Written by Dotty Winters

In The News

Karma police?

The users of Ashley Madison might be scoundrels, but let’s not forget who the real criminals are in this sorry saga, says Dotty Winters.

Ashley Madison banner

Ashley Madison: now with over 32,875,000 worried members.

When Avid Life Media, owner of the Ashley Madison dating website designed to facilitate affairs for married customers (strapline: “Life is short, have an affair”) confirmed the site had been hacked last week, the internet immediately lit up with scandalised delight; the words “karmic retribution” and “schadenfreude” liberally chucked about comments sections, blogs and chat rooms.

While an organisation called the ‘Impact Group’ claimed responsibility for the hack and has already begun leaking information about the site’s users, the internet-consensus seemed to be that said users had it coming.

Exhausted by the online outrage, the great, the good, the happily married and the technically phobic all retired to their beds to sleep easily, safe in the knowledge that they had nothing to fear. The fuss died down, and the majority seemed to feel comfortable that this hack was some sort of moralistic version of natural selection.

pointng cursorOver the years, I have become wary of internet consensus and I think all of us should be very concerned about this hack. I cannot imagine what kind of person wakes up one day thinking: “I know what would be awesome… I’ll pay my mortgage by profiting from unhappy marriages.” Personally, I find the idea of a website which does anything to facilitate, or worse, encourage people to cheat on their partners is beyond distasteful. However, lots of people do things which are morally questionable in pursuit of profit. Some people make coats out of gorgeous baby seals, others cold call you about PPI, some people write and produce Hollyoaks, and there is a good chance that none of those people are going to heaven. However, they aren’t going to jail either.

However repulsed we are by the Ashley Madison business model, it is not illegal to have, or to allow others to have, affairs. It IS illegal to hack into a website and steal people’s data.

The message from the hackers as to why they did this is a little mixed. Initially, they appeared to be protesting Ashley Madison’s approach of charging users an additional fee to “delete all their data” on request – a service which the hackers have proved did not deliver what was promised. However, the hackers now seem to be requesting that the whole site (and two other sites owned by the same company) are closed down, or they will release further data.

“Lots of people do things which are morally questionable in pursuit of profit. Some people make coats out of gorgeous baby seals, others cold call you about PPI, some people write and produce Hollyoaks, and there is a good chance that none of those people are going to heaven.”

Whatever their motivations (and however much sympathy some people will have with them), their action is illegal. This should not be a story about whether or not people should be allowed to have affairs; this is a story about an organisation which makes moral judgements about what people should be allowed to do and carries out illegal attacks against people who fail to meet their standards.

Too much of the outcry about this story has been about slippery-slope morality: People who have affairs are bad people; people who use online services to facilitate their affairs are especially bad; these people deserve to have their identity revealed and face potential personal, financial and career ruin. This argument presents the hackers as moral crusaders, Lycra-clad marriage-savers.

Meanwhile, the victims of this crime are subject to scrutiny and judgement which seeks to diminish their legal right to privacy. So many people would agree that cheating on someone is a bad thing to do, that we’ve not stopped to consider how we might feel about this action if the moral crusade was in a greyer area.

close up screenPeople have been quick to condemn the site users and slow to condemn the actions of these hackers. But before we applaud, tolerate or ignore this illegal activity, we need to take a moment to absorb the consequences of a society where revealing private online information about people you morally disapprove of is considered proportionate. We cannot confuse morality with legality and we must only challenge legislation through democratic means.

At the risk of indirectly invoking Godwin’s law: First they came for the adulterers and I was silent, because I was not an adulterer. Then, they came for the players of Candy Crush and I was silent, because I did not play Candy Crush. They came for anyone who orders pants online which are size 16 or above, and I was silent ‘cos I buy my pants in Tesco. They came for the people who watch TOWIE and I was silent because I prefer Made in Chelsea. Then they came for me.

Now, there’s a slippery slope for us all to cling to.

@dottywinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.