Anonymity And Consequences: Should We Care About Internet Asshats Who Get Outed?
Alex Kochno had a bug up his ass about uppity women. So he sent an unsigned email to the proprietors of the blog Feministing venting his spleen:
Men are better than women look at the comparison in IQ men are scientifically proven to have a higher IQ by roughly 5 points, or 5% you cannot dispute science sorry and if you want a much better website than your shitty one you might want to go to [redacted]. I think you would gain a lot more knowledge from that website and you might learn about the truth that way you would not be so stupid and ignorant you stupid cunts.
By itself this is not remarkable; anyone who writes a high-traffic blog on controversial subjects will get hate mail, and female writers get hateful crap like this all the time. And many people with serious issues about women have a poor grasp of logic and the English language.
What makes it notable is that Alex Kochno, who hoped to take advantage of the anonymity provided by the internet, is not a rocket scientist, and as a result sent this little screed from his school email account at Southern Illinois University, where he was a member of the Southern Illinois University College Republicans and their … wait for it … wait for it … public relations officer.
This leads me to the question of the day: what are the moral implications of breaching anonymity?
Feministing, not unreasonably, published Kochno's name, the text of the email, and links to the SIU College Republicans, and links to Kochno's later hastily-made-private pages. Kochno (or someone posing as him) wrote a series of apologies, ranging from politician-lame to seemingly more thorough, at Feministing.
There was a time when the long-term consequences to Kochno would be minimized. His attempted anonymous rudeness in a pre-internet age would be the talk of the college for a bit, but supported only by oral history, it would fade from memory. Future employers, dates, and friends would only find out through chance meetings with people who remembered and wanted to tell. His moronic chauvinism would have few long-term consequences.
But times have changed. Thanks to the power of Google, anyone searching for Alex Kochno's name (to his detriment, not a common one) will find out about this episode. Between Feministing and multiple blogs covering it (including this one), Alex Kochno now belongs to the ages — the ages of sub-literate assholes who like to call women stupid cunts. His conduct is there to be found within seconds by his future employers, future dates, future friends and enemies, everyone who might have any reason from diligence to curiosity. His email may well have long-lasting and substantial social consequences and may limit his further educational and employment opportunities.
Here's what I want to ask — how should we feel about that? More specifically — should we feel any moral twinge about breaching the internet anonymity of an asshole when the opportunity presents itself, given the modern consequences?
It's important to note that there are many such opportunities. There are the dimwits like Kochno who sent a rant from an email address that identified him — that's barely an attempt at anonymity at all. There's the software that allows most web sites to track IP addresses of commentors, sometimes yielding a specific location like a school or business. And then there's good detective work — as I've mentioned before, my co-blogger Patrick is quite good at identifying people by compiling things they post at different sites under the same handle.
All of this means that many people who think they are speaking anonymously can find themselves identified. So, should we care when they are outed?
I have some thoughts.
First, this is not a genuine free speech issue. Absent a special relationship like attorney-client, the people you flame on the internet have no legal obligation to keep your identity secret. Nor, absent specific privacy agreements or statutes, to web sites. Moreover, though anonymity has been an important element of free speech in the past and has been protected by the courts, it has been protected from government intrusion, not private intrusion. Therefore I disagree with some of the commentators I have seen who argue that outing anonymous assholes degrades free speech. All of the potential consequences flowing from outing are social, not government imposed. There's no free speech right to be an asshole without being treated like one.
Second, frankly I don't have sympathy for people who use anonymity to attack individuals the way Kochno did. Obviously I have sympathy for the concept of speaking anonymously or semi-anonymously on the internet — I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't. It's a good way to avoid harassment when you talk about controversial things. The internet is full of hot-tempered losers who, after a lengthy argument in a forum or comment thread about some important or mundane issue, will be all to happy to post your home phone number or call your employer or something similar to soothe a wounded ego. I have sympathy for people who are hounded like that for the political positions they take (or, for that matter, their positions on the far more bitter Kirk vs. Picard thing), but I really have zero sympathy for someone who suffers social consequences because of an attack like Kochno's.
Is that a touchy-feely I'll-know-it-when-I-see-it standard? Why, yes. No doubt you could spin some political positions as crass personal attacks, depending on how they are delivered. And some important political movements have included rude attacks and brutal satire against the powerful. But the perfect is the enemy of the good. Though I can't draw a perfect line, I can draw a pretty good one, and an email calling bloggers "stupid cunts" because of their views falls into the too-bad-so-sad side.
I have particularly little sympathy for people who profit from anonymous attacks, or people who seek out opportunities to shit on others anonymously. As I've written before, the vile site Juicy Campus and its contemptible founder Matt Ivester demonstrate the ugly side of anonymity; I think it is a good thing that Ivester's name will be permanently associated on Google with descriptions of what a verminous douche he is, and look forward to the day that schools use their IT resources to out some of the people posting on Juicy Campus so they can suffer the social consequences of their words.
Third, as some have indicated on the Feministing thread, outing someone for a hateful screed like Kochno's is a grave accusation, and the person making it has a moral obligation to be accurate, and may face legal consequences if the accusation proves false. The tubes is tricksy. Email addresses can be spoofed. Details can be faked. People seeking to out cretins like this must assume the responsibility of performing due diligence, and must accept the consequences if they accuse the wrong person.
Fourth, we come to the moral question. Assume for the moment that someone like Alex Kochno will suffer long-term and very substantial personal harm if his anonymous attack is revealed. Assume for a moment for the sake of argument that this consequence is disproportionate. (That's certainly subject to dispute, but bear with me.) Do we then have a moral obligation not to out him, because the consequences to him are disproportionate to his offense? You could compare this to the question of whether you should turn someone in for a crime when the crime is vile but the punishment imposed by the government is excessive. The important difference, of course, is that the government is not the punisher here — the outed anonymous asshat is suffering social consequences. That's why I think that ultimately we have no moral obligation to refrain from outing anonymous assholes. They committed the conduct leading to the consequence. The consequence depends on the reactions of third parties; I do not control how they react. The asshat retains full ability to mitigate the consequences by offering an apology (as happened here) or an excuse (as also happened here — he claims he was drunk).
So, is a possible lifetime of mild infamy due to a hateful anonymous message excessive? Perhaps. But the truth is, I'd want to know. I wouldn't want my daughters dating someone who sends emails like that. I wouldn't want to hire someone who had recently done something like that. Alex Kochno, and assholes like them, are merely suffering the consequences of their own choices and actions, just as certainly as if they had done it openly and on camera. Argue for forgiveness for them now or much later, but ultimately I don't think a good argument can be made for protecting them from those consequences by respecting anonymity when we can pierce it.
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