Hurtcore Porn and the Dark Web: Why We Need an Ethics of Technology

Lately, we’ve become so infatuated with creating the next big thing, rushing headlong into crafting new technologies that we’ve neglected to think through the ethics of it. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

Dr. Frankenstein used technology to create a monster he couldn't stop. He never stopped to consider the ramifications of what he was doing - or even think if he should. It reminds me of the famous scene from the original Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum), is lunching with John Hammond. They are discussing the ethics of building a theme park of dinosaurs and Goldblum's character says:


"Gee, the lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here um ... staggers me. ... Yeah. Don’t you see the danger, uh, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? ... I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it. ... You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should."

Known to me as the Jurassic Park rule, I find myself reminding others of it when discussing the implications of technology, specifically when the tech has the unintended consequence of causing very real harm. Lately, we’ve become so infatuated with creating and using the next big thing — rushing headlong into crafting new technologies — that we’ve neglected to think through the ethics of it.

Hurtcore Pornography

Matthew Graham looks like your average geeky 22-year-old: skinny, pale, and awkward. Until recently, he lived with his parents in the South Morang suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and studied nanotechnology at nearby La Trobe University. And like many young men he played World of Warcraft and spent hours exploring 4chan, a website known for originating much of the Internet’s most offensive content. Graham also ran close to a dozen websites he referred to as PedoEmpire. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to 13 child pornography charges.

In October 2011, when the hacker group Anonymous announced a campaign to disrupt and take offline the Darknet site "Lolita City," Graham (then only 18) wanted to help. At the time, Lolita City was home to a community of 15,000 child pornographers who bought, sold, and exchanged an estimated 1.3 million explicit images of children. And while claiming he was supporting the efforts of Anonymous, he began a descent into the criminal underbelly of the Internet where eventually he became one of the world’s most prolific provisioners of extremely violent child pornography.

By June 2013, Graham, now known by the moniker Lux, ran arguably the largest hurtcore site on Darknet, receiving up to 20,000 unique hits per day. While unclear how accurate the numbers are, various media reports suggest that "Hurt 2 the Core" (and the companion site "Love 2 The Core") averaged 326 new accounts, 160 new posts, and around 15,000 video downloads every day. Hurtcore is a genre of pornography that depicts real sexual assaults that many times include children and babies.

In an interview with The Kernel in the fall of 2014, Graham said, “At first I felt ashamed in myself for being attracted to such a thing, but as time went on I slowly grew more accepting of myself. It wasn’t until I came across the Tor pedo community that I was able to truly feel comfortable with attractions[sic].”

Darknet

Lurking just beneath the surface of the web, there is a vast underground, a home to political activists, drug traffickers, weapons dealers, and child pornographers like Graham. Known as Darknet, anyone can access it using the anonymizing software Tor.

The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike; a vise intends to hold fast; a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don't know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing.

— Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass

Tor, an acronym for “The Onion Router,” is freely distributed by the nonprofit Tor Project. It provides a system that allows its users to anonymously communicate online. It was originally conceived and funded as a project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). The NRL funded Tor for the primary purpose of protecting government communications, not specifically anonymity. They wanted a means of communication that protected their messages from something known as traffic analysis.

As the Tor Project explains it:

"Tor helps to reduce the risks of both simple and sophisticated traffic analysis by distributing your transactions over several places on the Internet, so no single point can link you to your destination. The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you — and then periodically erasing your footprints. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random pathway through several relays that cover your tracks so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it's going."

Tor serves a noble purpose. Imagine you have contracted a disease and you want to anonymously ask questions online about your condition. Tor lets you do that. Or perhaps you reside in a country that censors websites like YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Tor can enable access to those sites. It really is a wonderful tool.

But, it also provides evil men like Graham with the ability to anonymously distribute horrifying content. And perhaps worse, by providing a platform for the anonymous distribution of information, it may, in fact, encourage others to create new grisly images and movies.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for the abolition of any technology--Tor or otherwise--because bad people use it to do bad things. You can use a hammer to drive a nail or beat someone over the head; the hammer is wholly ignorant to it. What I am proposing, however, is a dialogue, a deliberate conversation about the ethics of technology development. Like many, I'm conflicted about the balance between safeguarding free speech and protecting people from harm. My fear is that because we've built a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

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