Jun 232020

The following is an email I wrote to New York Times technology editor Pui-Wing Tam, whose email is pui-wing.tam@nytimes.com. Inspired by Wesley Fenza.

Dear Ms. Tam:

Yesterday I learned that one of your reporters is planning an article about Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex. In this article he plans to reveal personal information about Scott, including his true name, which could jeopardize his career, and will put both his safety and the safety of his family at greater risk.

I was appalled to discover this is the standard policy of the New York Times. Doxxing anyone is considered default harmful among all people who have taken the time to consider the question, and is not done in civilized forums without strong extenuating circumstances. That such a pro-doxxing policy is still on the books at a major institution in these days is scandalous, and I can only hope that it is the result of a lapse in attention, rather than intentional malice.

In an effort to protect himself, Scott Alexander has deleted the Slate Star Codex blog. The loss this represents is hard to overstate. The blog frequently posted in-depth reviews of highly regarded books on topics ranging from historical figures to state governance. He has described in painful detail the experience of working in a hospital and watching how the modern medical system treats those dying of old age. He frequently reviews current pharmacological research. These can be salvaged with some work through archives, but far more importantly is all the great work that will now never be produced due to this silencing.

Scott Alexander is a leading thinker of the modern day. He has produced more influential work attracting many otherwise-mutually-hostile audiences than nearly any traditional journalists. He has done more to influence my life in the last five years than any other person I do not personally know. His blog is one of the cultural touchstones of my community, and the loss of it will be felt as a bleeding wound for years. It is astounding to me that such a loss of human insight and knowledge, including all the lost future decades, is being done in the name of upholding a policy that is itself a vicious holdover from a crueler time.

Please reverse the decision to dox Scott Alexander, and update your policy to one that doesn’t perpetrate violence upon the vulnerable. Thank you for your time.

Eneasz Brodski

  3 Responses to “New York Times Must Change Their Pro-Doxxing Policy”

  1. My message was much shorter, I basically just wrote “please don’t do it” in two or three sentences. Thank you for writing them a long one that gave reasons for why it is a bad idea to dox Scott.

    If I had a choice between a world where there’s no SSC or no NYT I wouldn’t even have to think about it, I’d immediately chose the one that does have SSC in it.

  2. I’m not sure what’s different between what you’ve written and the other similar expressions I’ve already read, but my response to this was very much not the same.

    Legally – and even ethically – I think the NYT is in the clear.

    The appeal I concur is with to the sympathy of the NYT or the relevant reporter: (please) don’t cancel Scott and, if that’s not their intention anyways, please don’t reveal his full legal name.

    I think the crux of my disagreement with what you’ve written isn’t that you describe it as doxxing but that you’re admonishing them for not being ‘anti-doxxing by default’. ‘Doxxing’ isn’t even a genre of journalism – it’s a key element of almost all reporting! It’s a basic question to be answered: ‘Who is behind X?’.

    What’s different in Scott’s circumstances, AFAIK, is that Scott had a (perhaps naïve) assumption or presumption, before cooperating with the journalist – and explicitly asking/allowing others to do too – that the journalist wouldn’t reveal Scott’s full legal name, i.e. ‘not dox him’.

    But maybe we don’t disagree as much as I think. What “strong extenuating circumstances” do you think need apply before the NYT, or whatever other members are members of the same reference class, can (or should) ethically dox someone?

    Can (or should) the NYT ethically dox anyone involved in the recent spate of late-night fireworks in any one of the many cities where that’s been occurring?

    Is it ever ethical for the NYT to dox some posting or commenting anonymously or pseudonymously on the Internet? Maybe only if there’s clear evidence of a legal crime or (severe) moral transgression?

    I’m also thinking of this from a meta-ethical perspective. I know I wouldn’t dox Scott, but would I dox someone I think is net-bad? I don’t think so – I’m pretty close to a free speech absolutist; morally too, not just legally or politically.

    But I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect everyone else to agree to that. It doesn’t seem to be effective to simply castigate others for holding different moralities. My role model is Daryl Davis. His strategy seems to me to be the most effective, even if only marginally more. Sadly, I don’t have high hopes that this is going to work out for Scott. But I’m not too upset about the NYT or the reporter; not based on what I already (sadly) believe.

    • Based on the post he left up on his blog, Scott was under the impression that the reporter was planning to write a relatively positive article. Assuming this was true, then I think you agree that they shouldnʼt publish his name. It is not very relevant to the story, does not help most readers much, and is harmful to Scott. Of course, they have every incentive to lie about the intended angle, but the reporter has written other positive things about rationalists in the past.

      If they are publishing from an angle him being horrible, then I could see it being reasonable to expose who he is. But regardless of the net effect of doxing him, either what they expect it to be or what it ends up being, they shouldnʼt do so carelessly because one of the effects is to cause him harm. It might be worth doing something with harmful effects for any number of reasons—but a policy of “oh, we just do that” isnʼt a good one.

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