On Monday, entrepreneur Peter Thiel published an editorial in The New York Times titled “The Online Privacy Debate Won’t End with Gawker.” In that piece he detailed the damage caused by sensationalized invasions of privacy, particularly where there is no public interest. The article has sparked new discussion around media law and ethics, and the boundaries of information sharing.
As the head of an organization dedicated to stopping revenge porn, cyber-harassment and bullying, I believe these issues are important to discuss, regardless of the personalities involved. Normalizing or even rewarding cyber-harassment, the trafficking of scandalous or embarrassing stolen photos, and the outing and cyber-bullying is an epidemic with terrible consequences.
The normalization of publishing sexually embarrassing photos – often stolen – impacts thousands of lives each year. A 2012 National Education Association study showed that one in five teens have sent or posted nude or sexually suggestive photos to others. That in turn can have tragic consequences. A 2013 Journal of Adolescent Health study showed that 96% of students who reported being a bully, a victim or a bully-victim also reported depression, suicidal ideation or substance problems. Schools with higher levels of bullying and teasing had dropout rates 29% above the state average, and horrifically, it is estimated that each year in the U.S. approximately 2,000 youngsters aged 10-19 commit suicide, much of it related to being outed or harassed online.
A 2013 study by GLSEN, (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) found LGBT youth were nearly three times as likely as non-LGBT youth to be bullied or harassed online (42% vs. 15%). That same study showed that including “outing,” one in four LGBT youth (26%) said they had been bullied online specifically because of their sexual orientation or gender expression in the past year.
Defending Gawker’s actions on these practices sends the wrong message to children and young adults. If bloggers like Nick Denton can publish sex tapes against the will of others, why can’t they?
Some states have passed laws such as New York’s “Dignity for All Students Act”, which requires tracking and remediating outing and cyber-harassment. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) with bi-partisan support earlier this month introduced a bill in Congress called “The Intimate Privacy Protection Act of 2016” which would criminalize “revenge porn” on a federal level, outlawing the visual depiction of a person engaging in sexually explicit conduct, or of the naked genitals of that person with reckless disregard for the person’s lack of consent. Speier said in a statement that “The damage caused by these attacks can crush careers, tear apart families, and, in the worst cases, has led to suicide.” Reportedly, Facebook and Twitter have expressed support for the bill’s passage, as has Thiel himself. Some are calling it the “Gawker bill.”
Instead of blaming Peter Thiel for Gawker’s self-inflicted wounds, thoughtful people must turn to the question of determining where the boundaries of privacy are in the digital frontier and what norms are appropriate for today’s media companies. Our children our watching.
Jeffrey J. Ervine is the Founder and President of Bridg-it LLC, a software service that provides school communities with a sustainable solution to cyberbullying and harassment. Mr. Ervine spent the first two decades of his professional life on Wall Street in financial services, later becoming an investment banker and asset manager. He is also the Founder and President of the Bridg-it Foundation, a 501(c)3 charity that sponsors and executes research on bullying, cyberbullying and digital harassment.