The recent release of nude photos of Hollywood stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lea Michele and Ariana Grande unleashed a torrent of condemnation so virulent one would think the hackers had released compromising photos of the Virgin Mary. The photos, originally leaked on sites like 4chan’s /b/ and on the “Fappening” subreddit (a name whose etymology the author will not divulge here), purport to show many, many of Hollywood’s A, B and C-listers, not to mention other notables such as soccer goalie Hope Solo and model Kate Upton, in compromising positions.
As a result, many outraged fans of the women in question, including many in the press, began sounding a drumbeat calling for more respect for the privacy of these women, for the prosecution and public shaming of the hacker responsible, and now, for sites such as Reddit to police themselves more effectively or be branded with the scarlet letter of social irresponsibility.
Reddit has, reluctantly, complied by banning the Fappening subreddit, due to the fact that many of the photos are either copyrightable by the actresses involved or potentially of underage subjects and trying to remove only some of them was effectively impossible due to the tendency of “Fappening” members to repost images that were taken down. And whatever one thinks of the merits of the copyright claims, it’s fairly inarguable that preventing the dissemination of child porn is a noble goal.
However, before these legal intricacies forced Reddit’s hand, they struck a note of sharp moral clarity:
While current US law does not prohibit linking to stolen materials, we deplore the theft of these images and we do not condone their widespread distribution.
Nevertheless, reddit’s platform is structurally based on the ability for people to distribute, promote, and highlight textual materials as well as links to images and other media. We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize. […]
We uphold the ideal of free speech on reddit as much as possible not because we are legally bound to, but because we believe that you – the user – has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is your responsibility to do so. When you know something is right, you should choose to do it. But as much as possible, we will not force you to do it. […]
Virtuous behavior is only virtuous if it is not arrived at by compulsion.
As you may imagine, this response left Reddit’s critics only unsatisfied, but morally scandalized. Typical of the increasingly hysterical line of argument being offered in response to this was the essay “Reddit Is a Failed State” at The Verge, which responded this way:
Imagine you live in a nice little community. You have barbecues with the folks next door and discuss your mutual interests. You feel safe walking the streets at night. You trust the local police, who are selected from your neighbors. Everything is going well. Then, one day, someone breaks into your house and steals private photos from your safe. They’re naked photos you took with your partner in a safe environment. The burglar crosses the tracks into the bad part of town and sells your photos to the highest bidder. There, a gang of men wearing masks print your photos out and post them all over town. You find out the identity of one of the men peddling your stolen photos, and tell your neighbors about him as a warning. He walks free, but because you unmasked him, you are sent to jail. The government does nothing to protect you, because the men sharing your photos are simply exercising their right to “free speech.” When your neighbors appeal to the government to get you out of jail, making light of this injustice, they’re rounded up in black vans and disappeared, with no explanation, never to be seen again. […]
In other words, Reddit feels really bad that your stolen nude photos are being shared all over its website, but won’t do anything about it unless you’re privileged enough to understand the copyright system or able to afford a lawyer who does. And unlike (many) governments, Reddit has profit motives — it makes money when people share nude photos because men are pervs and there’s a huge audience out there for naked women, perhaps especially for naked women who haven’t given us consent to share their bodies. […]
According to a report from Recode, Reddit’s free speech zone, where men run wild over women’s privacy and dignity, may be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million.
Now, as recent events have proven, waving the “privilege” flag with respect to Reddit’s copyright policy was and is about as disingenuously outraged as you can get in this case. None of the women so exposed could be called underprivileged with a straight face. In fact, it’s probable that the images being removed had a lot to do with the women involved being able to hire A-list legal counsel, though Reddit’s previous battles with child pornographers probably played a role as well. However, it’s worth noting that these elements are incidental to the much more compelling defense of free speech that Reddit put forward, and that whatever the intricacies of copyright law, that defense remains just as strong, given that these women are public figures. This wasn’t revenge porn; it was more akin to shots obtained by the paparazzi, such as the infamous photos of a nude Jackie Onassis that appeared in a legendary 1975 issue of Hustler.
Secondly, with respect to the essay’s “nice community” analogy, one point should be noted in the interests of accuracy — namely, that Reddit itself rarely if ever acts monolithically to “disappear” (i.e. ban) users. Subreddits do ban users, but entirely at the discretion of those subreddits’ moderators, the “virtual warlords” condemned in another section of the essay.
It is true that the “Fappening” subreddit employed some rather less-than-consistent standards in banning users — specifically, users who exposed any personal information about the hacker responsible for leaking the photos, which would seem to violate their generally cavalier attitude toward privacy. Nevertheless, the analogy breaks down at the point where the people being stolen from almost certainly were not members of the same community where the thief resided. In other words, one doubts very much that Jennifer Lawrence, if she created an account on “The Fappening” while it still existed, and protested the posting of her photos, would be banned, especially if her identity could be verified. So if anything, this is like having your photos stolen by a member of the anarchist commune down the street, where the laws you rely on conspicuously don’t apply.
However, setting aside that inaccurate part of the analogy, let me be the first to say that if Reddit’s defense of “The Fappening” as an outlet for free speech in one of its most contentious forms (i.e. the exposure of public figures in a compromising manner) made it a “failed state,” then I shudder to think what “success” would look like.
Let me speak first to the liberals reading this piece and ask them to imagine that the article’s analogy instead concerned a CEO who had had correspondence with his board of directors indicating he was keeping workers’ wages artificially low. Would you want this information suppressed by the government? Or what if the analogy instead said this:
Imagine you’re a candidate for President. Then, one day, someone videotapes your remarks at a closed door fundraiser. They include a passage indicating that you look down on 47 percent of Americans. The burglar sells the footage to Mother Jones. The government does nothing to protect you, because the publications sharing this footage are simply exercising their right to “free speech.”
And conservatives, imagine someone had broken into the safe of Tom Steyer or George Soros and uncovered evidence of their interaction with communist governments, or donations to openly communist causes. Would you want that information suppressed? Or hell, imagine this:
You’re a staffer on a major political campaign. Then, one day, someone who you’d previously thought was a friend and colleague admits to you that they plan to vote twice and secretly records you advising them on how to do it. This person then shares the footage everywhere. The government does nothing to protect you, because the person sharing this footage are simply exercising their right to “free speech.”
The point is simple: While Americans possess a constitutional right to privacy (something else that has arguably had to be defended via the theft of property), that right applies only against the government, not against one’s fellow citizens. Granted, citizens also possess the right not to have their property stolen, which is why the “thieves” in many of these hypothetical situations could certainly have faced legal sanction, depending on what they stole. But when something stolen is valuable not intrinsically, but because it is information of some kind, there is no right not to have that information spread by the “thief,” whether you’re Mitt Romney, the Texas director of Organizing for America, or Jennifer Lawrence.
If you believe that all of these people should have the right to suppress information, however private, at will, then you have room for a principled disagreement with Reddit’s approach to free speech, and should probably celebrate the removal of “The Fappening” from the internet. But one suspects that for most of those who are still bitter that Reddit will not back down from its free speech policy even after the nude photos leak, this is simply a case of raging against the twilight of their particular idols. There is no distinction possible between the nude photos of actresses, a private corporate balance sheet maintained by a CEO, or private correspondence by political donors. If one favors the potential exposure of one, one favors the potential exposure of them all. It would be a strange world indeed in which Hollywood starlets, who suffer the attentions of paparazzi on a regular basis, can demand censorship in the name of privacy, but where the leaking of classified information about business, or government, or politics was treated as the courageous airing of dirty laundry.
And so, let us mourn “The Fappening,” not because it was decent or even legal, but because the leers of anonymous trolls at the contents of Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud is the price we pay as a society for the clarifying truths of whistleblowers and hacktivists everywhere. Reddit recognized this before it was forced to censor users in order to protect its very existence. However, if its detractors would rather see it become a police state more generally in the aftermath of this event, they had better develop more compelling moral arguments than the fig leaf of hurt feelings.
The banner of free speech may be flying at half mast at Reddit, but we should be profoundly grateful that the internet’s gleefully sordid underbelly of trolls, hacktivists and griefers will always find ways to give proof on their sites that freedom’s flag is still there.
Mytheos Holt is a Young Voices Advocate and researcher living in Washington, DC.