To whom falls the role of moral watchdog?

The Kozinski case has once again raised that old chestnut – whether those filling the role of moral watchdog should be somehow more “moral” than the rest of us.

For those of you who haven’t heard about the case, Kozinski is chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was presiding over an obscenity case when investigations discovered that the judge was hosting sexually explicit images on his own, publicly accessible, web site. It wasn’t intentional (at least the public accessibility part) the judge sent a link to a file on his server. the server was poorly configured, and visitors could browse its directories at will, even though Kozinski said that he “was not aware the images could be seen by the public.”

A lawyer who had a personal case heard in front of the judge (and assumedly didn’t agree with the ruling) did some digging, found the files and forwarded them to the press.

The Judge, in an example of understatement, told the press that;

A lot of this is OK in private but looks awful put into the public.

Well it does look bad, but should it? The statistics tell a story of widespread use of this sort of material. If this is the case is it reasonable to expect that our public figures (be they politicos, judges of whatever) don’t display the same statistical preferences of the rest of us?

So is the issue here Kozinski’s use of porn (a judgement of expected personal decency), or the fact that bad management resulted in the public being confronted by his use of porn (a user intentions around privacy)?- I’d assert that either of these two issues are hypocritical.

Or do we just put it down to context, as Alistair says over on GigaOm;

We judge what’s acceptable based on the standards put forth by the community in which we live. Nude sunbathing is fine on the Riviera, verboten in the Vatican. The act of taking an adult magazine, or a viral video, out of the house and into the community changes the standards to which it is compared. Put it on the Internet and someone’s bound to be offended.

When the disgruntled plaintiff put content that was intended to be private into a public place, he changed the standard to which it would be held. That doesn’t mean the judge should have to tailor his private material to the public Internet. If there’s something genuinely illegal going on, then we have legal systems to investigate and expose it, but those systems aren’t meant to tar and feather those with whom we merely disagree.

The web broadens our community of standards to include that of the whole world. Leaky privacy means someone’s personal predilections and closed-door kink can be held up to the most offended audience in the world: The Internet. Often, a minority of vocal objectors sets the tone for the “community” because it’s an open-access medium. Those same critics aren’t able to take an adult film from Cinemax, screen it on Nickelodeon, and then cry foul. But as things stand, they can take a person’s content and make sure it shows up on the nightly news.

Whether the judge was right or wrong, we need to revise our definition of community and privacy if we’re to live together in a connected world.

What do you think?

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1 Comment
  • Great post – interesting question. I find the whole ‘what people do differently behind closed doors to what they do in public’ thing fascinating. I’m sure some philosophy buffs would have some interesting views, perhaps some of my more cynical marketing mates would have a view on how ‘what people are -really- interested in’ gets played to in modern marketing.

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