How To Care About Celebrity Privacy on the Internet?

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Responses to the release a week last Sunday of at least dozens of pictures of naked or partially clothed female celebrities can be very loosely grouped into two opposing points of view. One would decry not only those who gained, possibly traded, and then released the pictures, but also all those who knowingly viewed them – depicting both parties as either criminal, cruelly exploitative, or guilty of a pernicious and emblematic lack of restraint. The other would largely bypass the issue of distributors and viewers, and would instead assert the foolhardiness of the celebrities in enabling their images to be accessed. There certainly exist a variety of third ways: viewpoints marked by their lack of point-of-view; or those which move beyond the individuals immediately involved and more direct issues of agency to consider the processes of cloud computing. Yet these alternative perspectives have been sidelines in what quickly became a polarised debate. Certainly the apparent theft and the dissemination of images which were taken in the privacy of people’s own homes, and stored via supposedly private storage services, is just cause for anger and lament.

But actions which might seem morally wrong based upon instinct or strict logic become muddied, because of the manifold ways in which we use the internet. This applies particularly to the viewing of the nude images. So much of what we do on the internet may, upon reflection or conceived in another context, appear morally objectionable, or at least straddling an uncomfortable grey area somewhere between our moral ideals, the law, our desires, and what we feel ourselves entitled to in response to our desires and the apparent inequalities in the world. Yet many of these behaviours are now so widespread and routine that they are rarely discussed: whether we rationalise them internally or simply allow them to accrue by habit; presume that because they take place on the internet they can have little meaningful effect; or dismiss them from consideration because they don’t fit easily within popular topics of discourse.

Take, for instance, the porn industry and its practitioners, who are being remorselessly squeezed by the proliferation of free sites. When we view or watch for free pornography which we would otherwise have to pay for, we are effectively withholding money from actors, producers, and publishers, significantly restricting their incomes and the very opportunity for others to make a livelihood in what might otherwise prove a widely lucrative field. Where the porn industry is discussed, it is often with regard to the safety of performers, or within a vague dialogue which presumes – without an abundance of definite evidence or the capacity to place assertions in a wider historical context – that the ability to access free pornography tends to corrupt the minds of the young and the flourishing of healthy sexual relationships.

The economic impact of watching pornography for free is less discussed. And this implies a series of questions regarding how we value different lives and different endeavours, and how we weigh expressions of upset. Is a loud cry of anger – particularly from a well-liked famous person – or are egregious invasions of privacy of greater concern than the steady eradication of a group’s income? When we evaluate upset, do we consider and seek to take action based upon its immediate expressions, or do we attempt to identify a longer-term impact on people’s lives? All upset may be cause for lament, but clearly we prioritise when it comes to the upset we discuss and attempt to alleviate.

The argument that our actions on the internet threaten livelihoods remains, but with different layers of complexity, when it comes to the pirating of music and film. More so than in relation to online pornography, there is the concept that downloading music and film for free actually encourages investment: people engage with what they enjoy, and as a result become more likely to buy singles, albums, and DVDs; to pay for streaming services; and to attend concerts and cinemas. Perhaps with such a wealth of entertainment available, free and immediate access approaches a necessity if we are going to be able to make diverse selections as to where we then spend our money. And perhaps the ability to access content for free, even if it is unlawfully, admits many to a realm of culture from which they would otherwise be unfairly restricted.

The artistic worth and the economic viability of these two forms is implicated by the scandal concerning the released images, because many of the female celebrities involved are artists in the worlds of music and film. While piracy continues to pose its challenges to these industries, will the earning potential of these celebrities fall or rise owing to their indecent exposure? Does this matter at all given the avowed distress the exposure has caused? If the distributed pictures have served to show prominent female celebrities as ‘real’ people, with not atypical female bodies, does this shift the stress placed upon their appearances and place it instead upon their art?  Of course, the logical extension to this thought would produce a requirement that people in all walks of life strip so that we can demystify their appearance and judge them on works alone.

It is also worth considering what we make of the improper exposure of art, in contrast to the improper exposure of bodies. Music albums and song demos, film scripts, settings, and costumes, and drafts of novels are all routinely leaked before their finished products are due to be released. These are invasions of privacy too – impinging on the ability of artists to create and to allow their creations the light of day only when they are ready. Such leaks can have financial consequences and creative consequences, both of which can cause emotional tumult.

Internet practises and the utilisation of social media networks bring up related issues of copyright. Photographs and videos, and especially written content on blogs and forums, can be effectively stolen and repurposed for monetary gain – but with no legal recourse for the original authors, owing to never-read clauses which give service providers rights of use and rights of licensing. And all of this is to say nothing of what is, in any moral sense, the mass theft of people’s data by governments throughout the world: a theft not only potentially of pictures, but of the very fabric of lives, from the people we correspond and talk with, to the places we go, the bills we pay, the things we watch and listen to, the websites we view, and the information we access.

Analogies between the NSA and viewers of the distributed pictures have been drawn, but these are hardly appropriate: an online viewer of illicit material is not equal to a security agency. A more accurate analogy would be towards a hypothetical situation whereby the NSA were collecting all of the data they already collect, and plastering upon the internet its most salacious aspects: viewers of these aspects would be equatable to viewers of the released celebrity images. A lurid and insatiable curiosity is one of the hallmarks of activity on the internet, but this is not criminal in itself, morally suspect rather than morally wrong, and hard to distinguish from the myriad minor ways in which we exploit people and not uncommonly debase ourselves. If ready access to music and film can prove liberating, the profusion of popular articles which comprise only paparazzi photographs – often questionably obtained – or unfounded gossip serves to corrupt the media landscape, and ultimately the way all events and issues are analysed and reported.

Returning to the celebrities involved in the photo leaks, their misfortunes encourage us to consider other peculiarities regarding our conceptions of privacy. Is age a barrier to privacy? Do we implicitly – and perhaps increasingly owing to the influence of social networks – perceive a sort of sweet spot: an age range at which others, regardless of fame, are more acceptably subject to exposure? How does interaction with celebrities through social media platforms modify our sense of them as private individuals? Is it a greater infringement to view a couple in an intimate moment than to view a person posing alone? Despite the assertions that a reasonable expectation of privacy does not and cannot subsist on the internet, it is clear that we are private people as much as we are social, and must find or build ways to keep to ourselves even as more and more of us is given online.

All of the above arguments are not mean to closely reflect back upon and elucidate the specific matter of the celebrity photograph leaks. Nor do they amount to any sort of call for an immediate and radical overhaul of our internet activities. Rather, they are an attempt to outline and think through some of the entanglements which make any thrusting response to the leaks – whether demonising those who have viewed or would view the images; or doubly demeaning the women whose photographs were stolen for some supposed lack of sophistication – feel unsatisfactory. Throughout, we ought to be conscious of the dignity of other people and the broad effects of our actions, and continually keep in mind and be willing to subtly rethink the ways we use the internet.