Opening Pandora’s Dox: The Unintended Consequences of an Internet That Never Forgets

Every year the Oxford English Dictionary adds a handful of new words in recognition of how technological and social progress have affected the English language.

One of the new words this year is the longstanding 4chan-ism “dox,” which, unfortunately, has become all too relevant in the modern world.

“Doxing” is one of those terms that’s problematically overbroad. I’ve argued about the definition of “doxing” at length with friends. It’s a corruption of “docs,” itself short for “documentation”; to “drop dox” on someone is to make publicly available private information about them.

Of course, what counts as “private information” is contentious. Most doxers aren’t genius hackers able to gain access to genuinely hidden, secret information–most of the dox that gets dropped is publicly available, it’s just information that the subject never expected to be widely publicized in front of a hostile audience. (For the record, federal law states that publicizing “restricted personal information” like someone’s home address in a context that leads to intimidation or threats is a crime, even if the address was publicly posted elsewhere.)

I’ve personally had the unpleasant experience of seeing my home address posted in a dox drop on a chan thread. And then having to contact my local law enforcement to warn them not to send a SWAT team to my house if they got a bogus phone call about a hostage situation, to minimize the probability I will be shot dead by an overzealous police officer.

This practice, “swatting,” is the unpleasant corollary of doxing–the easiest way to use dox to physically screw with someone you dislike. (Someday I’ll have to meet Caroline Sinders and swap our stories about asking middle-aged ladies “Have you heard of Gamergate?”)


I’ve had to go through the Crash Override guide to getting my address off of a huge list of personal information brokers, a painstaking and thankless process of sending email after email–in some cases having to send paper mail or faxes–to businesses that seem to exist for the sole purpose of enabling doxers, stalkers and spammers.

As swattings become increasingly common in the news, I’ve darkly wondered how many people have to die before people realize how fucked up the business model of Spokeo and PeekYou is. It doesn’t help that ICANN has taken the shockingly tone-deaf step of asking everyone who operates a commercial website to put their real home address in their WHOIS database, putting everyone who takes money over their website in physical danger just to make it slightly easier to prosecute copyright violators.

But it isn’t even that that really has me worried. Publicizing stuff like your physical address or your bank account info is, after all, unambiguously illegal, even if like most crimes committed over the Internet it’s nearly impossible to catch or prosecute the culprits.

If my physical address were revealed, it would put me in danger only until I moved–something that I was planning to do in the near future anyway. If my bank account info were revealed, I might suffer a financial loss, but the loss would be recoverable once fraud was proven, and once I knew the information was leaked I could have it changed. Even a Social Security number can be changed if you can prove you’ve been a victim of harassment.

All of this is a huge pain in the ass, of course, and the massive expense and hassle of physically relocating to escape harassment is something no one should have to go through.

But there’s some leaks that can’t ever be taken back — or patched over or fixed — and they’re generally things that, as things stand, aren’t even illegal.

Take the recent kerfuffle that sent Gawker’s reputation reeling and nearly ignited a Gawker civil war–the pointless, mean-spirited outing of Condé Nast’s CFO as possibly being a closeted gay man who arranged to cheat on his wife with a sex worker.


I’m not linking the story or saying his name, but you know it and if you want to find out what it is it’ll take a three-second Google search; unfortunately, the story made headlines partly because he’s the brother of a former Cabinet secretary and therefore his last name is memorable.

The world collectively agreed, upon seeing the story, that it was of no public interest and served only to shame someone over a private family matter. Even Gawker’s gossip-hungry commentariat revolted over the issue. The story may not even be true; just going from the details given, the escort who leaked the story sounds like he’s far from a reliable source.

There was a lot of invocation of the First Amendment going around among Gawker’s defenders (who were few and far between outside of Gawker’s own staff). And yes, given that truth is an absolute defense against defamation in the United States, and the Gawker reporter was careful to report unproven allegations only as unproven allegations, it’s hard to argue that what Gawker did was technically against the law.

But it was far more damaging than if the reporter in question had leaked the CFO’s address or credit card number. A wealthy public figure has the money and the clout to protect themselves in the event of a direct threat like that–they can move house if they have to.

But a smear to someone’s reputation lasts forever. It’s quite likely that, even in a few years, the chatter about the Gawker story will continue to dominate the top hits for the CFO’s name when you Google it. It’s the reputational smears, in fact, that generate the rage and excitement that makes it fun for trolls to try to swat you or hack your bank account.

The fact that it has to get to the point of addresses and account numbers before anything is legally actionable is why these laws are so ineffective — the troll who starts the ball rolling is legally in the clear, and it’s only the bottom-feeders who come along at the end of the process who make themselves legally vulnerable.

We’re seeing this play out again with the Ashley Madison hack, where plenty of people are passing around stolen data for shits and giggles and the widespread moral condemnation of the hack hasn’t stopped people from killing themselves upon being outed as Ashley Madison users.

There’s no hardline stance against infidelity that justifies public humiliation as a deterrent, no way that public humiliation doesn’t harm the cheater’s spouse and family as much as the cheater themselves. There’s people caught up in the Ashley Madison hack who were only on the site because they’re queer.

There’s people who weren’t even on the site but were maliciously added by others–because Ashley Madison does not require email authentication–in order to shame them, like my friend Peter Coffin whose email was added by trolls years before he met and married his wife. (Out of morbid curiosity I ran my GMail contacts through one of the free checkers, and I’m not in there but a number of my male friends are, none of whom are married–I’m guessing it’s a similar situation.)

If there’s any upside to this, it’s the possibility that older, wealthy straight men–the demographic the Ashley Madison scam targeted–might come to empathize with the constant fear LGBT people have lived with of being outed, or women have of being slut-shamed with revenge porn, and we might do something about it.

The fact that it has to get to the point of addresses and account numbers before anything is legally actionable is why these laws are so ineffective –- the troll who starts the ball rolling is legally in the clear, and it’s only the bottom-feeders who come along at the end of the process who make themselves legally vulnerable.

I talked recently with Mary Anne Franks, a lawyer pushing for a nationwide anti-revenge porn law, about what she calls “Pandora’s Dox,” the moment when someone’s identity is publicized in some nasty, hostile way that unleashes all manner of unpredictable ills on them that no one can predict.

The Gamergate shitstorm started because of a “Pandora’s dox” moment when game developer Zoe Quinn’s ex pulled a mini-Ashley Madison and publicized her alleged infidelity among people who already hated her for being an outspoken feminist–lo and behold, the harassment, gossip, and conspiracy-theory rumors about Quinn still haven’t died down a year later.

You can read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for examples of how the dox don’t go back in the box, how Justine Sacco’s still afraid to date because men might Google her name, how Lindsey Stone laboriously gamed her Google search results to get the one unfortunate image of her flipping off a sign at Arlington National Cemetery off the front page.

And yes, Pandora’s Dox does — appropriately enough for something named after a sexist myth — happen far more easily to men than women. A man makes an ill-advised joke at a conference and a photo of his face — but not his name or identity — goes viral, losing him his current job, but he gets another one soon after.

For every politician who accidentally disgraces himself by tweeting his dick pics, there’s thousands of women being shamed among their circles of friends for revealing photos.

Adria Richards, the woman who tweeted his photo, has her name blasted all over the Internet, her public reputation dragged through the mud and remains “too hot to handle” for recruiters years later.

I talked for a while with Franks about how revenge porn in particular is a major Pandora’s Dox moment for women, how there’s now immense pressure to share intimate photos as a basic element of courtship for women but not men, how much more readily men will publicly share those photos to score points with other men than women will, how the biases in our society mean those photos shame and devalue women despite our best efforts.

For every politician who accidentally disgraces himself by tweeting his dick pics, there’s thousands of women being shamed among their circles of friends for revealing photos. Even Franks’ End Revenge Porn law, which is facing pushback from groups like the ACLU for being too aggressive, still narrowly focuses on stuff that’s unambiguously “obscene” and “outside the public interest”, images of sexual activity or full nudity.

The woman who shared her story with me last weekend of being driven out of her gaming guild by assholes aggressively sharing bikini pics from her Facebook paired with leering captions would have no recourse under even the most aggressive anti-revenge-porn laws. Nor would the one lady who was afraid to show up in public because her embarrassing cosplay photo went viral. Nor would the “Star Wars kid” who had a nervous breakdown from being publicly mocked worldwide.

Nor would the adult film actors who, yes, consensually agreed to be filmed having sex for money but never agreed to have their real names outed by a vindictive ex-colleague on “Porn Wikileaks”, nor anyone who’s posted nudes anonymously only to be outed by creepy Redditors who enjoy playing amateur detective.

The new normal is that we all have to live with the unsettling knowledge that at any moment we might be the lucky individual to “go viral” and become famous for the rest of our lives for something unflattering or embarrassing; something that makes people gather around to laugh at us or mock us, or, worst of all, gin up murderous hate against us.


I’ve had my own experience with pissing off the wrong group of dedicated online trolls and having them pore through my online history to find weak points to attack, quotes to take out of context and upsetting shit to just make up to try to push me back out of the public sphere.

I acknowledge that that’s part of public discourse. The Internet prides itself on aphorisms like “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”; people still laugh about the “Streisand effect,” which, let’s not forget, comes from a story about Barbra Streisand being justifiably uncomfortable that people were taking photos of her house.

But yes, without the Internet’s power to dig up and amplify even the most obscure bits of information, without the Internet’s indelible memory, people could still get away with covering up police brutality, rapists and abusers could still get away with their crimes as long as they were respectable and well-connected enough, and “the narrative” in the media would still be the exclusive property of a tiny clique of wealthy white men.

I’ve written before how I don’t particularly trust the prejudices of media gatekeepers and I think that, all things considered, it’s a good thing they’ve lost control of the script.

But I don’t automatically trust the democratic instincts of the mob, either. Sometimes they’re noble, but all too often they’re vicious and stupid and irrational. It’d be different if the easiest people to shame were those who were genuinely guilty of wrongdoing, if the people most vulnerable to public outrage were the ones most deserving of public outrage.

But the paradox of Pandora’s dox is it doesn’t work that way. “Punching down” is always easier than “punching up”–it is, after all, the direction gravity pulls.

I’m a relatively insignificant voice in the world–a mid-tier Twitter user who writes columns for Internet publications. Me taking on major corporations or high-profile politicians has little impact on them.

But the paradox of Pandora’s dox is it doesn’t work that way. “Punching down” is always easier than “punching up”–it is, after all, the direction gravity pulls.

But if I really wanted to I could easily initiate a pile-on on some random tweeter or blogger, bring down the full force of my own followers and my followers’ followers on them. I could do it even more easily to someone I dislike in real life who’s not conversant with the “rules” of this blogger game at all, someone who would be totally blindsided by Pandora’s Dox.

I see this happen all the time online, on scales both large and small, among tiny groups of Facebook friends and among high-profile Twitter cliques, on the “social justice left” and the “reactionary right”. Putting someone’s public identity on blast and raking their reputation over the coals is so easy people do it by accident.

There’s no law that could prevent this kind of negative pile-on that wouldn’t prevent all kinds of useful and necessary discourse–or, in the long run, prevent all discourse entirely. There’s no simple social rule that would prevent it even if we all followed it–because it turns out “Don’t punch down” isn’t all that simple.

It’s a problem that’s born of everything positive about the Internet–born of a massive social graph and fast-forming relationships and rapid information exchange–that grows as the Internet grows.

It’s a problem that’s not going away, even with anti-revenge porn and “right to be forgotten” laws that ameliorate the worst of the damage. The best advice I can give is to put yourself in Pandora’s shoes when you’re about to publicly criticize someone, and remember that some boxes once open can’t be closed.