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You can do anything (but you shouldn’t): the brave new world of internet morality

Online services have streamlined potentially shameful acts as never before – but don’t ever believe the promise that no one will find out

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

What, if anything, should a moral, liberal-minded person think about the hacking of the infidelity website Ashley Madison? And by ‘liberal-minded’, please note, I do not mean ‘Liberal Democrat-minded’, for such a person would perhaps merely think ‘Can I still join?’ and ‘I wonder if my wife is already a member, though?’ and ‘But will I find anybody prepared to do that thing I like with the pillow and the chicken?’

Rather, I mean somebody who believes in the sometimes jarring moral precepts that ‘People should be free’ and ‘People should not be a bit of a scumbag’. Ashley Madison, you see, is a website claiming 37 million users worldwide that exists to facilitate marital infidelity. According to slightly breathless — and, although I may have been imagining it, also rather worried — coverage across the global press, the site has been bust open by some hackers who are about to release the details of everybody on it. And, on the assumption that those 37 million people actually exist, and aren’t mainly robots, duplicates or outright lies for marketing purposes, I’d say that the ‘bit of a scumbag’ count here must be pretty high. Indeed, I’d say that it covers almost all of them, and the people who made the site, too.

It seems to me, though, that the freedom to be a bit of a scumbag is a fairly essential one. You might even regard it, in fact, as a defining principle of western liberalism, and one under threat from every turn. The authoritarian wishes to remove your power to be a scumbag. ‘Ban it!’ he says, whatever ‘it’ is. The libertarian, meanwhile, won’t stand for you being called a scumbag at all. ‘Do what you like!’ he says. And what gets lost between the two, I think, is a more sane and sensible middle ground. ‘I won’t stop you,’ it says, ‘but you should stop yourself.’

This is the essential morality of the internet age. Or rather, it should be. This is what should be going through the minds of those Ashley Madison scumbags as they make their presumably bleak rendezvous with borderline-crazy people in provincial business hotels across the world. ‘I can do this!’ they should be saying to themselves, with every conflicted thrust they make across that weird counterpane thing you always get at the foot of the bed, which is always sticky and often orange silk. ‘I can do anything! I just need to face the consequences!’

Which may include guilt, and may include heartbreak. And may also include everybody knowing about all of it after you get hacked.

Never in human history has it been easier to do things that you wouldn’t want other people to know you just did. Take porn. It’s 20 years ago, and you’re a middle-aged married man. However vanilla your tastes, porn is a headache. Into the newsagent with a briefcase, walking too fast, preparing to grimace at the shopkeeper; hoping it’s not the day you get his daughter instead. Slip it inside Anglers’ World?

Then home, where you have to keep it under the bed or in the shed, in the hope your wife or kids don’t ever find out. And when you’re done, what then? Not just the bin. A street bin? Maybe you have to wander out into woodland, like a murderer, and quietly ditch it there. Remember that? How our woodlands were always full of porn? As though it was bursting up out of the moss, like truffles? And let’s not even start on the enormous hassle of videos. My God, the planning.

Whereas now? Now it’s a click. According to most figures, almost everybody has watched porn. Five years ago, one reputable study suggested that slightly under a third of Americans have watched it in the office.

Or take affairs. Probably people aren’t really having more of those. Probably they don’t need to, on account of having all that porn to watch. Only, if they want to, then they can, and without even risking getting the wrong idea and earning a slap in the photocopier cupboard. Or casual sex in general, via apps such as Tinder, which — inasmuch as I understand these things from lifestyle features in the London Evening Standard — now means that people in their early twenties have all had so much sex that they’re positively bored with it, and have to develop interests in things like craft beer just to fill the hours. Or there’s drugs, the purchase of which in my day needed real commitment. Whereas now, I gather, you go to a website, fill out a form, and they’ll send you pretty much anything in the post.

Like I said, though, there’s a difference between doing it and getting away with it. Or to put it another way, the internet is a peerless enabler, but it is not the Ring of Gyges. It does not make you invisible. And even when you think it has made you invisible, you could well turn out to be traumatically wrong. Joan Bakewell wrote a few years ago of her own long-running affair with Harold Pinter in the 1960s and how, in the more modern age, they simply wouldn’t have got away with it. Itemised phone bills, Facebook, Twitter, internet histories, suspicious new Wi-Fi hotspots popping up on your other half’s phone; all of these things can trip up the unwary. ‘Our plans,’ wrote Bakewell, ‘left no trace.’ When was the last time that was done?

Almost all internet political gaffes are born out of private behaviour suddenly made public. Think of the Tory MP Brooks Newmark emailing an undercover reporter with photographs of himself in paisley pyjamas. Or Jack Dromey, husband of Harriet Harman, appearing to ‘favourite’ explicit gay porn tweets on Twitter (he says it was a technical error). Or, my personal favourite, Gavin Barwell, the Tory MP for Croydon, complaining about an advert to ‘Date Arab Girls’ on a Labour press release without realising that online advertisements are tailored to the user’s internet history.

The great question, however, is whether these people were all caught out by the internet, or whether they were only doing these things in the first place because of the internet. Would all of these supposed 37 million people have been toying with having affairs anyway? Would Newmark have physically pressed hard copies of the same photographs into the actual hand of a stranger? Would Dromey have collated porn, or Barwell gone on the prowl for Arab girls, perhaps around Edgware Road? I don’t know the men, but my hunch is not. I think they were acting differently precisely because of the half-reality the web affords.

As Jamie Bartlett writes in his book The Dark Net, plenty of cyber-trolls don’t quite regard themselves as being the same people online and off. Only once in my life have I been shouted at by a reader in the flesh. A handful have sent me furious letters. Online, there are days where I’m fending off scores.

Governments don’t currently care about sites like Ashley Madison, unless they’re mad states of the Saudi variety, in which case they probably do. It’s not impossible, though, to imagine a not-so-distant future where some mix of feminism, moralism and health-and-safety begins a clamour for regulation.

It won’t work, though, any more than it would with sites devoted to drugs, porn or jihadism. Close down one server and another springs up; crack one encrypted service and its users flee to an alternative. It may never be possible for criminals and jihadis to have absolute confidence in their anonymity — any more than you should have absolute confidence in yours when seeking a partner for a tryst in a Travelodge — but it also won’t ever again be possible to deprive them of the tools they currently employ.

Like the philanderer or the drug user or the pornographer or pretty much anyone, their powers will only grow. In a little internet nutshell, then, we are moving towards a world where the question ‘Can I?’ becomes almost meaningless. Whatever the question, pretty much always you can. Instead, we will have to ask ‘Should I?’ Should I buy these drugs? Should I watch this pornography? Should I send this abusive message to my local MP? What will be the consequences if I do? What happens, in this new world where nobody else can prevent me from making my mistakes, if I just go on and damn well make them anyway?

This is the curiously neglected terrain in which the strange, titillating, prophetic story of Ashley Madison has to sit. One where we defend somebody who is a bit of a scumbag’s right to be a bit of a scumbag, and our own right to tell him that’s what he is. Where people behave worse online than off, even with a greater risk of exposure. And where we learn, slowly, to tread more warily than they did, for fear that next time, the scumbag may be us.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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