You can do anything (but you shouldn’t): the brave new world of internet morality

Online services have streamlined potentially shameful acts as never before – but don’t ever believe the promise that no one will find out

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

What, if anything, should a moral, liberal-minded person think about the hacking of the infidelity website Ashley Madison? And by ‘liberal-minded’, please note, I do not mean ‘Liberal Democrat-minded’, for such a person would perhaps merely think ‘Can I still join?’ and ‘I wonder if my wife is already a member, though?’ and ‘But will I find anybody prepared to do that thing I like with the pillow and the chicken?’

Rather, I mean somebody who believes in the sometimes jarring moral precepts that ‘People should be free’ and ‘People should not be a bit of a scumbag’. Ashley Madison, you see, is a website claiming 37 million users worldwide that exists to facilitate marital infidelity. According to slightly breathless — and, although I may have been imagining it, also rather worried — coverage across the global press, the site has been bust open by some hackers who are about to release the details of everybody on it. And, on the assumption that those 37 million people actually exist, and aren’t mainly robots, duplicates or outright lies for marketing purposes, I’d say that the ‘bit of a scumbag’ count here must be pretty high. Indeed, I’d say that it covers almost all of them, and the people who made the site, too.

It seems to me, though, that the freedom to be a bit of a scumbag is a fairly essential one. You might even regard it, in fact, as a defining principle of western liberalism, and one under threat from every turn. The authoritarian wishes to remove your power to be a scumbag. ‘Ban it!’ he says, whatever ‘it’ is. The libertarian, meanwhile, won’t stand for you being called a scumbag at all. ‘Do what you like!’ he says. And what gets lost between the two, I think, is a more sane and sensible middle ground. ‘I won’t stop you,’ it says, ‘but you should stop yourself.’

This is the essential morality of the internet age. Or rather, it should be. This is what should be going through the minds of those Ashley Madison scumbags as they make their presumably bleak rendezvous with borderline-crazy people in provincial business hotels across the world. ‘I can do this!’ they should be saying to themselves, with every conflicted thrust they make across that weird counterpane thing you always get at the foot of the bed, which is always sticky and often orange silk. ‘I can do anything! I just need to face the consequences!’

Which may include guilt, and may include heartbreak. And may also include everybody knowing about all of it after you get hacked.

Never in human history has it been easier to do things that you wouldn’t want other people to know you just did. Take porn. It’s 20 years ago, and you’re a middle-aged married man. However vanilla your tastes, porn is a headache. Into the newsagent with a briefcase, walking too fast, preparing to grimace at the shopkeeper; hoping it’s not the day you get his daughter instead. Slip it inside Anglers’ World?

Then home, where you have to keep it under the bed or in the shed, in the hope your wife or kids don’t ever find out. And when you’re done, what then? Not just the bin. A street bin? Maybe you have to wander out into woodland, like a murderer, and quietly ditch it there. Remember that? How our woodlands were always full of porn? As though it was bursting up out of the moss, like truffles? And let’s not even start on the enormous hassle of videos. My God, the planning.

Whereas now? Now it’s a click. According to most figures, almost everybody has watched porn. Five years ago, one reputable study suggested that slightly under a third of Americans have watched it in the office.

Or take affairs. Probably people aren’t really having more of those. Probably they don’t need to, on account of having all that porn to watch. Only, if they want to, then they can, and without even risking getting the wrong idea and earning a slap in the photocopier cupboard. Or casual sex in general, via apps such as Tinder, which — inasmuch as I understand these things from lifestyle features in the London Evening Standard — now means that people in their early twenties have all had so much sex that they’re positively bored with it, and have to develop interests in things like craft beer just to fill the hours. Or there’s drugs, the purchase of which in my day needed real commitment. Whereas now, I gather, you go to a website, fill out a form, and they’ll send you pretty much anything in the post.

Like I said, though, there’s a difference between doing it and getting away with it. Or to put it another way, the internet is a peerless enabler, but it is not the Ring of Gyges. It does not make you invisible. And even when you think it has made you invisible, you could well turn out to be traumatically wrong. Joan Bakewell wrote a few years ago of her own long-running affair with Harold Pinter in the 1960s and how, in the more modern age, they simply wouldn’t have got away with it. Itemised phone bills, Facebook, Twitter, internet histories, suspicious new Wi-Fi hotspots popping up on your other half’s phone; all of these things can trip up the unwary. ‘Our plans,’ wrote Bakewell, ‘left no trace.’ When was the last time that was done?

Almost all internet political gaffes are born out of private behaviour suddenly made public. Think of the Tory MP Brooks Newmark emailing an undercover reporter with photographs of himself in paisley pyjamas. Or Jack Dromey, husband of Harriet Harman, appearing to ‘favourite’ explicit gay porn tweets on Twitter (he says it was a technical error). Or, my personal favourite, Gavin Barwell, the Tory MP for Croydon, complaining about an advert to ‘Date Arab Girls’ on a Labour press release without realising that online advertisements are tailored to the user’s internet history.

The great question, however, is whether these people were all caught out by the internet, or whether they were only doing these things in the first place because of the internet. Would all of these supposed 37 million people have been toying with having affairs anyway? Would Newmark have physically pressed hard copies of the same photographs into the actual hand of a stranger? Would Dromey have collated porn, or Barwell gone on the prowl for Arab girls, perhaps around Edgware Road? I don’t know the men, but my hunch is not. I think they were acting differently precisely because of the half-reality the web affords.

As Jamie Bartlett writes in his book The Dark Net, plenty of cyber-trolls don’t quite regard themselves as being the same people online and off. Only once in my life have I been shouted at by a reader in the flesh. A handful have sent me furious letters. Online, there are days where I’m fending off scores.

Governments don’t currently care about sites like Ashley Madison, unless they’re mad states of the Saudi variety, in which case they probably do. It’s not impossible, though, to imagine a not-so-distant future where some mix of feminism, moralism and health-and-safety begins a clamour for regulation.

It won’t work, though, any more than it would with sites devoted to drugs, porn or jihadism. Close down one server and another springs up; crack one encrypted service and its users flee to an alternative. It may never be possible for criminals and jihadis to have absolute confidence in their anonymity — any more than you should have absolute confidence in yours when seeking a partner for a tryst in a Travelodge — but it also won’t ever again be possible to deprive them of the tools they currently employ.

Like the philanderer or the drug user or the pornographer or pretty much anyone, their powers will only grow. In a little internet nutshell, then, we are moving towards a world where the question ‘Can I?’ becomes almost meaningless. Whatever the question, pretty much always you can. Instead, we will have to ask ‘Should I?’ Should I buy these drugs? Should I watch this pornography? Should I send this abusive message to my local MP? What will be the consequences if I do? What happens, in this new world where nobody else can prevent me from making my mistakes, if I just go on and damn well make them anyway?

This is the curiously neglected terrain in which the strange, titillating, prophetic story of Ashley Madison has to sit. One where we defend somebody who is a bit of a scumbag’s right to be a bit of a scumbag, and our own right to tell him that’s what he is. Where people behave worse online than off, even with a greater risk of exposure. And where we learn, slowly, to tread more warily than they did, for fear that next time, the scumbag may be us.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Williamecornish

    Get It Now.-p-e-c-a-t-o-

  • tb_kol

    the illustrations are cheap. ok so they’ve got the names of subscribers to the immorality website and they have a mind to publish them. but why intimidate the users with such ghastly illustrations.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Do you think maybe getting “hacked” was the whole point of the site all along? I can’t think of a single blackmail target more lucrative than a few million cheating spouses gullible enough to write about it on the internet.

  • Mary Ann

    Never heard of these sites until today, good publicity for them.

    • Simon de Lancey

      “No publicity is bad publicity” as they say!

    • blandings

      But Mary, how could you forget so soon?

      • Mary Ann

        Sorry, do I know you? I don’t believe we have been introduced.

        • blandings

          How coy!

  • Bonkim

    Living in fools’ paradise. Only people with low IQ trust the Net and indulge in its fantasies.

  • Faulkner Orkney

    How sad that ‘Ring of Gyges’ isn’t quite an anagram of a certain naughty footballer.

  • blandings

    Hugo, take advice from me. Go analogue: Hang around in bars under an assumed name.

    • Sue Smith

      Tell us…obviously you’ve done this yourself. Mr. Cool.

      • blandings

        Of course I haven’t.

        • Sue Smith

          I was joking, Mr. B!!!!!

          • blandings

            Oh, disappointing – Are you sure?.

  • davidofkent

    Perhaps “being found out” is half of the fun to some people.

  • trace9

    There’s a Fee
    To being Free
    I can’t be You
    I stay as Me.
    & There’s a Price
    For going Fast –
    The bleedin’ Stuff
    Shall Everlast..


  • jim

    No such thing as “internet security” folks.Never will be. Time for a fight back against these hackers though. They have a harpie feminazi leftist agenda. Their search histories will be embarrassing and revealing.

    • David Clark

      I think to fight with hackers and to avoid cyber attacks VPN is the best tool and i always use this tool to make my online security more secure and reliable. If anyone here In USA wants to secure online activities so must use VPN For Online security and make everything secure.

    • Sue Smith

      What really scares me is hackers who can control cars and aircraft. This Infidelity website is just the Trojan Horse; ignore hackers at our peril. They have the capacity to be more dangerous than the “death cult”.

  • I’ll always be on the bit-of-a-scumbag’s side on this one. I hate infidelity and think those who practice it are just the worst, but you either want freedom for everyone or you want it for no one. And you’ll never catch me on the side of the hectoring feminists and morality police who want it for no one.

    In the end, the only person who’s actions you have any control over are your own.

    • Susan.murphy
    • Feminister

      You don’t need to be on the side of the hectoring feminists. You’re on the side of the hectoring/purging/imprisoning/censoring white conservatives blokes who have spent the past two millennia imposing your brand of morality onto the culture and making that the hegemony. You now have the luxury of sitting back magnanimously and telling everyone, “do as you like, so long as it doesn’t threaten that”

    • The_Infidel_01

      As long as you remember the old saying:
      Never do anything in private you wouldn’t want to be made public.

      • GUBU

        In today’s morally relaxed climate, the only advice available often appears to be that you should never put your private parts into anyone (or anything) you might not be able to get them out of.

        Inserting your credit card details, on the other hand, now seems a much riskier proposition.

    • Baron

      Freedom has never meant that what one can do one does. One is free to defecate on the street, nobody does, well, apart from the few drunk, drugged, and those who think freedom allows them to.

      • What’s your point?

        • Baron

          Apology for the late answer, Baron’s missed your posting.

          The point cannot be simpler, the Prez, we are free to do many things do not do them, one’s free to carry a knife, to undress in Tesco, to shower you with abuse ….

          Societal conventions, morality, statutes, self imposed restrains to name a few barriers to a totally unhindered expression of freedom put a limit to our enjoying the license to do as we want. In case of infidelity it will be the promise to be truthful to each other, particularly if one’s acts may lead to unintended consequences for both.

          Since the enlightened 60s last century, it has been ‘if it feels good, man, do it’. Baron objected to it then, objects to it still.

          • In point of fact, carrying a knife, undressing in tesco and showering people with abuse are all illegal. (possession of an offensive weapon, public indecency and threatening behaviour, respectively)

            Adultery is not a criminal offence, but it does fail my personal test of “does it hurt someone?” which makes it morally indefensible.

          • Baron

            Here you are then, it’s a statutory barrier that limits what would otherwise be one’s freedom to carry a knife, undress ro shove abuse at someone.

          • Oddsbods

            Just about anything you do can “hurt someone’s feelings” , playing the song “Kung Fu Fighting” is one example. Keep calm and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a good guideline.

      • rtj1211

        I have to ask you, would you object to a marriage contract in law, whereby both parties agree to create a stable family unit for the children, but do not agree to ‘forsake all others for as long as we both shall live’?

        I have to say that there are arguments that, for some, it would be more honest and lead to greater harmony for children growing up…

        What’s the issue: happy children, or self-righteous morality?

        • Baron

          Reproduction is the only job we humans should do well, Baron reckons, it helps of course if we also make cars that don’t break down, food that doesn’t poison, TV programmes that entertain, but unless we secure a continuous stream of children we are doomed, cannot make any cars, food or TV programmes.

          If a couple agree on what you are suggesting, rtj1211, their infidelity by consent doesn’t interfere with the upbringing of their kids what’s there to stop them having sex with whoever they like, Baron certainly won’t.

        • Oddsbods

          “As long as we both shall live” is a lot longer now than it was centuries ago when these things were developing. In the future it may well be much, much longer, how many couples would be happy together (exclusively) for a hundred years or more?

  • DrMcCleod

    There is no virtue without freedom. Since being virtuous means choosing to be good, when you had the option of being bad.

    • Callipygian

      And likewise, there is no freedom without virtue.

  • davidshort10

    I’m amazed that the writer, who can’t be in his 60s or 70s, has an attitude to sexualiy that is very old British. That this is the front page story of the Spectator is quite incredible. Do the owners, management and writers on the Spectator watch Carry On films in their spare time? The British divorce rate would fall if they had more tolerance of sexuality and also a bit more of ‘kiss and don’t tell’. London should start having more hotels with a ‘cinq a sept’ facility.

    • Feminister

      The Spectator has a fascination with bosoms.

    • Hugo Rifkind

      Hi David. I’m 38. And I think you’re perhaps confusing “sexuality” with something else. Sexuality is about whom a person wants to have sex with, and that’s no business of mine. What I’m censorious about, if that’s the right word, is how that person treats everybody else in the pursuit of doing this.

      There’s nothing particularly old-fashioned about this. Indeed, the reverse. Post-Generation X, which I think I am, in my experience people tend to look at the messy familial breakdowns of the 70s, and 80s with a sort of weary pity, often because we or our peers have lived through its consequences. Affairs are not seen as exciting and louche, but instead rather tragic and baby-boomer. As for “cinq a sept”, think Dominique Strauss Kahn. It’s hardly modern. Hope this helps.

      • davidshort10

        I am madly thankful that the author has replied. I can only say that I am in on island on the Med and am getting fed up with sex on offer and will return to the UK via another Med place just to pick up stuff needed for London because of biz I need to do there. If I need casual sex there, I’ll ask your boss about the best escort girls. He used to bring them to Sunday Times events.

      • Baron

        Spot on, Hugo, as is the piece.

        It has never been about the ‘can I’, always about the ‘should I’, the anonymity of the Net only massively facilitates the former, and there isn’t much to inform the latter as there’s little left of the old institutions that would, in the words of the great Edmund Burke, place “controlling power upon will and appetite somewhere.”

      • Mc

        You appear to be making the illogical leap of thinking that your views are shared by a significant number of others of your generation and that you’re significantly different from preceding generations.

        • Callipygian

          Speaking as a Gen-X member (born Dec. ’67), I think he’s right.

          • Mc

            The facts don’t back you or Rifkind up. I like to check if my hunches are supported by facts. So a quick internet search takes me here http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/28/health/28well.html.

            The USA’s General Social Survey confirms what anyone with a basic understanding of human nature and socio-economic changes would already know, namely that adultery rates over the past decades are relatively static (but recently on the rise) [You’ll almost certainly find these stats following the same pattern in the rest of the West].

            The survey also says that adultery is increasing among under-35s and over-60s. So much for Rifkind’s claim that his generation views adultery as a bad idea. It confirms that Rifkind not infrequently likes to spout off without bothering to perform some basic research, perhaps because it would contradict his unsubstantiated views or would ruin his faux-humorous articles’ flow.

          • Callipygian

            I don’t recall endorsing that specific claim of Rifkind’s — but in any case, as a late-40s type I seem to be relatively in the clear : )

          • Mc

            Sounds like I misunderstood what exactly you were in agreement with in respect of Rifkind’s comment. I was responding to his comment’s second paragraph and the last sentence in his first paragraph. I have similar views about adultery being a bad idea all round, but he then goes on to claim that he knows that his entire generation (on average) is in agreement with him.

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      It’s not the author but society that has a British (hypocritical) attitude. Over here is a website that encourages affairs; over there is an audience divided between subscribers to the site, and voyeurs who can’t wait to find out who joined it. The point of the article is that you have to use your freedoms judiciously – that’s why, for example, you don’t shut a newspaper down for saying things you don’t like, even if you’d like it to use its freedom in a different way.

  • Callipygian

    P—n is a weird thing to me because I’m not familiar with it but — not being a complete virgo and having a rampant imagination — I don’t need an Eyewitness guide to know what it is. If I am the only person left in the world to be repulsed by the very idea, I’d be surprised: every genuine Buddhist will be with me (ersatz American ‘buddhists’ will not, and will make their sorry excuses). OK, by modern standards I’m a prude.

    Could make a great bumper sticker:

    Why not? Every tattooed porn-watching lowlife is proud of every death-warmed-over pooch-bellied habit he/she has. At least my position is elegant, which is more than can be said of theirs.

    • rtj1211

      So long as you don’t demand prudery from all others….except if they propose causing your wife/husband to commit adultery….

      • Callipygian

        How could I possibly demand it even if I thought it desirable? I have higher standards than most people in most aspects of life and I accepted that a long time ago. So long as they don’t try to drag me down… all will be well.

        • Chamber Pot

          Jeez ! Joan of Arc or Florence Nightingale springs to mind and I always preferred the Penthouse Pet.

          • Callipygian

            Some are born heroic; others have heroism thrust upon them.

  • Feminister

    What you overlook, Hugo is that our morality is likewise changing.

    Online porn coupled with “sex-positivism” means that while we still mostly believe hurting kittens and homeless men is wrong, hurting women (homeless or otherwise) is just a penchant that we ought not to judge.

    • Andrew Smith

      Hasn’t it always been the case that hurting women was considered rather wrong. Is there a maxim that goes “Don’t hit girls”? Haven’t women been largely exempt from participation in war? I think most people still believe that hurting women is wrong and that hurting homeless women (of which there exist comparably very few due to the general societal impulse to protect women and women’s innate tendency to play it safe) is doubly wrong.

    • ArtieHarris

      ” hurting women (homeless or otherwise) is just a penchant that we ought not to judge.”

      What utter nonsense.

      Violence against women is taken very seriously across the board.

      Violence againt men, however, is barely a topic worthy of discussion.

  • Hard Little Machine

    The idea that shame even exists is itself overrated. No one really cares who gets caught or it they themselves get caught. At most it’s a momentary embarrassment. Blackmail will evaporate as a crime soon because there’s no longer any threat, unless it’s a threat of exposure of an actual crime.

  • The_Infidel_01

    Never do anything in private you don’t want made public.

  • polistra24

    When you think of the whole development of the Net, it’s even more puzzling that anyone could think it’s private. From the start with email and Bulletin Boards and Compuserve around 1978, the EXACT PURPOSE of using the net was to write things that other people could read.

    It has always been the equivalent of a telephone party line or backyard gossip. It’s never been seen or represented as the equivalent of a locked diary kept in a drawer.

    No false advertising, so how did the false impression get started?

  • Cynthiananderson

    ^^^^^Now Get It -ssppeectator

  • Frank

    I think that you could do an interesting article about the morality of the Tories abolishing legislation to curb excessive interest rates back in (I think, but could be wrong) Thatcher’s day and the current free-for-all where scumbag companies are charging interest rates hundreds of times higher than the old “excessive” interest rates.
    You could also focus on the lack of morality of the large numbers of our MPs who seem to have checked their sense of ethics into the coat-room the day they got elected to Parliament – does a lack of ethics go hand-in-hand with acute narcissism?

  • Mc

    Truly deep, original thoughts emanating yet again from Rifkind’s pen, expressed with such elegance, wit and sensitivity.

  • Sue Smith

    “Internet morality” – the oxymoron of the millenium, surely.

  • rtj1211

    ‘And by ‘liberal-minded’, please note, I do not mean ‘Liberal Democrat-minded’, for such a person would perhaps merely think ‘Can I still join?’ and ‘I wonder if my wife is already a member, though?’

    But of course there are no consequences for scum like you making unsubstantiated allegations that Liberal Democrats are those who use such services, unlike the paedophiles in the Conservative and Labour parties, the perverts in the Monday Club and these like Boris Johnson who abuse office to shut down paedophile investigations?

    Now write the scoop about paedophiles Labour and Conservative as a plea bargain……

  • rtj1211

    What you need to talk about are the useless half-wits who want power through moral blackmail.

    Everything that is wrong with this country is due to Christian ‘Peters’ wanting power they are not fit for.

    Blackmail is the most sordid rubbish out there. Those are the people you should revile Mr Rifkind. All of them criminals, hacking with impunity, BDSM adherents in mind-game terms. Adding nothing to society.

    My cousin was an MI6 peepshow artist. He was a serial philanderer during his first marriage, drinks and smokes, but thinks he should spy and control others. Why?

    Strategem Group Ltd was an MI6 front. It had loads of extramarital shagging going on. CEO of Pitch Perfect, ex Director Strategem was shagging a Dane in the office for years, with a wife and three daughters at home. Who was he to peep and moralise? Answer me that….

    • Always_Worth_Saying

      Well Hugo’s father was chair of the security and intelligence committee and look what an honest chap he was.

  • rtj1211

    Mr Rifkind.

    Let me ask you a question: if for no good reason other than human scum and nastiness, your childhood was a misery of bullying, taunting and sneering, why in 100 years should you consider the false morals of the grown up equivalents of your tormentors to be worth paying respect to??

    Why SHOULDN’T you engage in consenting adult activity online? Why SHOULD those who murder with impunity for money impose sexual morality mores?

    What is it other than obsession with trivia, because you are too cowardly and amoral to stop genocides and wars for money by HMGs of both front parties for the puppet masters behind the scenes??

  • ArtieHarris

    “However vanilla your tastes, porn is a headache. Into the newsagent with
    a briefcase, walking too fast, preparing to grimace at the shopkeeper;
    hoping it’s not the day you get his daughter instead. Slip it inside Anglers’ World?

    “Then home, where you have to keep it under the bed or in the shed, in
    the hope your wife or kids don’t ever find out. And when you’re done,
    what then? Not just the bin. A street bin? Maybe you have to wander out
    into woodland, like a murderer, and quietly ditch it there.”

    You sound like an expert on covert porn-viewing.

  • Always_Worth_Saying

    You could always sell yourself to a non-existent Chinese telecoms corporation.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    So much competition for women/wives: Por*, pretty boys, *hores, Asian bimbos stealing our men …
    Perhaps you need to clean up your act, Brit Chicks.

    • Too Old To Actually Join UKIP

      Do you have cut-outs of Ed Miliband all over your toilet, dear boy?!

  • Don Reed

    The foremost revelation will be that A.M. actually only had 1,200 members, not “37 million.” However, these 1,200 members, members of a worldwide polygamy cult, are married to approximately 33 million husbands and wives. Which means that the question that really needs to be answered is: With a practically unlimited variety, why did they hook up with Ashley Madison?

  • knocke
  • cartimandua

    What I thought was why don’t they take down the revenge po** sites which put the mostly female victims in real danger.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Spectator, last with the news.