To My Readers: An Opportunity to Escape My Terrible Influence
On March 19, 2015, I wrote a post about doxxing.
On March 22, 2015, I wrote a sequel.
The very short definition of doxxing is the publicizing of personally identifiable information on another. Doxxing has its history in the malicious release of private personal information to the public.
What prompted me to write about this issue is that a fellow blogger was accused on Twitter of endangering an individual for his linking to a publicly available property tax document that included a home address.
My position on the issue is that as a researcher, I have no problem linking to public documents, such as nonprofit tax forms and individual resumes. I will not alter the documents by removing personal information. And I have no problem with someone linking to public documents one me if that person is investigating me, especially given that I am in the public eye.
That is where I stand on the issue, in good conscience.
There are those who strongly disagree with me. They insist that I should purge any personally identifiable information (home addresses, phone numbers) even if the document is readily available to the public through expected, legitimate means.
They are concerned that I am leading my readers astray with my position on my own “doxxing.”
In this post, I offer my readers the opportunity to see the light that I apparently refuse to see. As such, I will present some of the commentary from my second post, Doxxing: The Sequel. (Feel free to read the comments section in its entirety.)
Let me begin with my first exchange with a man named Michael Feldstein. (I will not link to his site, but he can be found easily enough via Google should one be so inclined.)
What is the journalistic value of publishing somebody’s home address or phone number, even in this context? How does that advance the cause? Yes, it is “public” in the sense that it is published somewhere, but what is your reason for publicizing it in this context? The most likely outcome is that people will use the information to harass the public official at home. Is that your intention? If not, then what is?
The info is part of a greater document that is referenced. I will not spend time editing out info from public docs.
My second exchange with Feldstein. He had a lot to write:
If I understand correctly, this argument was set off because somebody linked to the publicly available information about somebody else’s house, in order to show that the person in question is financially well off. If that understanding is correct, I don’t really see how revealing the person’s home address advances the story. MongoDB is a large, well-financed company. It stands to reason that a Vice President at that company makes a lot of money. Further, there are lots of ways that one could make that point without revealing the person’s home address. For example, one could quote the amount of investment dollars that the company has taken, which would make the point without advertising a person’s home address in the context of arguing that the person in question is doing harm to children.
The argument that you make here is frankly not different from the argument made by anti-abortion activists who advertised Dr. George Tiller’s (also publicly available) home address and personal information before he was murdered by other anti-abortion activists. They claim that they are in no way responsible for what happened to him. I am not arguing moral equivalence of the underlying situations, but the ethical question is the same for reporters and activists alike, regardless of what the person in question is accused of doing or what you think the likelihood of harassment (or much worse) is. When is it OK to advertise somebody’s personal information in the context of a negative story about that person when you know that there are crazy people in the world who may do something with that information? Yes, it is true that they can get that information without your help, but what is *your responsibility*? When is it OK to report that information? I would argue that not wanting to spend time redacting information out of public documents is an insufficient reason for knowingly increasing the likelihood that the person in question will be exposed to personal harm. Given recent strong and widespread evidence that women are particularly likely to be targeted for personal, vitriolic, and potentially even life-threatening attacks, the reporter of the information has a particularly strong obligation not to contribute to potential harm, whatever the intention. If the point being made can be conveyed without creating an invitation for extreme or unstable people to violate the privacy and safety of the person in question, then there is a strong burden of proof on the reporter to show that there is a strong compelling reason to do so. I haven’t heard such an argument from you. Rather, you seem to be denying that you have any ethical responsibility.
But we are always responsible for what we say and write. The fact that information is available elsewhere doesn’t relieve you of any moral consequence for advertising it in a particular context to a particular audience. Particularly when the kinds of emotional and physical harm that can result from such actions are both well known and horrifyingly widespread.
Michael, let’s shut the whole internet down.
To offer some context to my comment: I do not have any “moral” misgivings about linking to a public document without scrubbing it of home addresses. I have no problem if someone links to a public document with my personally identifiable information in it in the course of a research investigation of me. Here is the “morality” in it for me: I am not counting myself as above any practice I am applying to another. So to engage in any lengthy exchange in the comments section of my blog I consider a real time-suck, especially given that I was in the middle of my school day.
Feldstein was insistent.
The comment below I deleted, but I will post it here so that readers can have the full exchange. I deleted the comment because I considered it badgering and its tone belittling:
The fact that your only reply is a one-sentence absurd leap suggests that you do not have an answer regarding your own moral responsibility. Forget about the internet. In the real, analog world, bad things happen. Bad people do bad things. I can’t prevent bad people from doing bad things. All I can do is do my own part. Sometimes that means taking action to try to prevent bad things from happening. Other times it means refraining from taking action that might increase the likelihood that bad things will happen. Still other times, those last two possibilities are in tension with each other. Neither the fact that I have no clear-cut, black-and-white answers about what I should do nor the fact that I cannot single-handedly prevent bad things from happening in the world relieves me of my moral obligation to try to do good and refrain from doing harm at all times. The internet changes exactly nothing in that regard.
Never mind the internet. What is *your* moral responsibility, personally, for the actions that *you* take? Honestly, this is a conversation that we have with little kids when they get into fights with their siblings and classmates. It doesn’t matter what others are doing. What are *you* doing, and what is your moral responsibility? What. Is. *Your.* Moral. Responsibility?
I deleted the comment, and I let Feldstein know why:
And yes, I deleted your last comment. You do not get to badger me on my blog.
Here is how Mr. Morality responded:
Perhaps I should publish your home address so that people can badger you at home. I would never do that, of course, because I do take moral responsibility for my actions. But it’s an interesting moral thought experiment for you to ponder.
I know you are going to delete this, so I’ll just write it for you. Your level of hypocrisy is stunning. You take no responsibility for effectively targeting people you don’t agree with in their own homes, but you do not even allow civil public debate on your own public blog if the commenters persist in asking uncomfortable questions.
It’s impossible to take you seriously as an advocate for children. The first lesson one teaches any child is to take moral responsibility for her own actions. If you don’t believe in that, if you can’t teach by example, then you have no business being anywhere near children.
If only I had learned my lesson.
No, I will let this comment ride so that readers might use it to weigh the rest of your words.
But you are done on my blog.
Your commenting days here are over.
My colleague, Lee Barrios, later had a Twitter exchange with Feldstein and others who are concerned that I will lead my readers astray about doxxing, either through my ignorance or determined poor example.
Here is your opportunity to learn from them and decide if you would like to join them (click on images to enlarge):
There you have it, my readers: All of the information I have for you to utilize in making your decision to not be led amiss by my “doxxing” foolishness.
Truly, the decision is yours.
And know this:
If you decide that your opinion on doxxing strongly differs from mine, I will send you no corrective commentary threatening to publish your home address “so that people can badger you at home” (and then immediately revoking such in the name of my own morality.)
I also promise to bake no cookies and “deliver to doorstep as a persuasion tactic.”
Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.