On Publishing Private Correspondence

April 02, 2013

There’s been a fairly proximate drama (which I won’t identify) related to the graphics world, and a lot of it has developed into posting logs of correspondence in public forums.

Initially, it started as posting log snippets of public IRC channels in public fora such as on mailing lists, news forums and publicly accessible webpages. This irked me a little, because while I think that the people who were posting that data were making an important point and needed evidence to do so, publishing chat logs is frowned upon by the Freenode channel guidelines. Those guidelines read:

> **If you're considering publishing channel logs, think it through.** The freenode network is an interactive environment. Even on public channels, most users don't weigh their comments with the idea that they'll be enshrined in perpetuity. For that reason, few participants publish logs.

> If you just want to publish a single conversation, be careful to get permission from each participant. Provide as much context as you can. Avoid the temptation to publish or distribute logs without permission in order to portray someone in a bad light. The reputation you save will most likely be your own.

There isn’t anything legally wrong with publishing information obtained from a public fora, just like there isn’t anything legally wrong with recording or photographing and publishing public places. However, its an ethically dubious area. Freenode is not logged by default, and the channel guidelines recommend that where channels are logged, participants should be informed of this fact:

> If you're publishing logs on an ongoing basis, your channel topic should reflect that fact.

The difference between a public fora that is archived and a public fora that is not archived is subtle but important. In the former, it is assumed that participants are interacting in a way that makes their interaction publicly accessible even to those not in the fora. In the latter, the assumption goes as far as making the interaction accessible to those present. In the two fora, people are comfortable communicating different kinds of things. Publishing logs after the fact breaks the assumption in the latter case.

I think the situation got worse once members were taking to forums to publish logs of private conversations on IRC, not in any public channel. To me - this was certainly crossing a line. While I understand that the participants publishing the logs were again making a perfectly valid point, the point in question had already been made and could have been made just with hearsay evidence. I should have spoken up about it earlier, but kept quiet, partially because I’m guilty of doing this myself (but only in a private context).

What really motivated me to write this post is that a prominent journalist within the community published a series of private email correspondence relating to this ongoing drama. While the journalist in question was illustrating procurement of a scheme which I believe is unethical, the journalist in question really should have known better than to publish that private correspondence. Both participants in that conversation had an expectation that the correspondence was private and off the record. The journalist broke that expectation.

Publishing private and off-the-record information is sometimes justifiable. This might be the case where publishing the information would serve as a great public benefit, and raise awareness of a place where the public may be placed at a vulnerability as a result of another person’s actions. However, what distinguishes this case from those is that no actions had been taken to put the public at a special disadvantage. The public didn’t have a right to know, because knowing would not put them in a better position.

To those who are thinking of posting any more private correspondence in public, just don’t. Don’t do it. The point that you wish to make can be made in so many other ways, and it can easily be made by other reputable sources backing up your claim. In addition, by posting this information in public, especially where the information was conveyed with a reasonable expectation of confidentiality, you are exposing yourself to liability in Tort or Equity depending on your jurisdiction. That means that a person can bring an action against you for publishing this information, and in some cases, can be awarded monetary damages.

To the journalist who posted private correspondence in public - Good luck getting anybody to talk to you off the record again. Your credibility is damaged, and it will take a substantial amount of justification for it to be repaired.

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Written by Sam Spilsbury an Australian PhD student living in Helsinki.