The Ethics of “Doxxing”: A Question of Rights and Etiquette

Sometimes I wonder if we really appreciate how dependent etiquette is upon technology. Consider the fork: immediately after its invention, on what side of the plate ought we to place it when setting the table? Such Byzantine questions may seem inconsequential with objects as relatively petty as the fork, yet nevertheless, an etiquette culture has developed around how one is to place, hold, and use the fork. Prior to its invention, these fork questions simply weren’t necessary. We killed and ate our food with pointed sticks like ordinary people.
This dependence of etiquette on technology is a great deal more important when looking at something as large and enigmatic as the internet. Particularly when it comes to internet-related subjects as contentious as doxxing.
“Doxxing” as a term originally had a precise meaning, which was releasing sensitive material relating to one’s identity, such as social security numbers, bank account information, home address, personal phone number, and so on. But over time, the term coalesced into a broader action, that of merely exposing the identity of someone who does not wish to be exposed.
On its face, doxxing seems obviously wrong because it violates the doxxee’s privacy. But it’s slightly more complicated than that.
There are three conflicting traditions that collide in the wild-west culture of our present world-wide-web. These are the freedom of speech, the right to be secure from unwarranted searches and investigation, and the right to face one’s accuser when being maligned. These traditions gradually became institutionalized under common law, and even codified in the American Bill of Rights.
Conflicts between these were relatively rare because, in the world of analog technology and paper documents, one’s thoughts about others were generally not public knowledge. Making these private thoughts public was relatively difficult to do without revealing one’s identity, so the right to be secure from unwarranted searches—the right to privacy—was de facto a non-issue. At least where allegations and libel were concerned. And even if one were to consider, or even hold a subversive or heterodox thought, it was generally very difficult to expose your identity because such thoughts were difficult to detect. Our right to privacy was protected because the tools simply were not available to probe our thoughts.
Then everything changed.
In the rats-nest of wires that is our modern social world, many of our personal thoughts wind up online, either through public blog posts, through semi-public social media comments, or through private emails and messages. But bits are copyable, and “private” data is mostly just theoretical when it comes to digital information. Someone, somewhere, has access to it, and those someones are quickly learning that all kinds of people are willing to pay money for that information. The result of this is that what was once said in relative private by relative nobodies can quickly become public, with or without the nobodies’ intent or consent.
Paradoxically, just as the internet is giving people the tools to pry into our skulls and pass judgments on whether its contents are to their liking, we are simultaneously acquiring the ability to speak about others in anonymity. This anonymity can be either technical, by actively hiding one’s identity (i.e., user “webz0r417,” from a suburb of your city, via proxy-server in Indonesia) or functional, by virtue of being so distant, or one of so many, that accountability is logistically impossible, despite being possible in principle (i.e., “Joe Smith” from Ohio). In either case, the effect is the same: strangers can accuse you of being a violent baby-rapist, or perhaps even a racist, with impunity.
What to do?
Doxxing appears to be a violation of the doxxee’s privacy because in many cases it can be. But if the person being doxxed has anonymously said malicious things about the doxxer? What of the right to face one’s accuser?
The reasonable compromise is to assume that we give up our right to privacy when we go after others online.
I know there are many legal pedants who would attempt to argue that the right to face one’s accuser is restricted exclusively to a court setting. If that were the case, it would be equally true that our right to privacy only prohibits the government from investigating our personal lives, and for everyone else, we’re fair game. As a principle of decency, it isn’t right for anyone, government or otherwise, to go snooping into other people’s lives without good reason, nor is it decent for anyone (government or otherwise) to make serious allegations against another without accountability.
In any case, the technology is far too new to even begin discussing this as a legal quandary. It is likely to be doomed as a judicial grey-zone for years to come, subject to the petty biases of local courts and the political climate. But law follows from etiquette, and it is not too soon to begin to figure out and act upon what is right in the sense that predated the law: that which the customs of decency and politeness allow.
But let us assume a foundation of legal principles for determining what is decent. If we are to extrapolate our present conception of “rights” into the blogosphere, then our right to free expression (including expression about others) and our right to privacy ought to be balanced with a right to identify who is expressing critical claims or opinions about us. This would not necessarily give us the right to do anything about this speech, and certainly doesn’t justify doxxing in the original sense of the term (“hey guys, this is who is attacking me, and by the way here’s his home phone number…”). But it would serve as a balancing check against the wildly out-of-proportion incentives towards libel that the internet has provided, in terms of reach, speech, and anonymity.
Of course, some might argue that doxxing is never acceptable, and reject my argument because of the radically new nature of the technology at hand. It’s a new system, so the old rules (that is, English Common Law) don’t apply. Fair enough, I suppose, though I would be curious about the basis for their claim to a “right to privacy.” Where else does such a thing come from? Our desire? Then what about the desire to face one’s accuser? One cannot simply pick and choose which “rights” we protect based upon familiarity or preference; they exist in a balance with each other and exist as such for a reason. If we have a right to freedom of expression as well as a right to be left unmolested in our personal affairs, then tradition demands that we also have the right to doxx (that is, “identify”) those who make malicious claims about us.
Those who like talking shit but don’t want to risk being doxxed can have that wish respected by—metaphorically speaking—returning to eating with sticks. For the rest of us, it’s time to establish the proper manners for using forks, how and when it is and isn’t okay to doxx people, and why.
As the state of internet debate demonstrates, civility demands it.

Christopher Robertson