We should say: We can mitigate or even eliminate some risks. But like with any technology, you can’t exclude all risks. I’ll give an example. This may be a little, um… semi-serious. The fact that recently there have been an increasing number of public lamentations about nude photos of celebrities who took selfies – I just can’t believe it! If someone is dumb enough to as a celebrity take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can’t expect us to protect them. I mean, stupidity is something you can not – or only partly – save people from.
—Günther Oettinger, designated EU Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society
Günther Oettinger is a German politician who, despite having no notable background in this area, is designated to take over the continent’s top internet policy job in November. If the European Parliament votes to approve the new Commission he is a member of, he will be responsible for drafting policy on internet issues for over 500 million people. He made the above statement in his hearing before the Parliament yesterday.
Let’s recap the incident he’s referring to: Recently, private photos of female celebrities were published against their will. Far from what Oettinger is suggesting, they didn’t “put the photos online”. The most likely sources of the photos were cloud-based phone backups. The women might not even have been aware of the backups’ existence, since they are created automatically in the background on many phones. It appears that attackers were able to break their encryption due to security failures, like a service allowing an unlimited number of different passwords to be tried out in rapid succession or granting access after posing “security questions” with guessable or obtainable anwers. One of the victims was underage when the published photos were taken.
Privacy protection isn’t for (1) famous (2) women and (3) their sexuality?Tweet this!
If you manage to look beyond the tabloid celebrity/sex angle, the statement is unbelievable: The person applying to be in charge of shoring up trust in the internet so that Europeans do more business online just victim-blamed people whose personal data was accessed and spread without authorization. He placed the moral blame for that crime squarely on the victims rather than the perpetrators.
In that respect, it is reminiscent of when the CEO of Google said:
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” —Eric Schmidt
The privilege to be half-serious
What is presented as paternalistic advice is actually a point of view only someone privileged enough to be utterly unaffected by the problem and lacking any sense of empathy for its victims could express. Oettinger might have been only “half-serious” – but the people affected by such fundamental violations of their privacy don’t have that luxury.
The expectation that everyone’s human rights are protected is neither dumb nor stupid
Celebrities are not “fair game” who have given up their human rights just because they are in the spotlight. These rights apply to everyone and yes, everyone should absolutely be able to “expect us” to create an environment in which they are as protected as possible. That expectation is neither dumb nor stupid.
And in fact, what happened to these famous people happens to regular people every day – it just doesn’t make the news. There are online forums full of people hacking the phone backups and online accounts of women who are not well-known every day in search of naked pictures to trade amongst themselves or publish online.
Does Oettinger feel as lightly about their exploitation? Or do we need to shift the scenario to stolen trade secrets to make it familiar enough to trigger his empathy? Where, really, is the difference?
There are many lessons to be learned from the celebrity photo incident that are politically relevant, for example about cloud security, digital literacy, software usability, and society’s sexism. It’s only to those unfamiliar with any of these topics that it’s just a (half-)joke.
Sexism makes it okay
Consciously or not, Oettingers comment reflects worrying patterns of sexism that are wide-spread in society. Women are disproportionately affected by online harassment and are still frequently being attacked for their sexuality in ways men generally aren’t.
Blaming victims of abuse rather than the perpetrators is part of what has been termed “rape culture“. This is when transgressions against women are seemingly accepted as “just the way the world is”. Instead of being outraged and fighting to change it, society generally expects women to adjust their behavior according to that fact: Of course someone would access and spread your intimate photos, it’s your fault for not taking counter-measures or even provoking it.
Womens’ autonomy over their sexuality is downplayed when the insinuation is made that the people affected have to justify to somebody why they took these private pictures in the first place – and that their sheer existance in any way explains or even legitimizes their public distribution.
And of course, the fact that only female celebrities were targeted (even though men have reportedly been in some pictures) tells us something about the general power balance between the genders in society: About who is frequently objectified, in this case even to the point that their intimate photos are seen as entertainment the people who accessed them may even feel entitled to.
(Another sexist comment was made in a previous Parliamentary hearing that same day: A German conservative felt the need to inform the Commission candidate Cecilia Malmström that “women like you make me weak”. Meanwhile Miguel Cañete, the current Commission candidate from Spain, earlier this year tried to explain his lacking performance in a television debate by claiming that he had just wanted to avoid being seen as ‘cornering a defenceless woman’ by ‘abus[ing] his intellectual superiority’.)
Our answer to these issues can’t be to tell victimized people to turn off their smartphones and get off the internet. We need to do better than an “abstinence education” approach to protecting people online:
We must build a culture that takes seriously everyone’s autonomy over their data and their sexual self-expression as well as their right to confidential communication.Tweet this!
It’s not that he doesn’t have a point
The larger point Oettinger was trying to make is valid: There are risks inherent in technology that we need to be aware of.
And it is quite possible that Oettinger was misinformed about the facts of the celebrity photo incident and that there was no conscious malicious intent behind his words.
But by picking this example to make that point despite lacking an understanding of the facts, by making a mockery of what he should recognize as a serious problem and by doing it in this aloof and insulting tone, Günther Oettinger is seriously calling into question whether he is qualified for the job of shaping our digital society for the next five years.
Maybe it’s not their supposed stupidity people need saving from, but an Internet Commissioner from another time and age. Tweet this!
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