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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Simon Copland, Honorary Fellow in Sociology, Australian National University

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Debate around doxing is raging in Australia after the leak of a WhatsApp chat group called “Jewish Australian creatives and academics”. While the group was formed as a supportive space, some of its conversations focused on challenging media critiques of Israel.

The leakers have stated they acted in the public interest, because they claim the chat group was coordinating actions to target pro-Palestinian activists.

The Australian government has reacted to this episode with a move to criminalise doxing and introduce jail terms for culprits.

But was this leak actually doxing? Terms like this are always up for debate, but the government’s own definition throws up questions about this case.

Personal information

According to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, doxing is the “malicious release” of someone’s personal information without their consent.

The first question here is one of personal information. Was any personal information actually leaked?

Early media reports stated the leak contained a transcript of chat discussions, a spreadsheet of links to social media accounts and people’s photographs.

Those who released the information say they scrubbed any details that could be used to track people down, such as phone numbers and email addresses. They also say no private photographs were released, nor any photos of children.

Read more:
What is doxing, and how can you protect yourself?

This is very different to other high-profile doxing events. For example, in 2018, men’s rights activists ran a campaign called #ThotAudit in which they tried to report online sex workers to the US Internal Revenue Service.

Some participants compiled a detailed database of sex workers, containing more than 166,000 entries, which included full names, locations, links to wish lists, types of payment processors and bios. This campaign was part of a long history of sex workers being publicly exposed, and resulted in significant, personalised harassment of those on the list.

Some will say that releasing a list of names is itself doxing. But this is very murky. If participants need to be anonymous to join a cause – for example, for their own safety – there might be a case. But many of the participants in this WhatsApp chat were already high-profile people.

Therefore, this seems less like a case of doxing, and more like a leak of how groups organise around their political agendas. Similar leaks have exposed the links between Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and the US National Rifle Association, and connections between Pentecostal Christian churches and politicians.

I would argue this action was more in line with whistleblowing, not doxing. Whistleblowing is the release of information revealing activities that are deemed to be illegal, immoral, illicit, unsafe or fraudulent.

These terms are also very much up for debate, but the publishers of this list believed the activity within to be immoral, and therefore within the public interest.

Read more:
Doxing or in the public interest? Free speech, ‘cancelling’ and the ethics of the Jewish creatives’ WhatsApp group leak

Malicious intent

This leads to the second question, which is one of intent. The government claims the leak was done with malicious intent, and this claim has been backed by the opposition and organisations such as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Yet the malicious intent is also up for debate. The release of this chat cannot be isolated from its content. This was, by and large, not simply a group of people having friendly conversations.

Some people in the group were high-profile supporters of Israel in Australia. Members also used the chat to organise politically, with some conversations allegedly centred on ways to target pro-Palestinian activists.

This creates a clear political reason for the release of the information. There is of course a reasonable debate here as to which private discussions of political issues are fair game, and everyone will have a different view.

But the political nature of the chat moves this incident closer to being a political leak or whistleblowing rather than doxing.

This does not mean the leakers are immune to criticism, either. There were harms associated with their actions. Members of the WhatsApp chat have reported they have been subjected to harassment, including death threats. This includes some who were not actively participating in the chat, and have since disowned the group’s conversations.

This fallout can and should be pursued by authorities under current anti-harassment legislation. Yet we must be careful about blaming those who leak material for this behaviour.

Read more:
The government wants to criminalise doxing. It may not work to stamp out bad behaviour online

Other examples of politically charged doxing help to illustrate this point. In the wake of the 2017 white supremacist Charlottesville riots in the United States, many anti-fascist organisers tracked down and released the names and details of participants using photographic evidence. In some instances this included details of where participants lived or worked.

This clearly meets the first part of the government’s definition of doxing. But it is debatable whether the anti-facist campaign was malicious or not.

While there were problems with this campaign, particularly as some people were wrongly identified, there is an ethical case to be made: people participating in violent white supremacist riots should be exposed so their community is aware of their actions. This made the Charlottesville leak political, rather than personally malicious.

This is where the risk lies in banning doxing if the definition of what that means is left too broad. By the government’s current definition, the WhatsApp leak seems more like an act of whistleblowing.

A legislative ban could therefore have a much broader impact than criminalising the release of personal information. Instead, it could result in further crackdowns on political activities, and serve to weaken the accountability of people with power.

Read more:
Australia is in desperate need of a Whistleblower Protection Authority. Here’s what it should look like

The Conversation

Simon Copland has signed a statement of solidarity with Palestine from academics in Australian universities.

ref. The Jewish creatives’ WhatsApp leak was more whistleblowing than doxing. Here’s why –