(cross posted from Maybe Maimed but Never Harmed)
N.B.: This post may anger whoever’s behind PornWikileaks. If you’re interested in helping me turn public opinion against their hate-fueled idiocy, feel free to cross-post this piece wherever you like at your whim. It’d be nice if you linked back here, but the priority is simply that we create as many copies as possible. Thanks and enjoy.
If we lived in a world where information launderers were not funded or encouraged, if we lived in a world where integrity was of greater value to more people than profit, or if we lived in a world where compassion trumped coercion, then I would not be writing this post. Sadly, we do not (yet) live in that world.
Last weekend, I learned that a website called PornWikileaks1 has been publicly cross-referencing over 15,000 stage names of porn performers with their real names, addresses, and (in many cases) a plethora of other personal information in order to out them as sex workers. While the existence of the website had been whispered about for months, it hit the mainstream when Gawker picked up the story after Mike South published suspicions that PornWikileaks’ sources were the AIM Medical Associates P.C.‘s (formerly AIM Healthcare Foundation) own databases. The Gawker exclusive starts:
The patient database of the private health clinic that conducts STD tests for California’s porn industry has been breached, exposing test results and personal details about thousands of current and former porn performers, some of which have been published on a Wikileaks-style website.
Cue the media firestorm.
Now, when a big story breaks, I can forgive initial misunderstandings. With a functional press, however, accurate information is supposed to prevail as the dust settles but we haven’t had a functional press for some time, so that doesn’t appear to be happening. Moreover, a number of otherwise intelligent individuals are contributing to the damage by spouting misinformation about both PornWikileaks and its namesake, Wikileaks. And now I’m seeing irresponsible and imbecilic headlines like “Wikileaks Targets Adult Film Industry.” This will not do.
The root from which most other misunderstandings seem to be stemming is the assumption that PornWikileaks is a sexuality equivalent to the original Wikileaks. However, this belief bears no reasonable relationship to reality. With the caveat that I am not a lawyer or a pornographer, I’m aiming to provide some clarity on the issues others seem unable or unwilling to discuss factually.
Should I make a mistake here, I welcome corrections or further clarifications in the comments, but only if you provide reliable evidence and a cogent argument. We’re suffering from too much noise and too little signal in this story already.
Myth: Both Wikileaks and PornWikileaks have broken laws and violated people’s privacy
Fact: Wikileaks has not broken any laws. Only PornWikileaks has potentially violated laws but it, too, is arguably still legally protected.
But, publishing classified documents is illegal, right?
One of the lies that will not die about Wikileaks is that the organization is fundamentally criminal. Its detractors assert that the publication of classified documents is illegal. Some go so far as to claim that this amounts to violations of government officials’ privacy. These assertions are simply not true.
As Glenn Greenwald has been tirelessly reiterating time and again:
[T]he U.S. — unlike many other countries — does not have a general criminal prohibition on disclosing state secrets. It is, of course, illegal for those with an affirmative duty to safeguard secrets (such as government and military employees) to leak certain categories of classified information, but it is generally not illegal for non-governmental third parties — such as media outlets or private citizens — to publish that information. That’s why it’s extremely difficult to prosecute newspapers for publishing classified information — such as when The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers or the story of Bush’s illegal NSA spying program, or when Dana Priest exposed the CIA’s network of secret black sites. To simply assert that WikiLeaks or Assange clearly broke the law by publishing classified information — despite the fact that they are not government employees — is to exhibit a monumental ignorance of the subject matter on which one is opining.
For the most part, the ignorant people espousing this line of reasoning cite privacy rights as the rationale for their claims. However, privacy rights (at least in America) are so horrifically corroded that this rationale is amusingly ironic, to say the least.
Think you know your privacy rights?
In fact, whether you’re an employee of a corporation or the government, your employment essentially obviates your right to privacy while you’re using your employer’s equipment or while you’re “on the clock.” This is true even if you’re using your employer’s equipment “for personal use,” such as by accessing your personal email account. According to a fact sheet published by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a prominent advocacy group in the United States:
If an electronic mail (e-mail) system is used at a company, the employer owns it and is allowed to review its contents. Messages sent within the company as well as those that are sent from your terminal to another company or from another company to you can be subject to monitoring by your employer. This includes web-based email accounts such as Yahoo and Hotmail as well as instant messages. The same holds true for voice mail systems. In general, employees should not assume that these activities are not being monitored and are private. Several workplace privacy court cases have been decided in the employer’s favor. See for example:
I’m aware of only one instance where Wikileaks can arguably be said to have “violated” someone’s privacy, and that was when Wikileaks published Sarah Palin’s emails. But even this depends on whether Palin’s emails traversed a government computer or not, a fact that (as far as I can tell) has never been proven one way or another. And even this revelation might have been ethically justified, since Palin was found to be conducting State business from private accounts specifically in order to avoid responsible disclosure.
Can we say “libel”?
In contrast to Wikileaks, PornWikileaks has collated personal information, including false information, about individuals for the expressly articulated purpose of causing personal harm to them. In a legal context, this is called libel—something I have the displeasure of being intimately familiar with due to false accusations about my character from the likes of similar hate-mongers. In a followup article about PornWikileaks, Gawker reports:
Gay porn star James Jamesson was forced to post his negative HIV test result online to counter rumors spread by Porn Wikileaks that he had the disease. Jamesson said he was worried someone might believe he was knowingly spreading HIV.
Anyone tempted to trivialize Jamesson’s predicament should first remember that knowingly spreading HIV is a class 2 felony. That’s a serious criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison in Idaho. A man convicted of the same crime in Texas, Philippe Padieu, faced up to 99 years in prison and was ultimately sentenced to 45 years.
Significantly, although Gawker reported that some STI test results have been published by PornWikileaks, I can find no evidence of this. Nevertheless, other media outlets have gleefully pounced on this error, parroting Gawker’s mistake. And, by the way, Gawker has yet to issue a correction over a week later. (WTF, Gawker? Fix that!)
Jamesson was also not the only person to be accused of knowingly spreading HIV. As Tracy Clark Flory reports, not only was “Christian” similarly targeted, PornWikileaks said it will be releasing STI test results in the future:
[T]here is chatter on the site’s message boards suggesting that STD test results may be published in the near future. […] Porn WikiLeaks entries use […] slurs against male actors alleged to have worked on both sides of the industry. […] Christian is one of those performers. “They posted my real name, the real names of my parents and pictures of them, their home address and telephone number, the name and picture and phone number of my brother, a picture of the cemetery where my grandfather recently passed away, not to mention saying that I have HIV,” he tells me.
The irony here is that due to the porn industry’s strict (and voluntary) adherence to screening performers for STIs every 2 weeks to 30 days, a service provided by AIM, the overwhelming majority of STI test results for active performers are likely to be negative, just like Jamesson’s were. Ignorance of this fact fuels the provably false, hateful stereotype of porn performers and other sex workers as “disease-ridden whores,” when in fact they are likely among the most knowledgeable people on the planet regarding HIV prevention and detection procedures—but that truth doesn’t seem to be slowing PornWikileaks from perpetuating the false stereotype. In this sense, PornWikileaks is more similar to anti-choice domestic terrorism than it is to Wikileaks.
And therein lies yet another blindingly obvious yet unarticulated difference between PornWikileaks and Wikileaks: the former has not posted its purported primary sources, while the whole point of the latter, the whole reason so many powerful interests are so freakin’ upset with Wikileaks, is because they’ve consistently done exactly that. PornWikileaks simply asserts truth based on their own word, whereas Wikileaks publishes evidence regarding the people they are asserting facts about. In other words, the only material facts published by PornWikileaks are, amazingly, their own potentially prosecutable actions.
How about HIPAA?
Now, one area that some people are claiming PornWikileaks has broken the law where they have, in fact, not is HIPAA regulations. Sadly, even if PornWikileaks were to publish STI test results, they would not be in violation of HIPAA regulations because PornWikileaks can not be considered a “covered entity” (a healthcare provider of one sort or another). Unfortunately, if or when PornWikileaks does publish such information obtained from AIM’s database, then it would be AIM, not PornWikileaks, who would be in violation of HIPAA regulations.
I believe this is why there are some in the porn industry, like Ernest Greene, who say AIM itself is as much a target as the performers who were outed. As Anaiis Flox reports, quoting Greene:
AIM comes in for relentless bashing from Mike South, who is an “industry insider” only by his own definition and has a long-time grudge against AIM that he airs at every opportunity, and a small but noisy group of detractors with agendas of their own regarding the porn industry that AIM’s extraordinary record of successfully preventing workplace HIV exposures obstructs. They have already seized on this unfortunate incident to once again go after AIM, when it is guilty only of doing what it says it will and the real onus lies heavily upon the person who has taken it upon himself to compromise the security of people who were once his colleagues.
I’m not surprised, given the increasingly heated and complex politics of disease-hazard mitigation in porn currently roiling the industry, that this vile act has been appropriated as an excuse to yet again attack one of the most effective community-supported HIV prevention programs in the world by those who covet AIM’s credibility for their own attempts at seizing control of the testing and monitoring process for financial gain, but AIM is a victim in this matter, not a perpetrator.
Plausible legal options
In any event, as I understand it, there are really only two serious legal options to pursue against PornWikileaks because freedom of speech protects hate speech such as theirs and because they are invulnerable to HIPAA violations.
- One option is to seek defamation convictions. This will be difficult because plaintiffs will have to prove that the information revealed about them is both untrue and causes financial hardship. I’m guessing this will be easiest, although unlikely, if performers who are no longer in the industry lose their jobs because they have been outed, which is a very real possibility. (See, for instance, what happened to Tera Myers, and how unsurprisingly hypocritical the anti-sex contingent’s response to this was.)
- A far more realistic legal option is seeking a conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Success with that hinges on whether or not it can be proven that PornWikileaks was not merely a passive recipient of the information but actively involved in the breach of AIM’s database. Unfortunately, that means law enforcement will need to become helpfully involved, but government agencies have shown themselves to be essentially criminally selective when it comes to protecting sex workers. Monica Foster’s rebuffed attempts to seek help from the FBI is just another example of this societal negligence.
Ultimately, though, all of this legalese is feckless. By and large, people have been conditioned to live in an environment of universal criminality—even AIM is scurrying about convinced that PornWikileaks is criminally liable for something, anything, and stupidly comparing themselves to the Pentagon when they’re hardly of the sort—so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that none of these legalities really matter because the legal system is all kinds of broken. The really important issues PornWikileaks raises are sociological, not legal.
Myth: PornWikileaks’ administrator is doing to the porn industry what Julian Assange did to governments
Fact: The intentions of PornWikileaks’ anonymous administrator are vastly different from the positions of Julian Assange on many issues, notably an individual’s privacy rights.
Another widespread misconception is that the intentions and methodologies of both organizations are similar. PornWikileaks’s anonymous admin has done everything they know how to do to appear to the uninformed, ignorant, or just plain idiotic that they are doing to the porn industry what Assange did to governments: the PornWikileaks banner proudly proclaims, “Keep us strong—keep the industry open,” their logo is identical to Wikileaks’ hourglass logo with the word “porn” stuck on the front,2 and their about page is almost a direct copy of Wikileaks’ about page.3 But from either a structural or social analysis, the purported similarity is an obvious facade.
To borrow Greenwald’s phrasing, to simply assert that PornWikileaks is like Wikileaks because it publishes information about individuals is to exhibit monumental ignorance about both the nature of and differences between privacy and secrecy. Even if I were to concede that individuals and organizations are not different, failing to distinguish privacy (the relationship an entity has to some piece of information) from secrecy (the condition of some piece of information being unknown) is clearly wrongheaded. Moreover, this is an area Julian Assange himself has been widely quoted discussing in interviews.
One interview with David Bailly published by the French magazine Paris Match (English translation) is particularly relevant:
PARIS MATCH: After the publication of the first diplomatic cables, a French minister said this: “A transparent society is a totalitarian society.”
JULIAN ASSANGE: Was it a former Communist? The Germans have a different way of answering, a way that’s more nuanced, because of their past. Their answer is: “A transparent government, not transparent individuals.” Transparency should be proportional to the power that one has. The more power one has, the greater the dangers generated by that power, and the more need for transparency. Conversely, the weaker one is, the more danger there is in being transparent.
This is hardly a revelation for many disadvantaged people, who routinely struggle to acquire some measure of control over their own lives in the face of institutionalized oppression. What PornWikileaks highlights more than anything else is the rabid whore-stigma and slut-shaming sex workers face, a kind of vigilante “naming and shaming” that hurts society at large, but is especially violent towards sex workers. And PornWikileaks’ anti-gay hate speech is yet another example of how this shit rolls downhill, hitting intersectionally underprivileged populaces harder than any others. In effect, this is the other side of the coin to what happened when white men objected to the TSA’s pathetic “security” policies.
If you need any more proof, compare the responses media personalities had to STDCarriers, a website providing searchable public registries of persons allegedly infected with a sexually transmitted infection, with the media’s response to PornWikileaks. Despite the fact that the similarities between the two sites (and their presumed creators) are plentiful, media response has been decidedly one-sided in each case. Why?
Since PornWikileaks targets the marginalized while Wikileaks targets the powerful, claims that the two organizations’s ends are the same are plainly false. But of course, the other salient difference is the level of scale the two organizations target; individuals versus organizations—their means are different, too. As Australian political columnist Kate Ausburn said of the distinction between personal privacy and organizational secrecy:
Failing to recognise the difference between personal privacy versus government secrecy is like comparing Wikileaks to PerezHilton.com. Do we have a right to know what goes on in the diplomat’s bedroom? No. But when it comes to the government boardroom, that’s a different story.
So, if Wikileaks were like PornWikileaks, it would be outing (or blackmailing) government spies, but not only is Wikileaks not doing that, they’re actively requesting (and being refused) help redacting the names of vulnerable individuals. People often confuse “freedom of information” with a “right to information” but freedom of information does not prioritize universal access (the abolition of privacy) above human rights. Quite the opposite; human rights are what freedom of information protects.
Take the red pill, literally for fuck’s sake
I could go on. For instance, there are differences between Wikileaks’ and PornWikileaks’ business model: demand-driven journalism versus pay-per-click advertising, respectively. (Yeah, PornWikileaks is hypocritically trying to sell ads for porn.) But I think this is enough, for now.
The similarities between PornWikileaks and Wikileaks are a ludicrous facade. They begin and end at PornWikileaks’ plagiarized branding. To say that PornWikileaks is in any meaningful way like Wikileaks is simply absurd.
The fact that so many people appear unable to see either Wikileaks or PornWikileaks for what they are—trans-national journalism and a hateful incitement to violence, respectively—is a grim reminder of the need for widespread media literacy education and of ignorance’s danger. Those of you continuing to imply any equivalency between the two organizations (particularly my fellow contextually overprivileged, white, cismale technologists) are aiding and abetting misogyny and homophobia on a massive scale. Whether by blaming the victims of a site that amounts to “a hate crime spree waiting to happen,” or by obfuscating the differences between PornWikileaks and Wikileaks, you’re part of the societal problem perpetuating an inhumane, barbaric belief that people who enjoy having sex and who allow others to see them do so deserve to be harassed, stalked, and violently assaulted.
So, with whatever respect due, I suggest you immediately knock it off.
If you are negatively affected by PornWikileaks’ despicable actions, or know someone who is, please refer to the following helpful resources:
Do you know of more helpful resources to combat PornWikileaks? Leave a comment and I’ll add to this list.