Friday, September 4, 2015

Free Speech Requires Punishing Publishers of Hacked Material

The news has been dominated by a number of things the past two weeks: Trump on the stump; Dow Jones gyrations; and the hacking of Ashley Madison, the site that promotes martial affairs.  Though the Dow crashing should concern all of us, as it speaks to the nation’s economy and our ability to fund college, retirement, home buying, and life, we tend to focus on what entertains us, so we’re left wondering how a class clown can still lead a major party.  But the Ashley Madison story deeply concerns me.

No, my name won’t show up on a list of online cheaters, but I’m troubled both that the hacking reminds us that nothing we do online is safe from manipulation and scrutiny, and that the media ends up supporting hackers by reporting on what they try to expose.

Think about it.  Hackers break the law.  Should we support such efforts by doing what the hackers want – exposing information that was illegally obtained?  On the other hand, I applaud the Edward Snowden leaks that showed national security lies and breaches existed.  Though some say his hacks exposed our military to potential attacks, in the end it showed how the military needs to do a better job of guarding its info and that our government was doing things it should not have been.

The Ashley Madison hack involves private lies of ordinary people.  I don’t, as a matter of a need to know, need to be aware that perhaps a neighbor is banging someone that is not his wife.  It’s not imperative that I need to know if my lawn guy likes to do tall blondes or if a crazy cousin likes to step out on the Mrs. with a MILF.  Sure, scandal sounds juicy and it’s the car crash you can’t keep your eyes off of, but let’s not forge that by rewarding these hackers we encourage further such activities from people who will look to hack anything they find to be worthy of exposing.

Publishing the Pentagon Papers is one thing.  Airing dirty laundry is another. Free speech encourages us to say anything without punishment, but it doesn’t encourage us to expose information gained by illegal means, especially where there’s no legitimate national interest at stake.

If I break into your house and steal your diary, should I be allowed to publish its contents?
If someone hacks into your company’s HR records, are they protected by reporting your health issues?
If I break into a bank’s records and report how much money everyone has, is that legal or fair?

Obviously, the answer is “No” to each of these.  Whether you support the existence of Ashley Madison or not is not what’s up for examination here.  It’s a legal website that people voluntarily pay to be on.  Their info should remain confidential.

Will we start to see a whole bunch of books that discuss and publish information that hackers uncovered?  How should the book industry respond to such attacks?  Like the news media, doesn’t it have a legal and moral responsibility to not participate in the publishing of illegally obtained information that has noting to do with the nation’s public good?

What if confessionals made to religious clergy are hacked and published?  What if the notes of psychiatrists are hacked and released?  What if legal documents on sensitive matters are hacked and published?

You cant pick and choose the hacks you like and value.  Sure, some good comes out of these hacks.  If you’re a spouse that was cheated on, you now know the truth.  Of course, families and marriages will break apart.  Some people have even taken their lives.  I guess that’s collateral damage that hackers were prepared to have on their consciences.  But again, forget about all of that.  We simply must take a stand: Not only must we prosecute those who hack, but those who publish and republish hacked materials (if they knowingly published hacked materials AND where there was no significant public right to know. If the hacked data exposes illegal activities or something about the government that was important, that is different. 

I support free speech and one of the ways to do that is to prosecute publishers of stolen information.

I feel ill at ease with that last line, but we need to be real.  Too many laws are being broken with the Internet and social media, such as with copyright protection, libel, and violations of privacy.  Let’s not also accept hacked materials for publication.

Book publishers will say that by the time they publish information it was already made available to the pubic – that they didn’t hack anything and that they merely aggregate what’s been published.  I say fine or arrest them.  They can't make a profit from a crime and the crime is publishing data that’s illegally gathered and unverifiable.

As a writer, I hope you push the limits of free speech but also respect the laws that are here to protect all of us against hackers.  If you disagree, then go ahead and write about the anal sex that your hairdresser enjoys and live in a world where no one’s lives are private and no one’s data is protected. That’s not the world we should live in.


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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