker, who published a piece exposing the real identity of “Violentacrez”, one of the most infamous trolls of Reddit. Violentacrez, real name Michael Brutsch, was notorious as the moderator of a forum called “creepshots” which consisted of sexualized photos of women taken in public without their knowledge or consent. (He also created the Reddit forum “jailbait”, which similarly consisted of sexualized photos of female minors, as well as others even more disgusting.)
Obviously, there’s no shortage of porn on the internet if that’s what you’re looking for, and I see no reason to object to that if there’s genuine consent from the participants. But the whole point of creepshots is that the women featured there weren’t aware they were being photographed. In fact, the forum’s guiding principle was that obtaining consent would ruin the photos.
Both VA’s critics and his defenders allege invasion of their privacy: one side by publishing sexualized pictures of non-consenting women for men to leer at, the other by publishing the personal details of a private individual against their will (“doxxing”). Since there are conflicting claims to balance against each other, this seemed like a good opportunity to write some thoughts about privacy in general.
I think the right to privacy can be derived from the right to free speech. Just as freedom of religion necessarily implies freedom from religion, the right to speak freely necessarily implies the right not to speak if you don’t want to. Alternatively, or in addition, you could argue that it springs from the principle of autonomy: if we own our own bodies and lives, then by extension, we also own information about ourselves. The right to privacy would just be a straightforward application of the right to control the use of our property.
Obviously, there have to be exceptions to this. Just as the phony psychic Sylvia Browne couldn’t claim copyright on her own name to prevent anyone from discussing her in a critical way, there has to be a robust “fair use” exception to privacy rights when it comes to topics of public interest and importance. The question is, in the Reddit-Gawker feud, which side (if any) can rightfully claim the defense of public interest?
My thinking is that anonymity can and should be used for people to express unpopular opinions without fear of retribution. And if this were just a case of a person expressing his own opinion, I’d support his right to anonymity, however distasteful the message. But that isn’t the case here. Forums like creepshots invade the privacy of the women depicted there, since those women didn’t consent to have their images used in such a manner – in effect, they’re being compelled into an expressive act against their will. Even in spite of that, if it were a topic of clear public interest – like taking pictures of protesters at a march, or publishing the mugshots of people convicted of a crime – I’d support the right of anyone to publish the images, and to do so anonymously if they choose. But I don’t see how you can argue that there’s even a tenuous public-interest justification for using illicit glimpses of women as masturbatory material.
That being the case, I conclude that Reddit was in the wrong here. Publishing creepshots of non-consenting women is abusive, and like other abusive behaviors such as threatening and harassment, doesn’t merit the protection of anonymity. If naming and shaming the people who engage in this behavior is an effective way of stopping it, then it’s fully justifiable. What’s more, exposing the people who prey on women in this way clearly is a matter of public concern – as is vividly demonstrated by stories like one creepshots poster, a substitute high school teacher, who was taking photos of his own students. Privacy should protect the right to express oneself, even in unpopular ways, but it shouldn’t protect those who prey on and victimize others.
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Image credit: Garry Knight, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license
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