The Problem With "Doxxing"

Monday, March 10, 2014 - 09:42 AM

Update: After writing this story yesterday, the correct spelling of "doxxing" became a hot topic on Twitter. Gawker's Adrian Chen pointed out that he had always seen it spelled with one X until recently. The Atlantic's Megan Garber says that it decided the house style would also be with one X. I did a Google Trends search on usage of "doxing" vs. "doxxing" and found that "doxing" is by far the older and more common usage. I will leave this article as is, but will use the single X version of the word from now on.

The word "Dox," for years an internet term of art for revealing personal information online, suddenly entered the popular lexicon last week when Newsweek published a story about a man named Satoshi Nakamoto who the author claims is the founder of Bitcoin. But I have to say that I think the term is not being very well applied in this case, and before we can decide whether the outing of Satoshi Nakamoto is, in fact, doxxing, we should have a better idea of what doxxing actually means.

This seems to be the latest in a trend with words whose etymology lives online. I've reported before on the evolving use of the word "hacker." Another word whose definition has considerably evolved is "troll." In its original incarnation, it had a very specific meaning - it was used to describe someone who deliberately caused discord in online conversations by putting forth opinions that the troll itself likely didn't believe. Today, the term troll is a catchall for anyone who is obnoxious or argumentative, which is so broad that it can encompass just about anyone you happen to disagree with.

Back in the pre-world wide web universe, doxxing, or "dropping dox," as it was known then, was basically a petty, retributive act meant to shame or embarrass rivals, and to establish supremacy as a hacker. A good example of the classic variety of doxxing occurred last week at Duke University. First, a student named Thomas Bagley outed a woman who goes to his school that he recognized as appearing in pornograpy to some of his friends (in itself a sort of analogue version of doxxing). Bagley, in turn, was doxxed by the CEO of a porn company for having a pretty healthy online pornography budget.

In the case of Newsweek's article, however, it's more complicated than doxxing as I define it. Generally, doxxing is perpetrated against private individuals without any relationship to newsworthiness or the public interest. The same can't be said about the identity of Bitcoin's creator. A guy who invented a crypto currency that has an (albeit miniscule) chance of destabalizing the online payments industry is certainly newsworthy. At the same time, the article ran with a picture of Nakamoto's house and license plate, easily allowing reporters to discern its location, which, as a journalist, makes me pretty uncomfortable. The article's impact is complicated by the fact that the man himself denies any relationship to Bitcoin, and Newsweek's article, while building a pretty excellent circumstantial case that Nakamoto is Bitcoin's founder, is conspicuously absent any smoking guns.

Accusing mainstream reporting of essentially being dressed up doxxing isn't a new phenomenon. In 2012, Gawker writer Adrian Chen faced some severe internet backlash for an article about Reddit user violentacrez. Violentacrez (real name Michael Brutsch) was a prolific user who regularly posted to an moderated subreddits on the site that sexualized underage women,  featured gore, racism, and violence. Chen's article asserted that Brutsch's work on Reddit was instrumental in making it the site it has become and that he was regularly protected and in some cases celebrated by the site's administrators. The Reddit community understood Chen's article as a violation of the site's rules about doxxing, and there was some wagon circling that resulted in dozens of subreddits banning all Gawker links in perpetuity.

There's nothing saying that a news outlet can't expose personal information that has no newsworthiness. Gawker, whose violentacrez article I consider newsworthy, also published an article outing Fox News reporter Shepard Smith, which just seemed gossipy and exploitative to me. 

So what are my conclusions? Well, I think that whether or not Newsweek's Bitcoin article is actually doxxing kind of rests on whether the author was correct about Satoshi Nakamoto's identity. In the larger context, I feel like it's only doxxing when revealing a person's information has no news value whatsoever. But what determines news value is, of course a gray area. In the end, I hate to get all Potter Stewart on you, but when it comes to doxxing, I know it when I see it

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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