For those who haven’t come across the story yet, “Violentacrez” was an anonymous account used on Reddit for all sorts of vile behavior, some of it deliberate trolling (attempts to make people angry and be disruptive) and some of it sincere (if still vile). A journalist/blogger/whatever at Gawker named Adrian Chen discovered, by simple investigation, the real-life identity of Violentacrez (Michael Brutsch of Arlington, Texas) and wrote an article which exposed that identity. (You can read that article at http://gawker.com/5950981/unmasking-reddits-violentacrez-the-biggest-troll-on-the-web, but in summary: Violentacrez spent years trolling and posting borderline-illegal porn; he failed to protect his identity well enough to keep it from anyone who cared to investigate; Reddit decided to grant him authority over shady sections of their site to avoid having to cope with it themselves; Chen managed to dig up his name and published it; Brutsch has been fired from his job at a payday loan and pawnshop holding business; Brutsch is 49 and has a seriously ill wife and a teenaged child, and will lose his health insurance and possibly get in trouble on his mortgage because of his job loss.)
Right now, you will find self-proclaimed Libertarians writhing in frenzy over this state of affairs. Which is utter, utter foolishness, as nobody who has ever had to deal with a Libertarian (meaning the big-“L” political persuasion, not people who are merely civil libertarians, another kettle of fish entirely) will be surprised to hear.
Brutsch’s defenders are tending to make three defenses of Brutsch (or accusations of Chen; it amounts to much the same thing).
Defense #1: “what Brutsch was doing was not illegal, merely somewhat offensive to some people, and therefore should not be stopped.” This defense is sheer stupidity on two fronts.
First and foremost: legality is a minimum standard. Medical malpractice is illegal — but hospitals do not have a legal obligation to track the records of their doctors, provided those doctors have not had their licenses revoked (or at least this was the case in the 1980s and ’90s; if this has changed I am unaware of the change). A hospital would be entirely within their legal rights to continue to employ a doctor with a long history of malpractice lawsuits, to work in exactly the area in which the malpractice occurred. Most of us, however, would agree that a hospital which did so would not be living up to their ethical expectations, or to the general expectations of the public.
More importantly, though: what Chen did was also not illegal, and was only somewhat offensive to some people — specifically to Brutsch and his defenders. If this defense could be admitted at all, it is immediately a reason to permit Brutsch to be exposed by Chen.
Defense #2: “this infringes on Brutsch’s freedom of speech! What about the first amendment?!?!” The first amendment to the Constitution only applies to government reprisals. It says nothing about private forums. Chen is not a law enforcement agent, nor is he a member of government in any capacity, and his operations on Gawker are not funded by the government. The first amendment is irrelevant to this case.
More importantly, though, Brutsch’s freedom of speech has not been infringed in the slightest. His Internet access has not been taken away, and there are any number of forums in which he can post, including the ones which brought him to Chen’s attention. According to one of the articles on this topic, the “Violentacrez” login was shut down by Brutsch himself; Reddit did not revoke it. There is nobody standing in the way of Brutsch continuing his posts, should he decide to do so. At worst, Reddit may no longer give him the authority he used to hold, but that is surely no worse than the fate of most people who use Reddit; only so many people can be moderators.
Defense #3: “this is just a bunch of Internet vigilantes and bluenoses forcing their morality on other people by threats! Slippery slope!” So far, unless I have missed something, nobody has threatened Brutsch at all. There have been many expressions of approval that bad things have happened to him, but nobody has threatened him with any reprisals. Surely, in order for coercion by threats to occur, there must be threats, right? Brutsch’s employer fired him without receiving any outside contacts, and any censorship he has undertaken has been entirely self-prompted. (Chen, on the other hand, reports that he has been the target of Internet vigilanteism already; somebody has been signing his contact information up for publications he doesn’t want without his permission.)
Beyond all this, though, Libertarianism specifically calls for this sort of activity. It’s so important that I’m going to put it in its own specially-styled paragraph so that nobody can miss it.
Libertarian theory says that government regulation of industry should not occur. In place of regulation, individuals would withhold their business from entities which fail to be sufficiently ethical, based on information made available by their fellow individuals. Whether you agree that this is a workable method of managing a society (or an economy) or not, this is exactly what is happening here. Businesses are supposed to toe the ethical line out of fear of public disapproval. Brutsch’s employers have fired him because they are afraid that his continued employment with them would expose them to the scorn of the marketplace. (Unless of course they fired him for using Reddit using business computers — which is quite possible if Brutsch’s own estimate of the quantity of his Reddit posting is true — in which case all arguments about his firing collapse.)
If anything, Libertarians should be crowing aloud that here, at last, is proof that, in a weird sort of way, their theories might work. Corporate fear of the public at large led to someone objectionable being removed from authority and being fired! Pop open a bottle of Champagne, Ayn Rand, The Market lives! But, like Anarchists, Libertarians are never happy with the results when their theories are put into practice.
(Incidentally, I am avoiding talking about Brutsch’s wife here. I feel sorry for her, but certainly no more than anyone else who has a medical condition and a low income, and lives here in the U.S.. A bit less, in fact — she apparently knew and approved of Brutsch’s activities, meaning that unless she was mentally incapable she was aware of the potential for disaster. On the other hand, I have seen suggestions that there are other people who have effectively been victims of Brutch’s online presence. If we’re going to deal with consequences to other people, these would certainly need to be examined in detail — and I would not be surprised if the effects of Violentacrez on society at large turned out to be vastly more harmful than those entailed by the end of that account.)