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(BRENDAN MCDERMID)
(BRENDAN MCDERMID)

VIRAL

It wasn't technology that did Anthony Weiner in Add to ...

Did the world really need more hectoring about the evils of indiscreet online communications? No, but here we are anyway.

A U.S. congressman has been caught doing one of those things in which U.S. congressmen seem to specialize: sending pictures of himself in varying states of undress to young women who were not his wife, all as part of online chats that were more unfortunate than racy.

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The great thing about a story like this is that it gives the pontificator an endless buffet of subjects on which to pronounce. Witness the parade of treatises on the role of character in politics, on the puritanical American psyche, on men and power, on whether a picture of one's bits is an appealing gift to send a woman (the surprising consensus opinion, I read, is "not so much").

All of this sits atop a layer of bafflement over how Representative Anthony Weiner got into this mess in the first place. Nary an article passes without some variation on the question: Doesn't everybody know that there's no such thing as privacy on the Internet? How could a smart man be so stupid?

"Rule No. 1 of electronic communication: Nothing is private," wrote The Globe and Mail's Konrad Yakabuski, reporting on the case. The Wall Street Journal called it "the digital-age sin of assuming privacy exists in a medium intended for disclosure." David Frum harrumphed, "It's the Internet, after all."

These are all variations on a maxim to which everyone is expected to adhere: Don't trust the Internet to keep your privates private. I've given the same sermon in these same pages, to no discernible effect.

Ultimately, the advice we've dispensed so frequently is completely unrealistic. What Mr. Weiner did was an extreme and unpalatable version of something that most everybody I know does: Send something personal and slightly incriminating to a correspondent, under the assumption that that correspondent wouldn't turn around and share that information with the world.

I grant you that not all correspondences are created equal, and that some correspondences are going to be more likely to wiggle their way out of an inbox and into the tabloid press than others. But if we were to really adhere to the maxim that everything we send online should be posted as if the whole world were watching, nobody would send anything at all.

Chastened that nothing online is truly private, what are people supposed to do? Never send private communications again? Never trust a message recipient with an incriminating confidence? Rid themselves of the sneaky thoughts that might lead them to want to share a private moment that could get them in trouble if the whole congregation heard?

It may be that the danger of using risky means might be part of the draw - and not just for the A-type personalities who enjoy risk for its own sake. Trusting friends in a dangerous environment fosters intimacy. Every time you send something you don't want shared, you're putting yourself in the hands of the recipient. It's conspiratorial; a thrill people get every time they titter to one another, "Can you imagine what would happen if this conversation ever got out?"

Yes, the Internet is a risky medium. It handles vast volumes of confidential information, the majority of which doesn't get out because it's bound together by networks of trust: between companies and clients, between friends, between families. Now that electronic communications makes casual betrayal so easy, trust is all the more important.

This brings us back to Mr. Weiner. Turning this into a parable about never putting incriminating material onto the Internet implies that his sin was getting caught. That would also be blaming the messenger.

Mr. Weiner's hand was shown when he first bungled a Twitter message, sending it publicly instead of privately by mistyping a single character. But the photos and correspondences that subsequently popped up in the media appear to have been provided by the participants. The technology didn't leak; the people did.

Bill Clinton wasn't caught by the Internet, but by trusting a young paramour not to talk, who then talked to a friend she trusted not to be tape-recording the conversation. Richard Nixon taped everything himself because he trusted no one.

As pieces of advice go, "Don't share pictures of your junk while running for political office" is perfectly sage - though it seems inevitable that it will be persistently ignored in the years to come. (In the future, instead of saying "like a moth to a flame," I'm going to say, "like a penis to a BlackBerry." People will understand better.)

The lesson of Anthony Weiner isn't that nothing is truly private on the Internet. The lesson is that nothing ever was. Communication has always been only as discreet as the people to which it is entrusted. In a world where disclosure is one click away - for all of us, for any statement - the only thing that holds the network together is trust. Anthony Weiner broke trust - and betrayal comes home to roost.

 

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