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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Responsibility vs. blame: celebrity nude selfies

Richard Nixon is often quoted as "I accept the responsibility but not the blame" about Watergate. Actually, I don't believe Nixon put it exactly that way. Comedian and impressionist David Frye put the soundbite into Nixon's mouth after Nixon's much longer speech to the nation about Watergate — his first — in 1973. But the transcript establishes that Nixon accepted responsibility while rejecting blame. At the time I thought it was a senseless and self-serving distinction, a word game played by politicians. I was eighteen. Later I figured out that there was an important distinction between accountability and blame, even if Nixon had botched it.

Commentators are divided about the leakage of nude selfies of celebrities onto the Internet. Camp A: the celebrities brought it on themselves by foolish behavior, and therefore they deserve whatever happened. Camp B: the celebrities were victimized, whether criminally or misogynistically or both, and are immune from criticism. (As far as I know, all the celebrities were female — so there can be no accusation of misandry against the hackers.)

Suppose I take a nude selfie, print it, and post the print on the bulletin board at the local supermarket. If something bad happens, I have both accountability and blame. (Perhaps something good might happen!) Note, however, that I own the copyright to my own photo. If someone photographs my print and posts it on the Internet, he or she would be violating my copyright. The Supreme Court's take on the scenario is that I have recourse in civil court against the infringer but infringement is not a crime. One could attach blame to the infringer for what ensues outside of my original display in the supermarket, but that doesn't mean I don't share in the accountability for my discomfort.

Modify the scenario: I take a nude selfie, print it, and put the print in my car while I drive to the supermarket. I haven't decided what to do with the print yet. I stop at a gas station and go inside to buy a drink. My car doors are unlocked, and the print is face-up on the passenger's seat. Someone reaches into my car, takes the print, and posts it on the Internet. Now what? The person has committed larceny, even though my car was unlocked, and has also infringed my copyright. But do I still have a degree of accountability? I believe so, in the same way that if I had left a $100 bill on the seat of an unlocked car and someone had grabbed it, I could be accused of stupidity or at least carelessness with justification — but the thief could be prosecuted nevertheless.

One more time: suppose that before going inside at the gas station, I had locked my car doors and placed the print face-down in the car seat. The person grabbing the print commits what most police call "breaking and entering". As a society we designate crimes like B&E and burglary as more serious because we want to be secure in our possessions.

It's this final scenario that most closely corresponds to celebrities' situations. They do have a right to be secure in their lawful possessions, irrespective of what those possessions are. And when someone's home is burglarized, do we criticize the homeowner because the deadbolts were not strong enough? The analogy here is that perhaps the celebrities used weak passwords or were unsophisticated about the vulnerabilities of storage clouds. So? In my view, 95% of the focus attaches to the burglar as blame and 5% to the homeowner with weak door locks as accountability.

If salacious material is stolen from a securely locked place and a scandal ensues, do we criticize the homeowner for possessing the salacious material in the first place? Maybe, but I'd say that 2% attaches to the homeowner as accountability and 98% attaches to the burglar as blame. Let he who has no salacious material in his home cast the first stone.

Both copyright infringement and computer hacking (which I have had to counteract, on occasion, since the mid-1970s) are obnoxious. Society now depends too much on the Internet to treat it as an anything-goes playground. I might or might not have mercy on the perpetrators at trial, but I certainly don't condone their actions.

I conclude that I'm on the perimeter of Camp B, although I don't give celebrities a complete absolution of their accountability in creating salacious material — or in not handling it in accordance with best practices, if that turns out to be the case and if a given celebrity is truly aggrieved by the whole affair. Some are, but I doubt that all are. At least, I doubt that all their publicists are.

Anything you place on the Internet has a chance of being made public. Remember and respect that chance, but don't be overly inhibited. Almost nothing in life is risk-free.

As to the role that misogyny played in this episode, that's a topic for another day.