Ever since the advent of digital networks, we have had the option to go by internet handles instead of our real names. Unless memory fails me, this was pretty much the default for most of the networks and bulletin boards that I joined in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. It was only with the rise of Facebook and Google+ that I started seeing real names become increasingly normalized (though I don’t have hard data on this, please feel free to correct me).
The problem with pseudonymity, of course, is that it frees you up to do things that you might never do under your own name. Good things, like writing openly against the mullahs while living in Iran. Bad things, like posting hateful screeds. Horrible things, like sending death threats. Despicable things, like trying to mess with someone’s head while their pet is dying.
The process of stripping away someone’s anonymity or pseudonymity (and releasing other sensitive personal information) is known as doxing, and the term is quite often a morally loaded one, like “murder,” with immorality built-in to the concept. Homicide may be justifiable under limited circumstances, but murder is never justifiable, by definition. With doxing, though, we don’t have a separate morally neutral term to use, and so there is a struggle between those who want to load their moral approbation into the term and those (like myself) who would rather keep the term morally neutral and perform the moral calculus on a case-by-case basis.
Unfortunately, this almost puts me into the same camp as someone whom I’d rather not name, one who recently wrote up a blog post celebrating doxing whenever it is done against those whom she labels as “trolls” or “harassers” without providing specific examples to substantiate the accusation. While she is correct to note the prevalence of “black and white thinking that goes along with any discussion of doxing,” her preferred solution is far worse, and it is essentially this: Doxing is justified whenever it is done against out-group members in support of feminism.
This approach will not do, of course. If you happen to know that someone lives in a nation like Iran or Saudi Arabia, and you have some idea of what will happen to them if they are outed as nonbelievers, then you have to factor that into your moral evaluation. It is not enough to notice that they sent you something unpleasant, you have to consider the foreseeable consequences of your own actions as well, and these may well be quite dire.
A far better approach, in my view, is to analogize doxing to homicide rather than murder. Both can be taken as morally neutral terms, yet we generally expect people to produce a fairly strong justification before we are willing to prepend “justifiable” before the action in question. Since the author of the pro-doxing piece didn’t provide any convincing examples of what looks like truly “justifiable doxing,” I’m going to create a few hypothetical cases for your consideration:
- Ticking bomb scenario – A deranged pro-lifer posts photos of a bomb he has set outside an abortion clinic, using his pseudonymous account. You know who he really is and you have a good sense of which clinic he is attempting to attack.
- The unwelcome guest – A woman uses multiple identities to conceal the fact that she is a con artist, pretending to have cancer and taking advantage of the sympathies of those whom she meets. You come to realize that her online persona is a cover which prevents her marks from looking up her criminal record.
- The man with a monster – A man claims to harbor a monster inside of his mind, one that would molest children and do violence to others if given free reign. He also claims to have lost control on occasion. He makes these claims from behind the safety of a pseudonym, while in real life he volunteers for Camp Quest. You are in a position to inform camp staff, who routinely perform background checks, but only on real world names.
- The gratuitous doxer – An intersectional feminist doxes anyone she can find who supports GamerGate by linking their Twitter accounts to their real world identities, in the name of promoting social justice. She does this from behind the safety of a pseudonym, but you have discovered her true identity.
- The sockpuppeteer – A poster on the ISF has one account in their real name, and another account using a pseudonym, in violation of the terms of service. You are aware of both accounts.
To be clear, these are intended as hypotheticals only. None of them are 100% true, some of them are completely made up. In each of these cases, I would feel morally obligated to share someone else’s personal information with the public or the relevant authorities (or both) because doing so would probably avert more harm than it would cause, in my best estimation.