When I was 14 I thought I was invincible on the Internet.
Pretty much everything I did had zero repercussions. I talked to tons of women online (which I now have figured out quite a few were men with fake accounts or just fake photos), I used to be a little prick to people on message boards, I got in religion arguments in Yahoo! Chatrooms and thought I won them every time. I listened to music I didn’t pay for and thought I was smarter than everyone else.
I was also in a ball hockey league which didn’t have their website updated yet so I could see which team I was on. So I sent an email to the web designer. A nasty email. I was dropped every swear word and curse I could think of at the time calling these guys losers (to try and put it nicely). After all, I was 14 years old with my own website and domain that I paid for! I built it myself! If I could do that, why can’t these jagoffs get a silly ball hockey website up? I didn’t use my real name in the email but I used my favourite Internet monicker at the time of Eron, from the Eron the Relentless card in Magic: The Gathering. Like I said, I was invincible. I was immortal, damnit.
Well they figured it out. I guess there wasn’t really any other Aaron’s in the ball hockey league they didn’t know about. They were wondering who the heck this kid was. They ended up asking a classmate of mine who was a part of the league and he said he was surprised I sent it. It should be noted that I paid to be in this ball hockey league with my full address so eventually the guy running it just went to my house with a print of the email. He showed it to my parents and when he showed up? I pretty much pooped myself. I was caught. I fessed up immediately. I apologized and said I was having a bad day and went way beyond what I should have said. The guy ended up letting me still play in the ball hockey league because I had such a good reputation with everyone who knew me and the embarrassment of my parents knowing about the email was enough trouble. My parents grounded me from using the computer for a month. I didn’t try to weasel around it. I was caught. I did it. I wasn’t invincible.
In a rough definition, I was doxxed. While my information wasn’t posted on the Internet, it was made available to my family. They did their research, figured out who the email came from and exposed me. It’s a very 1999 version of said thing and it’s not like I was doing anything illegal, but under most definitions of doxing/doxxing, I was a victim.
Was I a victim? Of course not. I was being a stupid teenager and got caught running my mouth. I deserved worse to be honest. I deserved to be kicked out of the ball hockey league for starters. I don’t know how my parents let me online without monitoring my activities after. While I never did something that stupid again (some would argue otherwise), I certainly didn’t stop running my mouth online. I didn’t feel like at the time I was a victim of an invasion of privacy, more that I simply got caught being a 14 year old asshole.
Something more recent, not exactly involving me would be Twitter. Every Montreal Canadiens encounter with the Boston Bruins you’re going to find racists coming out of the woodwork. For some reason, there’s a lot of hockey fans who hate P.K. Subban. Some just hate him for the way he plays, which is fine. I certainly don’t like certain hockey players. But when the Habs do well, suddenly the people who don’t like him because he’s black come out. And they come out fearless. It’s been pretty well documented. A colleague of mine at Last Word on Sports decided to go ahead, look up the person’s account history, see their job or education history and contact employers and principals. This is pretty much doxxing, but is it wrong? Don’t you think an employer, parent or teacher would want to know they have a serious racist on their hands, and maybe they can do something about educating them on why it’s wrong? There is, of course, the chance that their account was hacked and someone is impersonating them (which is covered here) but too often, these are people who have histories of doing this at every game. Stuff that can’t be argued with as simple of an, “I got hacked” claim.
Online, the battle against “Social Justice D&D Classes” against the “Not a D&D Class so they must be the monsters” continues on Twitter and other social media sections of the Internet. Sometimes this is specifically GamerGate, other times its pathetic Mark Madden attempting to defend himself against women he’s insulted for years. The always amazing Ijeoma Oluo wrote on Medium a fantastic article on doxxing and the imminent threats going forward with such a thing. Oluo makes the great point that social justice is for all, even the self-appointed enemies of social justice. The point isn’t to win arguments or even the odds in doxxing counts but to make the world, online and offline, a better place for everyone. It was a proceed with caution article, something I definitely agree with.
That said, I’ve seen an interesting blowback when it comes to the topic of doxxing when I read from programmers and people intrinsically involved in Internet coding and Deep Web culture. Doxxing is considered by many the single thing you should never do. It’s the new “snitches get stitches”. Snitching on criminals is worse than being a criminal to many, and doxxing people online is worse than exposing a person online. Maybe they don’t say this outright, but you can see it in their tones. To doxx someone, to possibly force them to go public with whom they are, even if they are being reprehensible or disgusting or abusive or committing crimes is a huge warning label.
I can understand why to a point. There are a lot of people who are doing deeply controversial things online and exposing their identity could ruin some good work being done. Or simply open regular people doing “un-Christian” things to the abuse and ridicule of online sociopaths. But when these folks are just harassing and stalking women (men too) or using anonymity to try and rip down someone’s reputation with unproven lies, it gets a little harder to uphold the righteousness of online privacy when it’s being used as a shield to protect their awful actions. But does this go back to what Oluo was stating, that we need to defend social justice as a whole? Even if people are using it for evil, that doesn’t mean online privacy is evil in itself.
The difficulty I have is that we use one term, doxing/doxxing to explain exposing online the actions of anyone online. I’m sure one would say that I would be mincing words and doxxing is doxxing period, but I get the feeling that we really don’t have to defend the right to privacy of those who are ruining the lives of people. If you’re online and trying to specifically harass, hack or slander someone who simply disagrees with your ideology, you’re no different than someone doing it offline. We don’t live in a world where it’s okay to shut up when your friend is sexually assaulting a woman or okay to sit back when you watch a domestic assault in person. We can understand the difference between snitching (“My neighbour owns illegal software on their computer”) and being a good person. Why are we so firm that all doxxing is equal? Can’t we separate exposing a person’s identity to inflict harm and exposing a person’s identity so they can no longer hide their guilt?
Trust me, I understand how muddy these waters get. How one person’s “inflict harm” is another person’s “exposing guilt”. To the folks in GamerGate, doxxing everyone from Zoe Quinn to Brianna Wu to most recently SWATing Randi Harper, who was an original catalyst to writing about those who have been doxxed and those who defend anyone about to be doxxed. When we get to everyone explaining their own context to doing what they do, things feel like two sides of the same coin justifying their actions. I guess I just pull from my own experience of when I was an asshole and how that got me exposed for my actions, and how I don’t feel like something wrong was done except me being an asshole. There will always be those who believe they are freedom fighters for putting nude photos of celebrities online or doxxing harassers of your teenage daughter, and they won’t ever see being exposed as to whom they really are as justice. It also doesn’t take into account the Internet’s speed at forming attack mobs at people who do bad things, with thousands having an opinion they want to express at someone who does something wrong. I certainly didn’t deserve my life to be destroyed by my nasty e-mail to become a news story in the Chatham Daily News. If it happened, and it came back to me in school? I don’t know what I would have done to myself. Actions have repercussions, but who decides the level of public awareness to bad actions one should face, at whatever age?
These are difficult questions we have to answer in the future. I don’t think we’re going to come to any easy consensus. We’re going to see people doing particularly bad things get their personal information exposed, and maybe that person kills themselves out of embarrassment. We’ve already seen good people try to fight for good causes and get their information thrown across the Internet to the point where they had to bow out of the public conversation and out of their own artistic pursuits. Maybe someday I’ll sound like Shep Smith discussing torture and see absolutely no reason for what we call “doxxing” to be an acceptable measure of public disclosure. I guess I’m just not ready to condemn it all. More importantly, I’m just not ready to say it’s all created equal.
Time to ground myself from the Internet.
“Freedom of speech also comes with accountability for that speech — but doxxing isn’t about accountability, it’s about silencing.”
– Ijeoma Oluo
Photo by Guiherme Briggs of DeviantArt