[Updated: It appears that I misread David’s post – and the responses of some of his commenters. My bad. Huge apologies to all involved, especially David.]
I’m just going to fess up right now – here, at the beginning of this post – that of everyone here at the League, I am by far the least Internet and computer savvy. It’s really not even close.
I have never once written a line of code. I can’t trace my on-line lineage back to some late 1990s/early 2000s bulletin-board community. When we have editorial email threads about potential new site features, the question I am most likely to ask to any suggestion that references anything on the Internet is, “What?” I still have to either google just about every damn acronym people use in the comment section. Hell, two years ago I didn’t know what a blog was. I say all of this up front to officially get it out of the way, so that everyone so can just label me an old man that just doesn’t “get” their new hip technology culture before we even begin. So if you’re prone to do that, go ahead and get it out now. I’ll wait….. Got it off your chest? Good. Then I’ll proceed with the question I find that I most want to ask the good citizens of the Internet:
What the f**k is wrong with you people?
Thanks to two posts by David, it has come to my attention that a volunteer subeditor for Reddit has been “outed” by Adrian Chen over at Gawker, and as a consequence has lost his job with his real life (and non-Reddit) employer. Michael Brutsch, who goes by the online handle Violentacrez, was fired this week from his job at a Texas financial services company. Called a troll by Chen (and many others), Brutsch has been a Reddit community leader as well as moderator of many of the site’s subreddits. Using a variety of sockpuppet aliases (such as Chokeabitch, Niggerjailbait, Rapebait and Jewmerica) Brutsch apparently considered himself something of a cross between a free speech Gadfly and an outraging and offensive performance artiste. His chief subreddit (and the second most popular on Reddit) was Jailbait, the provocatively named site that featured exactly what you might expect.
The screams from many Reddit users and moderators over Brutsch’s outing were both swift and loud. That outcry is echoed elsewhere, including here at the League – both by David and (at least at the time I am writing this paragraph) all of his commenters. If we allow this kind of censorship, I am asked, where do we draw the line?
Defending Brutsch, David brings up an example of a real-life married couple that made a sex tape which led to the husband’s dismissal from the police department for which he worked. He also points to his own difficulties with Internet gatekeepers under his filmmaking nom de plume, Tony Comstock. Commenter James B. Franks sets his sights on Gawker’s Chen, saying “I fall firmly into the, ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’ camp. This sort of thing needs to get stomped on fast.” On Reddit, of course, the comments against Chen are far darker, spicier and written with far more vitriol. (Many of the subreddits responded initially by banning all links to Gawker.)
The entire Violenceacrez issue has been framed (initially by Brutsch and the Reddit community, and later by David and his commenters) as one of free speech. Being a blogger, I am a pretty big advocate of this particular freedom and I stand pretty firm on the rights of people to give voice to unpopular ideas, even ones that offend. However, in this case I think it’s worth taking a look at exactly what kind of “free speech” everyone is worried about being trampled:
[W]ith Jailbait, Violentacrez decided to create a safe space for people sexually attracted to underage girls to share their photo stashes… Jailbait was the online equivalent of systematized street harassment. Users posted snapshots of tween and teenage girls, often in bikinis and skirts. Many of these were lifted from their Facebook accounts and thrown in front of Jailbait’s 20,000 horny subscribers.
Got that? The freedom of speech being defended by Brutsch, Reddit, David and others is the ability of Brutsch and others to take pictures of other people – underage people, without their knowledge or permission – and share them with tens (hundreds?) of thousands of others as masturbation fodder.
If you’re wondering where I draw the line in the free speech debate, this is pretty much it. You want to post an essay or a short fiction about bedding an 11 year-old girl, hey, knock yourself out. Be my guest! I think it’s a little weird, but it takes all kinds, right? But sneaking a quick picture up the skirt of an 11 year-old girl who’s just out at Baskin Robbins with her parents, and then posting it on the Internet on a free-pornography subreddit? That crosses so many lines of public decency, morality, courtesy and legal liability that I find myself slack jawed so many people here and on Reddit view someone objecting to doing so as a “chilling” hampering of their First Amendment rights.
This is not a question of free speech. It is a case of the abuse of power and privilege, albeit a very nerdy one.
David uses the aforementioned case of the Alabama police officer that made a tape of himself having sex as the natural corollary to the Brutsch situation. But I would argue that since that police officer and his wife were willing participants – both in the video’s creation and its distribution – it’s a a poor choice. To my mind, the police officer that’s currently under investigation from East Sussex is the real corollary to Brutsch:
This year Nicola Brookes, a 45 year-old woman from Brighton, posted a line of support for a contestant on television’s Fear Factor on her Face Book page. A police officer who came across that post (and, it would seem, really did not like the contestant) began an intense, months long harassment of Brookes. This harassment included posting sexually explicit threats from an anonymous source to both Brookes and her daughter, as well as hacking into her email account and sending out notices to friends and employers, in Brookes’s name, that she was a prostitute, a child pornographer, and a drug abuser.
The reason that the officer in question was so willing to commit these offenses against a 45 year-old woman are the same reasons that Brutsch – and others on Reddit – have been so willing to do similar to underage girls: Their vastly superior knowledge of computers, code, and hacking allowed them to completely dominate another human being with little fear or reprisal. In the virtual world of the Internet, this is what abuse of power and privilege looks like.
Internet defenders of Brutsch bemoan Chen’s not respecting Violentacerz’s desire to keep personal-life details private – and his employer’s right to not be associated with such actions when made public – while simultaneously defending Brutsch’s right to invade others’ privacy as “free speech.” This is of course ironic, but it is not surprising. Most of those demanding a system of rules where the computer savvy are allowed to victimize the unlearned – while being fully protected by that same system for doing so – are the very people that already sit atop that food chain. In the fleshbot world, those in power like to set things up so that if you are a cashier who steals $2,000 from your customer you go to jail, but if you are an executive that steals $20 million from your clients you pay fines and make deals with the district attorney. In the digital world, those in power are no different.
As to the financial services company that fired Brutsch, I will say only this: If he were my employee, I would have fired him immediately. If I found out that his supervisor knew of his online goings on and decided not to say anything about it, I would fire him or her as well.
People should not confuse “freedom of speech” with “freedom from consequences.”
 (Or just make up my own definition. For example, I long ago decided when someone types ROLF they’re saying “I just threw up,” because phonetically ROLF! is the sound people make when they vomit. I’ve never bothered to look up the real definition, because I know I’ll just be disappointed.)