Welcome to Our New World Order
The kerfuffle over explicit personal images of nearly one hundred celebrities continues to make the news and is choking social media with cries of indignation, pleas for support, tasteless jokes and voyeurs salivating over the whole thing. Given the scale of the leaks and the notoriety of the victims none of this is surprising, but the media coverage of it is sensationalist and lacks perspective (I guess that isn’t really surprising either). Some articles are better than others but most condemn a handful of sites as if they were welcoming denizens of evil and ignore the fact this type of privacy violation has become commonplace. All of this mis-focused attention is just feeding the cycle of interest.
There are three lessons to learn from all of this.
Things spread fast on the internet and it cannot be controlled
When news broke of the leaked photos, the internet moved fast. The website 4chan, where the leaks first appeared, was so overwhelmed by traffic that it became unavailable for a time. On the same day a Reddit group was created and overnight exploded to over 100,000 followers. We are a celebrity obsessed culture and the internet connects us in ways were news spreads at the speed of light. When the lawsuits, public condemnation of the incident and alike started to appear it only fueled the fire. The days of being able to suppress information, even when it is illegal or immoral, is clearly over.
This is not new
People have been hacking and peddling personal photo sharing accounts for years. You can go on any number of sites and find people who offer to gain access to your significant others accounts or are sharing photos already stolen. On occasion it is celebrities such as the incidents involving, Rob Lowe, Paris Hilton and Scarlett Johansson, but generally the exposed is someone’s ex-girlfriend, or other average joe. The scale of this latest leak is unique but portrayals that is some new type of activity is just plain wrong.
Note: I intentionally provided no link in the above paragraph to any news on Paris Hilton. I could not find a reputable link to a news story related to Paris Hilton’s leaked video. Apparently the internet is over-flowing with copies of that video and I could not find anything that was not offensive! Do not search “Paris Hilton leak” if you are easily offended.
Websites are not the perpetrator
Most inaccurate are the reports that Reddit, Imgur and 4chan are responsible for the leaks, as if they were an individual or a hacking collective. They are not, they are open platforms for sharing, and websites that cater to social sharing in an anonymized environment are simply natural homes for this type of activity.
These websites are really no more responsible for the actions of their users than the executives from Google that were convicted by an Italian court for offensive materially uploaded the YouTube. Nor can Apple can’t be held responsible for their users having weak passwords. The hackers responsible for the leaks are not the websites, the hackers only leverage these platforms.
So what can we do? I think anything we can do will have little effect. Do we regulate away the anonymity of these services? I think that is detrimental to free speech. Do we teach our children of the risks of sharing explicit photos? That is a good idea, but if this generation is expressing themselves in this manner, that advice will be followed by some but probably not most.
I have no answers to any of these issues. I believe the subjects of these leaked photos are victims, but in reality they are few among many who suffered similar indignities. There are certainly perpetrators and they are likely to be caught, but with our new-found ability to interconnect and strong cultural support for free speech this type of incident will only become more commonplace. This feels to me like a new world order, something we just have to accept.
If you disagree with me and think there are solutions I’d love to hear from you.