Cyber-bullying, harassment, Quinn, Harper and Owens — a SocialAutopsy

Update 2 (April 26): The Ralph Retort yesterday published a second interview with Candace Owens. Having listened to two such interviews, I would say that Owens is a good person promoting a terrible idea without realising the harm it could do, even though that harm has been repeatedly pointed out to her.

In that interview, Owens said “I’m not naïve anymore”. Though the scales may have fallen from her eyes in respect of the general state of decrepitude of the journalistic profession, I have to say that it is naïve to believe that there would be no harassment absent anonymity — especially in light of what Harper, Quinn, Singal, Dewey and Futrelle have done openly in their (presumably) legal names. I don’t think she appreciates that without anonymity, the welfare and livelihoods of some would be under grave threat.

I also think that the fact that nobody she spoke to had heard the word ‘dox’ before she went public indicates that those organisations don’t have sufficiently broad expertise in the matter of Internet harassment, not that it’s not a problem.

Update (April 22): Candace Owens “is removing comments critical of her.” and for not doing basic research. What a surprise. I guess that we won’t be hearing from Ms Owens any time soon. —DK

Note to Ms Owens: The first half of this article is background for the benefit of others. The part directly addressed to you appears in the second half of this article.

Over the past week, a brouhaha has been rapidly escalating over a new counter-cyberbullying and counter-harassment initiative by Degree 180 foundress Candace Owens. By now, this is not precisely news and has been reported on elsewhere in a variety of venues — and though it isn’t precisely a men’s issues-related topic, I think it’s something of which MHRAs (indeed, all Internet users who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, require some degree of anonymity) should be aware if they are not already.

The TL;DR-

Owens was, as a high-school pupil, viciously bullied (including by the son of the then-mayor of Stamford, CT) gaining some media attention at the time. By all accounts, Owens went on to develop a successful career in business and finance (mentioned in her interview with The Ralf Retort), but the scars of her youth still burned (unsurprisingly, because I know first-hand how bullying can have profound, long-term effects).

Owens went on to found web publication Degree180.com in June, 2015, and then, Wednesday week ago, launched a (now defunct) Kickstarter for SocialAutopsy.com (which is frequently down given recent attention) which proposes to be a radical new tool to “wave goodbye to cyberbullies and trolls” and promises to “break the Internet. Literally.”

Essentially, this is to be a registry of bullies and trolls (though by whose definition or by what criteria are unstated) built by anonymous submissions that would link instances of harassment and bullying with their alleged perpetrators’ social media profiles and other information up to and including their legal names, their workplace and possibly even their home address (if already a matter of public record) etc, ostensibly as a background check service for friends, family, and prospective dates and employers. Despite Owens’ prevarications to the contrary, it smells very much more like a doxing service (or something like it) to me and many others besides. Owens has made it clear that she thinks that minors should be eligible for listings but that some of her partners strongly disagree. For now, she says, there are no minors and no intentions to list minors, but that may change.

What could possibly go wrong? After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide, amirite?

Then the Internet exploded and, by Friday, her kickstarter was suspended. The storm started on Twitter hashtag #SocialAutopsy and was soon picked up first by Cathy Young (see also her update), Chris Steaton of Mimesis Law and Tracy Clark-Flory and Jacob Steinblatt of Vocativ. Over the weekend, The Ralph Retort managed to score an interview with Owens, and there has been additional coverage by William Hicks of HeatStreet and also a rather profoundly biased but fairly complete piece by Jesse Singal of New York Magazine. Not, I think, quite what Owens had in mind when she wrote “we’re about to break the Internet”.

Owens, in response, posted her account of the whole saga on Sunday in which she admitted her lack of preparation and knowledge of some fairly important concepts, events and personalities in the field of internet harassment.

Enter GamerGate…

…or rather, their chief antagonists.

You knew this was coming, didn’t you but, unless you already know the story, the twist will surprise you. Chief anti-harassment campaigners and GamerGate antagonists Zoë Quinn and Randi Lee Harper soon joined the fray — indeed, added much fuel to the fire — only to oppose and denounce SocialAutopsy.com.

According to Owens in her interview with The Ralf Retort and also her response article, Quinn contacted Owens requesting a phone call with a stated view to persuade Owens to abandon the project. In prospect, this did not go down well with Owens but she agreed to speak with Quinn anyway. In Owens’ account, Quinn tried various tactics (including invoking those über-boogiemen, GamerGaters) and, when all else failed, broke down in tears claiming that “this will ruin everything” should SocialAutopsy.com go live and ended with Quinn hanging up on Owens.

Owens went public with this on Twitter prompting Randi Lee Harper to write an open letter in which she lambasted Owens for making public Quinn’s clandestine attempted manipulations and threats to herself and her project, claimed responsibility for the suspension of Owens’ Kickstarter campaign and enumerated a list of why Owens’ idea was such a “goddamn trainwreck”.

I have to say that, in the main (and especially in technical content) and however disagreeable I find Harper personally and in her “professional” conduct, I agree with most of what Harper had to say. I never imagined I’d have reason to write those words but SocialAutopsy.com is that bad an idea, for all the reasons Harper, Young and others mentioned and more, that for the first (and likely last) time, I have to acknowledge that she’s right.

Owens concluded that the only possible reason Quinn and Harper could have for opposing her project is that they, themselves, stood to lose too much (especially by way of being added to the database) should SocialAutopsy go live.

She also concluded that the harassment that began within the hour after speaking with Quinn (and which mysteriously stopped when it was announced that Owens was to appear on The Ralph Retort) came from none other than Quinn, Harper and their associates — in no small part because (she claims) 1) such abuse arrived at an email address known to Quinn but not otherwise generally known on the Internet (not knowing what that email address is, I, of course, cannot confirm that claim) and 2) accusations that SocialAutopsy.com is a doxing service only began after the fateful phone call with Quinn and because she had never heard the term ‘dox’ prior to that call.

Again taking to Twitter, she loudly and clearly articulated these theories, taunting both for the harassment she attributed to them and swearing that SocialAutopsy.com would go ahead, no matter what.

Meanwhile, a bemused /r/KotakuInAction watched on as the conflagration raged on.

There’s much detail I’ve omitted from my account of this saga, in part because I can’t remember it all and in part because it would take too long to recount.

Unanswered questions for Ms Owens

In the unlikely event that Candace Owens reads this post, the rest of it is directly addressed to her.

First, I’m a computer scientist. I’m the systems administrator of this site (amongst others). I know a fair bit about technology and the Internet in particular. I’ve also experienced bullying and prolonged harassment as a minor, so I know a bit about that, too. None of that should matter because what follows should stand on its own merits, however you seem to grant extra credibility to those who’ve experienced bullying in the past and perhaps my professional background will give you some reason to think that I’m not merely shooting from the hip.

Second, and for the record (though I should not have to state this explicitly), I oppose bullying in all its forms, I oppose harassment by any and all means, I utterly condemn those (including MHRAs) who engage in such behaviour — but I am unwilling to put innocent people at risk in the effort to combat those behaviours, or even risk the risk. Those innocent people may be mistakenly or maliciously identified as perpetrators, or be related to actual perpetrators (especially their dependent children).

As awful as perpetrators of harassment are, I don’t agree that harming their employment prospects is justified. An eye for an eye makes the world go blind and nobody, Ms Owens, not even yourself, hasn’t ever said something that someone somewhere and at some time has considered hurtful or harassing. If you don’t believe me and want an example, it is commonplace for certain kinds of feminists (such as Harper et al. to whom we therefore are politically opposed) to consider anything disagreeable to them to be harassment, even when the speaker is a woman.

If there were some way to guarantee that the wrong people weren’t harmed, I’d have little reason to oppose it (even if I think that anonymity can be a good in its own right and therefore not necessarily support the project).

Third, I respect the spine and fortitude you’ve shown in the past week in the face of such relentless negative exposure and harassment (which, I’m quite confident, is genuine and plausibly originated from Quinn and Harper). For reasons which should now be evident, I admire what you’re trying to do but, as has been repeatedly pointed out by any number of people by now, your cure is worse than the disease.

Yet, you are determined and won’t be dissuaded, so I shan’t try. I will, however, challenge you with the following points. If you’d like to talk privately, you’ll find my email address on the masthead, and there’s always the comments section below.

Credibility and competence

You are an accomplished and successful woman, but your competence in other business sectors doesn’t automatically translate to competence in the subject area of Internet harassment. Likewise, the harassment you experienced as a teen is not representative of the whole gamut of different types of harassment and, while it makes you motivated and readily able to empathise with victims of harassment, it does not (of itself) make you enough of an authority on the subject to judge either the social or technological merits and risks of an idea like SocialAutopsy. The Dunning-Kruger effect and its corollaries are directly applicable and, if you aren’t already familiar with that, then you should be.

Everybody, from counter-cyberbullying, information security and privacy specialists to potential subjects to victims to legislators and law enforcement has a legitimate interest in questioning whether you are competent and responsible enough to undertake an endeavour of such gravity and with such far-reaching implications.

It was your job to do enough research before going public so that you could demonstrate to interested parties that you were competent enough in the field in which you proposed to participate to be entrusted with the job.

You have not done that and it shows — in abundance — and it is inexcusable. Saying (in reference to Gamergate and Zoë Quinn) that “people aren’t involved in certain industries and don’t have an interest in it” isn’t remotely good enough. In academia, we expect authors to be aware of related work. In business, we expect executives to have done market research and perform risk-threat analyses before committing substantial resources to an idea. Why should people trust you with the responsibility of a project of the likes of SocialAutopsy when you are so self-evidently ill-prepared?

The word ‘dox’ is widespread enough on the Internet and is of great concern, especially to those with a legitimate interest in maintaining their privacy such as those who fear for their physical or emotional welfare as well as their livelihoods because they hold unpopular political views (such as feminists and Men’s Human Rights Activists alike). When a person is doxed, it is not only that person at risk, but also their friends and family, some of whom may be children whose only fault is to be related to somebody who upset somebody else on the Internet.

Though Gamergate, its actors and its politics themselves may be niche, the story of it is not. It takes just two clicks to find out about GamerGate after Googling the unadorned phrase, “internet harassment”, to find mentions of it (even from a clean-cookie session), and each of Forbes, Fortune, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, NPR, Breitbart and the UK Daily Telegraph amongst many others have written about it — so you really have no excuse not to know about the subject.

On the technical front and according to both Cathy Young and Randi Lee Harper, your proof-of-concept “not-live” test site was populated with data about real people and yet the developer failed to prevent Google from indexing it. Clearly it was live, since it was accessible to anybody on the Internet in possession of the correct URL (which wasn’t even one that indicated a staging site, such as test.socialautopsy.com or dev.socialautopsy.com) or, indeed, just Google. It matters not that it was only a test site, or that you didn’t intend for outsiders to see it — the point is they did because of carelessness for which you, as Chief Exec, are responsible regardless of whose fault it was. I trust I don’t have to explain why.

On the legal front, it has already been explained to you how SocialAutopsy.com could constitute a “false light” invasion of privacy, and others have pointed out that though the United States may have weak privacy laws, most of Europe has stringent laws following the 1995 Data Protection Directive. These laws created difficulties for multinational companies with presences in both the US and EU, enough that the US Department of Commerce and the EU negotiated the so-called International Safe Harbor Principles and subsequent EU-US Privacy Shield. Ms Owens, the Internet transcends legistlative borders and you must inevitably face the legal ramifications in connection with such privacy law if you are to be seen to be dealing with the subject in a responsible manner.

When challenged on this point, you very unfortunately signalled that you have no interest in compliance with such laws by asserting that you are a US company and bound only by US law. Setting aside the questions of whether minors appear on SocialAutopsy and attendant COPPA considerations (it doesn’t follow that it is lawful for you to store information about minors solely because Facebook et al. are so authorized) and whether you can meaningfully drop anybody from your database once added, you may (or may not) be correct — but it also shows reckless disregard for responsible handling of personal data about third parties as well as astounding arrogance that US law is the only relevant benchmark by which all Internet users (regardless of citizenship or location) ought hold you accountable.

It would appear that you are accountable to no-one but yourself for the activities of SocialAutopsy.com. The standards and criteria for what constitutes harassment — and we have plenty of experience to indicate that harassment is very much in the eye of the beholder — aren’t open to debate, and I have not seen any mention of an appeals process or other means by which a subject may challenge their involuntary listing. I remind you that accountability is about more than just what is legal, it’s also about what is ethical.

Speaking of ethics, how do you reconcile the profit motive with the social interest of counter-harassment activities? What possible revenue sources could you generate from this endeavour to pay for the technology, never mind the considerable staff required to vet the expected volume of submissions with sufficient care and attention? Your Kickstarter campaign promised to $1000 backers the ability to “Follow any person or company on our database, free of charge for 1 year” implying that you’ll charge for certain kinds of access to the database, yet I’m sure I read somewhere that you promised that SocialAutopsy.com would remain free for the foreseeable future (which makes sense if it is to have any significant impact at all). Having amassed these data, what guarantees can you offer that they won’t be abused (and how can anybody verify)? Will you accept money to remove somebody from the database? Everybody has their price, Ms Owens, particularly for-profit businesses, and surely you have yours. The only question is what it is.

The confidentiality of your business model — and I sincerely hope you developed one sufficiently to determine how it will pay for itself before proceeding — is, of course, your prerogative, but so, too, it is the public’s prerogative to question how your business model will affect the way you do business, with whom and how it affects your decisions on who is listed and who is not. You’ve said that you shan’t list people on ideological grounds but, without transparency, how can anybody be sure that you’ll keep your word? For that matter, how aware are you of your own ideological leanings and how they might affect your decisions? You undeniably have some (as do most of us) as articulated in the project itself, the question is whether there is anybody whom you would not list justified by some unarticulated aspect of the ideology that underpins the project.

The onus remains on you

Frankly, you have an enormous credibility problem in each of knowledge of the field, technical competence, legal compliance, ethics and accountability as enumerated above and by others — a problem that is entirely of your own making and not, as you assert, because of smears (although there is no question that you have been smeared as well) — and all your work is ahead of you to establish that you are a trustworthy steward of the kind of information you propose to collect.

As I said, I don’t like Harper one bit. And as you’ve discovered, she’s a bully of the first order and has done some truly terrible things but I must acknowledge when she is correct — as she was in most respects in her open letter — and it’s a pity that you “haven’t even read [Randi’s] full post” because you could learn a lot from it.

In your Ralph Retort interview, you said that you had “talked to a lot of [unnamed] anti-bullying organisations”, none of whom had any problem with what you were doing and that (because of Quinn and Harper’s actions) “the biggest technology computer forensics company is going to help [you] with this database”.

Well, we’ll have to take your word on both of those. If, as you say, you have nothing to hide, who were those “15 well-known” anti-bullying organisations and with which technology forensics company are you collaborating? Since you challenged Quinn to name the organisations with whom she claimed to work, it’s only fair to ask the same of you. And neither of those points ought to be commercially sensitive, and none of those organisations should have any reason to be uncomfortable with a public association with you if everything you’re doing is above board and those organisations are comfortable with your activities.

As Chief Executive, the ball is in your court. How do you propose to persuade the world that you have any credibility or are capable of acting responsibly in respect of this project, or that the good of SocialAutopsy.com outweighs the bad, or that the collateral damage it undoubtedly will inflict is justified (and that there is any justice for those so harmed)?

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