Commentary: DOXing is not okay. Ever. For anyone.

[Full disclosure: I spent the last week on the Internet 2012 Bus Tour with some of the Reddit admins. They did not ask me to write this, and I would have written this even without having been on the tour last week. Also, I'm not going to do him the favor of linking to the article. If you want to read it yourself, you can look it up.]

Dear Adrian Chen,

Last week, word leaked that you would be posting an article on Gawker DOXing — or publishing the “documents” and personal information of someone on the Internet — a Reddit user named Violentacrez.

The Reddit community reacted violently, as you knew would happen. Moderators banned Gawker submissions to 70+ subreddits, it spawned a wave of outrage and many media articles drawing more attention to your cause.

On Friday, after fanning the fires and building hype, you posted your article. I just finished reading it, and sure enough… you DOX’d the hell out of Violentacrez.

This is unacceptable.

You clearly think you are justified in doing this, and in your article you say: “To [Redditors], the DOXing of Vilentacrez [...] is an assault on the very structure of Reddit itself.”

Then you quote The Daily Dot, who says “Redditors aren’t banning Gawker to protect violentacrez, they’re doing it to protect themselves.”

You don’t get it, dude.

It’s not that DOXing isn’t okay because it’s “an assault on the structure of Reddit.”

DOXing isn’t okay because you’re publishing someone’s personal information online, purposely creating a angry vigilante mob, and throwing them to the wolves.

I don’t understand how you can justify that as being acceptable.

And then I kept reading.

You also wrote about his wife, whose username you link to. And his son, whose username you also link to.

So you weren’t content just DOXing Violentacrez. You also chose to DOX his whole family. What was his wife guilty of? Apparently to you, Adrian, running a Fibromyalgia support subreddit, having diabetes, playing Kingdom of Camelot, and posting to /r/aww – a subreddit of cute animal pictures and videos – is a crime worthy of punishment.

Earlier in the article, you confront Violentacrez on Gchat. He figures out you knew who he was, and you “panicked a bit” and called him. You comment that you “didn’t have time to properly steel yourself for a tough conversation.”

Boo freaking whoo.

“Journalistically” (and I use that word lightly), I can only imagine that line is there to let the reader create some shred of a thread of empathy with you – you didn’t have time to get yourself ready to call the person who’s life you were about to ruin. Sorry chief, but for you my heart turns cold.

Because Adrian, here’s the thing.

I agree with you.

I think the content Violentacrez was posting and the subreddit’s he created are bad. I think they’re unhealthy. Should the rules be changed to prohibit that content and ban Violentacrez? Maybe. Should those subreddit’s be removed? Probably.

But here’s the thing. You are not a judge, and you are not a jury. Neither am I. If you had removed all references to Violentacrez’s real name and location, this could have been a very powerful article encouraging Reddit to clamp down and add more rules about what content is acceptable and what content isn’t.

But you didn’t. You did some investigative journalism into someone who does some (read: a lot of) immoral things but broke no law. And once you had confirmed your facts (at least you did that), you decided that the guilty must be punished, and you DOX’d him.

And now this entire situation is uncontrollable. You created a mob, pointed them in the right direction, and are you now expecting to wash your hands of this and go to sleep soundly at night?

Even if what he did was morally wrong, you have ABSOLUTELY no right to do what you did. Fighting evil with evil will only beget more evil. You are not an agent of the Government, and no one gave you the authority to play Judge, Jury, and Executioner.

Sincerely,

The Internet

P.S.  And as for you, Gawker. I don’t even want to TALK to you about letting Adrian post this. Your “journalistic integrity” was questionable to begin with, but the only way I can think that you might justify this is for the pageviews. Which makes me sick.

Editor’s note: We’ve updated the post to more clearly define the word DOXing. Thanks for all of the comments below.

Zachary Cohn is a Seattle geek who works at Startup Weekend. Follow him on Twitter @zacharycohn

  • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

    Wow, for those of us with no context, this is just vitriole. It doesn’t even define what the word dox means. Google defines it as a concubine.

    I don’t know if Violentacrez, the folks at Gawkwer, Adrien Chen, or Zachary Cohn is evil. Maybe they all are. And why does Zachary Cohn think he speaks for The Internet? He certainly doesn’t speak for me since I have no idea what he’s talking about.

    This does not belong on GeekWire.

    • http://twitter.com/joelgrus Joel Grus

      +1, I have no idea what on earth this article was about or why it appeared on GeekWire.

    • Zachary Cohn

      Ugh, looks like I accidentally deleted a word when I sent it in. DOXing is publishing the personal information – or “documents” – of someone on the internet. It’s a phrase that 4chan coined.

      • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

        Duh. I figured that out from context. I’m not stupid.

        You wrote an attack — a blatant vicious, nasty, attack. You wrote it assuming that “the internet” agreed with you. That is hubris of the finest order. Even if we ignored the nastiness of what you wrote, you didn’t even do a good job of making your point. If I remove all the mean comments, your essay boils down to “You shouldn’t have done that. It’s wrong.” It’s content free. And you expect intelligent people to jump on and say, yup, you’re right. Sorry, no.

        On the real issue, which isn’t actually discussed above because you’re too busy spewing venom, I think the world is a worse place because bad people use the cloak of anonymity to commit hate. Wikipedia is a shadow of what it could be if editors were not allowed to edit anonymously (well, except in China and North Korea). Reddit might lose a little if it lost anonymity, but it would gain far more.

        Adrian Chen and Gawker did not “dox” Violentacrez. They didn’t publish his home address or phone number, or any private documents he had, or name the company he works for. It was investigative journalism. I’ll take their reporting over your screed any day. And if Michael Brutsch doesn’t like it, perhaps he shouldn’t be involved in so much hate.

        Sorry, Todd and John, I think this is the worst piece ever published on GeekWire. And you know I am a huge fan.

  • http://acidforblood.net/ Brinstar

    You probably shouldn’t speak for everyone on the internet. It’s presumptuous and rude, at best.

    Secondly, you may want to consider other angles with regard to characterizing what Chen did as “doxing” as this situation is more nuanced than you have portrayed it.

    Here are a couple of articles just to get started:

    http://downlo.tumblr.com/post/33552012020/journalism-is-not-doxxing
    http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/10/15/exposing-internet-creeps/

  • http://blog.findwell.com Kevin Lisota

    GeekWire reporting on this story would be excellent. GeekWire giving a podium to someone to rant about one side or the other seems out of place.

    I read Chen’s article, and as a Reddit outsider it was completely fascinating. Happy to debate about internet anonymity and consequences of hiding behind it, but this vitriolic commentary is out of place without presenting the entire story.

  • Mike

    What the heck is Doxing?

    • Zachary Cohn

      I replied to a few other posts, but just so you see it too: looks like I accidentally deleted a word when I sent it in. DOXing is publishing the personal information – or “documents” – of someone on the internet. It’s a phrase that 4chan coined.

  • blahblah

    ViolentAcrez was doing a form of doxing, then he got doxed. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I don’t have any problem with Gawker doing this.

    • Zachary Cohn

      In my commentary, I suggest that “Responding to evil with more evil” does not necessarily help situations. Do you disagree?

      • blahblah

        I disagree that posting the name of a man who has repeatedly violated other people’s privacy is in any way evil.

        • Jay

          I also believe that because someone does something everyone knows is bad it makes it justified to do that same bad thing to that person. Fuck it, all the nazis should have been gassed following starvation and back breaking labour, anyone who physically assaults another in a bar should be subjected to physical assault as their punishment. Eye for an eye is completely right and justified.

          Your entire argument is fallacious.

          • SandyRavage

            >Fuck it, all the nazis should have been gassed following starvation and back breaking labour

            We did much worse to them than that. And it was absolutely justified.

  • Guest

    What is DOXing?

    • Zachary Cohn

      I replied to Roy’s post, but just so you see it too: looks like I accidentally deleted a word when I sent it in. DOXing
      is publishing the personal information – or “documents” – of someone on
      the internet. It’s a phrase that 4chan coined.

      • Gest

        Thank you. I’m not familiar with 4chan or with Reddit or with most of the people and places you mentioned in your article, but I do applaud your commitment to protect the anonymous and the pseudonymous. Frankly, there are a lot of discussions that simply wouldn’t be possible, especially on a local-oriented site like GeekWire, if we were all made to reveal our real names. GeekWire strongly supports the sort of open forum that allows for opinions of all types and for that I am grateful. In a nonymous forum, one could be harassed, ostracized, or even terminated from his place of employment for lending her name to the sort of opinions that make our forum such a welcoming place.

        Thank you, Zachary, for protecting our privacy and for helping to stop the scourge of “doxing.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=562790974 Brad Hefta-Gaub

    First of… As for how or why this article in on GeekWire. I’m glad GW published this commentary. Since, I’m not a regular Gawker reader, or CNN/AC360 viewer, I hadn’t yet heard about this story. GW clearly labeled this as “Commentary” and so it’s obviously an opinion piece. And it’s an opinion piece about a subject that is very interesting. What are the boundaries of speech and privacy on the internet? This is a very interesting topic worth discussing.

    As for the content of the commentary. Although I’m a big believer in the freedom of speech, and I am also generally an advocate for online privacy. My instinct was to agree with Mr. Cohn that outing someone’s private identity without their consent feels wrong.

    But Violentacrez/Brutsch is less of a classic internet “troll” and more of a “media personality”. He has intentionally created and cultivated a brand on the internet. The fact that he’s chosen a pseudonym to do most of his public “work” does not change the fact that he has developed and cultivated this brand and media profile.

    I have to agree with Roy and Brinstar on this one. It seems to me that what Adrian Chen and Gawker did was “reporting” not “doxing”. They did a deep investigative report on an internet “personality” who had reached a level of fame/infamy.

    At first I was a little concerned about the report including details about Violentacrez/Brutsch’s wife and child. But in reading the report, it appears as if his family was aware and involved in his online “brand”. They’re involvement is a meaningful part of the “story” about this guy.

    Thanks to the GeekWire team for hosting the Commentary and helping move this conversation along.

    • Zachary Cohn

      How do you define “media personality” if he only ever posted to Reddit? His trolling did not extend to other websites or mediums, and he wasn’t making a career out of it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=562790974 Brad Hefta-Gaub

        Did you even read the Gawker article? I’m not saying there’s any redeeming value in the content that Brutsch was promoting/curating/editing. But he was clearly working to build his own “personal brand”. His wife and son use a derivative “brand” in their own online personas.

        The point of the Gawker article is that Reddit is becoming a “media source” it hosted a Presidential town hall. And Brutsch was clearly influential on the site. This guy was connected on Reddit, he was part of the inner circle of “mods”. I think it’s reasonable to say you’re a media personality when you edit/write/manage a web presence that get’s millions of page views a month.

  • http://twitter.com/toddhooper Todd Hooper

    In other news, online anonymity is a myth. I guess nobody told Reddit?

    • Dave

      Yes! Exactly this.

  • JackD

    is is absolutely not doxing. It is simply revealing who someone is that was acting anonymously. Whether it’s deserved or not, it’s happened countless times in journalistic settings… just off the top of my head, WSJ outing John Mackey behind anonymous posts, Joe Klein as author of Primary Colors, Mark Salter as author of O, and an endless list of less famous revelations large and small. For you to just get into such a fit about this instance is at best naive.

  • K3

    For the record, the user in question (and his wife) made regular public appearances using their online identities and real names together in conjunction with their shock-jock Reddit activities. Adrian Chen didn’t stalk them to find out their real life identities. This is more like publishing Howard Stern’s real name than outting a whistleblower.

    GeekWire, it would be great to read some well-researched reporting on this complex and emotionally charged issue. This reads like a HuffPo axe grind, though – not enough background, no analysis of opposing viewpoints and completely too breathless to serve as a journalistic account. I’m disappointed.

  • Kerry

    Adrian Chen’s article was a carefully empathetic profile of a man who spent huge energy promoting sexual exploitation of underaged girls, and who also furthered many hate groups which may or may not have been “trolling”.

    Who is more evil – the writer who tried to find the humanity in such ugliness, or the man who goes on reflexive attack on his local tech blogs, breathlessly defending this behavior by calling everyone who opposes it “evil”?

    All I know is that as a female engineer I’m staying the hell away from Startup Weekend.

    • Zachary Cohn

      My point was that the behavior was unacceptable, and something should have been done about it. I just think that this was the wrong approach.

      This issue is an example of when it’s easy to jump to a solution – but where to draw the line becomes a very delicate situation. We can pretty much all agree that Violentacrez’s behavior is bad and should be prevented. But if DOX’ing him is acceptable, how far does this extend? Where is the line? Does it extend to political speech?

      Perhaps I could have written my original article better. My point was not defending Violentacrez (as evidenced in the “Because Adrian, here’s the thing./ I agree with you.” line). My point was to create a discussion about whether it’s ever okay to DOX someone, or if a different course of action would have been more appropriate: if illegal, go to the police. If not, encourage Reddit to change their rules to make this behavior unacceptable.

      Either one of those could have set a precedent and had a larger impact than just publishing the name and location of a user.

  • Giantsfan

    I agree with everything you said. People either don’t get or don’t care about the implications of what Chen or Gawker did.

  • Mike_Acker

    it is the proper role of the free press to expose corruption
    still,the press is not a court. but this just means “whistle blowers” : check your facts; take care.

  • Jon

    Unsubscribe.

  • snowyegret

    I don’t believe there’s a fundamental right to anonymity online, except for a few specific cases, such as whistleblowers or people who are living under a repressive regime who will be punished for expressing themselves. Neither of these scenarios applies to violentacrez. He was posting pictures of underaged girls without their consent and spewing racist and sexist hate. He certainly has a right to express himself, but I see no ethical or political obligation to guarantee him anonymity.

  • Scott

    Although it’s not explicitly a rebuttal to this post, the best refutation of Zachary’s general argument I have seen so far is this post from Forbes:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/10/17/reddit-and-violentacrez-yes-pj-orourke-did-have-it-right/

    “The Internet” (at least, whatever chunk of it Zachary presumes to represent) often takes on a libertarian bent when it comes to the more appealing and titillating sorts of freedoms, but shies from assuming the responsibilities (including enduring the consequences) of exercising those freedoms. It’s a particularly juvenile perspective on rights and responsibilities, which I guess isn’t surprising considering the subject matter (creepshotting) that originally gave rise to this whole debate.

    • Zachary Cohn

      Remember though, my real argument was that the two most effective solutions were: Pressure the reddit admins to change the rules and ban this sort of behavior, or go to the cops.

      • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

        You really don’t get it it. Sad. Go read the Forbes post again.

        To counter your direct point, the reddit admins have said many times they’re not changing the rules, and Violentacrez posts apparently do not break any laws, so going to the cops would be useless. Therefore your supposed “real argument,” which I would bet pretty much nobody could figure out from your post, is provably false — neither of those suggestions are effective solutions.

        Do you even realize that you’re saying the completely nasty (though legal) thing of exploiting people should be defended and the exploiter should be shielded, while the arguably not very nice (and also legal thing) of revealing the exploiter should be attacked? I recommend you set yourself a calendar reminder for a few years in the future, then come back here and see if you’ve learned anything in the intervening years.

  • The Internet

    I did not write this.

    I am disappointed that Zachary Cohn put my name on this screed. And I’m disappointed in GeekWire for publishing it without any context or an opposing viewpoint.

    Just to be clear, I completely support free speech. That includes the right of trolls like Michael Brutsch to post his bigoted, racist, misogynistic crap and the right of Adrian Chen to post publicly available information about Brutsch.

    And I support the right of Zachary Cohn to be naive, ignorant and misinformed. Just don’t put my name on it.

  • http://twitter.com/Vroo Vroo (Bruce Leban)

    I find the hypocrisy of Reddit ironic. Reddit is now censoring references to Gawker (briefly site-wide, now more limited). In the words of Reddit CEO Yishan Wang “We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it.” FAIL.

  • d

    Define, “Morally”.

    Are we talking Sharia standards of moral Law? Christian…? WHo exactly has set these morals you are supposedly DOXing to expose someone in an attempt to draw attenion to what they are doing so as to stop them from doing.. cause.. those who live in glass houses… Oops, I mean. online… ahem.

    The reality is, you don’t even have to do anything morally “wrong” to have people inappropriately STALK and HARASS you online when you cross paths with people who are mentally ill hiding behind a computer. This I know from experience, after simply refusing to meet with some psycho woman who was demading to meet me for lunch, in person, after meeting me in a chat room.

    She literally spent a few years trying to FORCE me to meet her face 2 face. No. She involved others in harassing me on chat boards and got a few other housewives to bully me based on her lies the more I refused to join their social circle of red hat club old biddies with nothing better to do with their time but to arrange real life meet ups.

  • SandyRavage

    “But here’s the thing. You are not a judge, and you are not a jury.”

    Says the guy who presumes to tell people what they have a right to do and not to do.