June 16, 2016
In March 2016, jurors awarded ex-wrestler Hulk Hogan $140 million in his case against Gawker for posting a video of him having sex with the wife of his then-best-friend Todd Clem. In a smackdown between privacy and free speech, the former seems to have won. As one of the jurors told ABC News, "[Hogan is] still a human being just like everyone else, no matter how many people know his name and his face."
The same month saw two other celebrity privacy verdicts with a similar sentiment. Fox Sports reporter Erin Andrews won $55 million in a lawsuit against a stalker who filmed a nude video of her in a hotel room without her knowledge. And Ryan Collins, who hacked into 50 or more celebrities' cloud services and obtained nude photos of them that were later leaked, faces up to five years in prison.
What do these cases tell us about the state of internet privacy today? Have these scandals taught us something? Has anything changed?
Anything can go public. So what?
Today, celebrities know that if they're doing something unethical, chances are the public will find out. The internet's existence alone means that information can travel around the world faster than gossip in a school cafeteria.
But it's not just the internet; it's technology as a whole. Social media accounts (with their vulnerabilities to hacking), smartphones with cameras, and streaming video all make for instant, personal access to people who were formerly protected by managers and the limitations of physical film. The barrier to access is much lower now—so low, it's easy to demolish said barrier using only an iPhone and excessive booze. Just ask John Galliano, the fashion designer whose career at Dior tanked after a video surfaced of him drunkenly making anti-Semitic remarks.
Public figures know a single remark or faux pas can and will be front-page news, and yet that doesn't stop them. “We need to resign from this company immediately...At any moment, the police arrive, and we end up in the newspapers," wrote Jurgen Mossack, founder of the law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers info leak, in a cautionary email to other top staff. The clincher? Mossack sent that email in 2014. Despite freaking out about it two years ahead of time, he failed to prevent this fear from coming true.
The lesson here: We've learned everything and nothing. Knowing that something shameful could become headline news hasn't stopped high-profile people from doing those things. Whether or not Hulk Hogan knew he was being taped having sex with his friend's wife, he still slept with her.
With entitled or deluded impunity, society's elite think they're immune from the consequences of their actions—and up to a point, they're right. A quick swing by rehab or half-hearted apology scripted by a publicist—like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's recent bizarre video after smuggling their dogs into Australia—is often all the public needs in order to move on. Terry Richardson, Woody Allen, Chris Brown, and R. Kelly, each with well-documented instances of sexual harassment, molestation, abuse, and/or rape, continue to enjoy professional careers, fame and fortune. Without any accountability, why should celebrities care that their private misdeeds could become public online?
The privacy scandal as PR tool
One thing has changed: Celebrities have quickly learned to use privacy scandals to their advantage. What should perhaps serve as a cautionary tale, an incentive to clean up one's act, has instead become a PR tool for the famous to shrewdly wield.
Exhibit A: Kim Kardashian's "accidentally" leaked sex tape that propelled her to fame. The highly effective "misstep" that got her national recognition and launched her entire career has been copied over and over by other celebs seeking to raise their profiles or shed a squeaky-clean Disney image. Obviously, sometimes celebrity photo or video leaks are crimes; hackers shouldn't get a free pass. But when the leak happens to emphasize how sexy or well endowed someone is (ahem, Justin Bieber) rather than them committing a crime or other socially unacceptable behavior, one wonders if the "leaked on purpose" rumors are true.
Beyond just boosting their sex appeal, celebs are using internet privacy scandals to incite the public on other villains: paparazzi and the media. After actress Kristen Bell had her first child, she and her husband started a campaign to ban websites and magazines from publishing photos of celebrities' children, resulting in Entertainment Tonight, People and Just Jared all agreeing not to. But at the same time, other celebs court the paparazzi, even alerting the photographers to their whereabouts in order to get some tabloid coverage.
In the recent Hulk Hogan privacy scandal, Gawker Media—already a love-to-hate site—became a scapegoat and public example. As juror Shane O’Neil told ABC News, "Gawker made it clear to everyone...that they were all about crossing the line." ABC added that the jurors were hoping "to send a message" with their verdict. O'Neil continued: "It just wasn’t about punishment of these individuals and Gawker. You had to do it enough where it makes an example in society and other media organizations." Suddenly, the site that millions eagerly read every day for celeb gossip has gone too far, free speech be damned. It's hackers, photographers and smut-peddlers who have gone too far, not us!
We're conflicted about privacy and fame
I daresay this reflects America's past Puritan ideals and current conflicted relationship with privacy, sex and fame. We want to take nude selfies and label certain people "sluts." We want to see Jennifer Lawrence naked while blaming hackers and photographers for it, not our own curiosity. We shun celebs who are too perfect (like Anne Hathaway), but when someone actually breaks the law (say, Vanessa Hudgens carving her name into a rock in Sedona), suddenly it's OK to call her a "stupid a$$ bitch" and a moron. We're fallible, but celebrities should be perfect: sexy and accessible and flawed—but only a little bit, and only in ways we relate to.
Ultimately, we see celebrities as our more-successful stand-ins, so we accept a certain amount of imperfection. If someone famous like Hulk Hogan can't have the freedom to have an affair and tape it, then that means we can't cheat on our spouse, and what is the world coming to? We draw the line at pedophilia (Subway Jared), double-digit rapes (Bill Cosby), and failing to be sufficiently patriotic (Ariana Grande and Donutgate)...but not much else. Because celebs, and by extension the American public, should be able to have our Snapchat cake and eat it too.
We give away more and more of our privacy in the name of convenience and the latest technology, yet we're surprised when someone steals our banking information. We want ever more intimate access to celebrities, but shame on the media for giving it to us. We want to support the whistleblowers and Edward Snowdens of the world...as long as they expose pre-established villains, but not anyone we relate to.
By all means, hold hackers, intrusive paparazzi, and tabloids accountable for invading celebrities' privacy. But famous or not, we all have responsibilities too: Start being more realistic about the illusion of digital privacy or stop being so ashamed of our sexual expression and offshore bank accounts.
Holly Richmond is a Portland-based writer. You can learn more about Holly through her website.