Russia: Hacking of Women's Community Raises Gender, Ethical and Privacy Dilemmas

According to recent research [RUS] by Online Monitor 50.2% of Russian Internet users are women. Women are more active both in using social networks and communicating online. However, beyond these facts, the RuNet has one place that probably can be considered as the major symbol of its feminine side.

It is Livejournal community girls_only [RUS] (also known as GO). This month, the girls_only community turned to be in a center of big scandal that raised a number of ethical, security and legal dilemmas, as well as exposed the gender issue in the Russian virtual reality.

A woman sitting with a laptop on her knees, photo by outcast104

A woman sitting with a laptop on her knees, photo by outcast104

The girls_only community was established in January 2002 at the dawn of the Russian blogosphere. Today it has more than 7200 members. It’s main goal being a platform for discussion of the most intimate women's topics (including health problems, sex issues, and obviously discussing men themselves). The community is primarily a space of mutual help.

Due to the sensitive nature of the content created a high degree of curiosity among the male community, and caused the emergence of a “membership regime” (only female members allowed, 18 rules for membership and community codex, membership on a recommendation basis only) which according to [RUS] Internet analyst Alexander Militskiy is more appropriate for a closed secret military facility than an online community.

In most cases, the membership regime worked well. With a few exceptions the information from the community remained in secret. Together with overwhelming popularity the strict rules created a certain degree of confidence that the community members could talk about everything, despite the fact that more than 7000 people can view the community.

Everything changed in mid-May, 2010. RuNet was shocked when someone published a mirror site [RUS] with all the content of girls_only (more than 35.000 messages and millions of comments) online for all to see. It’s not only that private content suddenly became public. The mirror site offered a system of rating the best posts. Moreover, it included a search engine that made it possible to find any information related to specific blogger.

Screenshot of the mirror of "Girls_only" community:not only for girls anymore.

The exposure of girls_only became the topic of the day for the RuNet. An army of men (and others!) rushed to consume the “forbidden” fruit. One of the major Russian news agencies “Interfax” [RUS] wrote:

Появление в Интернете сайта, который зеркально отразил посты закрытого женского сообщества, в первый момент рассмешило публику. Потом, правда, стало страшно

At the first moment, the mirror with the content of the closed women community provided a lot of fun for the wide public. But, later things started to be terrifying.

The community was outraged. The community leader Tatyana Nikonova (aka LJ-user nekbke [RUS]), a member of advisory committee for Livejournal, suggested a retaliation strategy. She offered to publish a lot of spam and porn in the community in order to confuse the creators and consumers of the mirror site.

Some of the community members tried to recall what they had written to evaluate the potential threat to their privacy. However, Nikonova said to Interfax that she doesn’t believe that exposure of community can cause problems, since no one can prove that the mirror site is the precise copy of the original community.

Nikonova also raised the ethical dilemma that was created by the community mirror. She said [RUS]:

Любой приличный человек не должен заходить на этот сайт, так как подсматривать в замочную скважину, расширенную до размеров окна, просто некрасиво.

Any decent person should not go to this website. It’s like spying through the keyhole that was enlarged to the size of window. It’s just inappropriate.

However, it looks like most of the online male community had no ethical problems in this regard. Moreover, for many of them, reading the community was equal to discovering the dark side of the moon. Many of them shared their new understanding of women-bloggers.

Ems-viking wrote [RUS]:

Зачем, зачем злые хакеры сделали трансляцию ГО наружу? У меня УЖЕ произошли необратимые деформации психики.

Why the evil hackers made the girls_only retranslations in the open mode? It already caused irreversible deformation to my mind.

Lj-user andrii shared [RUS] his understanding about the opposite sex following girls_only reading:

Сижу, читаю… Оказывается, женщины довольно разумные и рациональные создания, когда им не надо строить из себя. Скажем так, моё циничное восприятие женщин оказывается довольно неплохо совпадает с ихним циничным восприятием самих себя :)

I am sitting and reading… It turns out that women are fairly reasonable and rational creatures, when they are not required to pose something. Let's say, my cynical perception of women apparently matches well their own perception of themselves.

Lj-user lesoto responded [RUS] to andrii:

Я как раз в полном ужасе от прочитанного – был несколько лучшего мнения о женском поле. Именно от всего женского пола – мои ЖЖ-френдихи оказались чуть ли не самыми разумными в том сообществе. Бабы совсем не дуры, просто у них другое восприятие мира, они более аморальны, злее и нетерпимее к окружающим нежели мужчины.

I am totally shocked by this – I had better opinion about the women. My personal Livejournal friends were apparently the most reasonable in the community. Women aren't stupid. It's just their perception of the world is different. They are more immoral, more evil and less tolerant than men.

One of the main points raised by the scandal was the difference of online female and male discourse. Lj-user Mr-vally wrote [RUS]:

Зачем я это прочитал, зачем я это узнал?… Неужели все женщины такие?))) Даже и не припомню, чтобы в чисто мужской компании что-нибудь подобное обсуждали.

Why have I read it? Why have I been exposed to it? Is it possible that all women are like this?))) I can't recall even one case when in a men company someone could discuss such things.

Someone recalled that there is a Ru_men_only community at Livejournal but it’s totally unpopular and abandoned. Blogger Olegart went futher and claimed [RUS] that both – the members of girls_only community and the hacker who exposed it – violated ethics. He disccussed what is alowed in male community:

На человека, который начнёт в подробностях рассказывать, сколько раз в неделю у них с женой секс и как этот показатель менялся на протяжении пяти лет брака, в небольшой компании знакомых людей будут смотреть странно и быстро предложат сменить пластинку. Человек, который начнёт про это распространяться в большой компании незнакомых людей, довольно быстро получит ярлык «ебанутый мудак». <…>

A man, who will start telling details about how many times he sleeps with his wife, and how it has changed during five years of marriage, among friends will be approached as a very strange person, and people will suggest him to change the topic. A man who will discuss it in a large group of people will be quickly labeled as a “f…ing moron”. <…>

Lj-user calabazza, a member of girls_only for seven years, defended [RUS] the community from the male’s attacks:

Какой ужас – женщины, оказывается, уже не только не хранят девственность до свадьбы, а еще и смеют обсуждать своих мужчин с другими женщинами, планируют расставания и даже, о Боже, изменяют! <…> Для многих участниц это сообщество было единственным местом, где можно было обсудить вопросы, которые с реальными знакомыми обсуждать чаще всего не хочется, а то и просто не с кем: что делать и куда бежать от бьющего или пьющего мужа; как собрать себя из кусочков, когда у тебя на руках трехмесячный младенец, а муж завел любовницу; как привести себя в порядок, если ты только что перенесла курса химиотерапии и т.д. Да, в идеале эти вопросы надо обсуждать с мамой/сестрой/подругой/психологом, а что делать, если мамы/сестры/подруги нет, а на психолога нет денег? Удавиться? ГО – это коллективная психотерапия, и она очень многим помогла, и я говорю это совершенно серьезно. А теперь все эти посты, комментарии, личные истории вполне реальных людей превратили в балаган и выложили во всеобщий доступ – зачем? Чтобы доказать, что конфиденциальности в интернете не бывает? Кому-то от этого легче жить станет, что ли?  <…>

How terrible is it. Apparently, women do not only lose their virginity before marriage, but also discuss with other women their men, plan separations and even, oh my God, cheat! <…> For many members this community was the only place where they could discuss questions, that you usually don't want to discuss with your real friends, or sometimes you even don't have anyone to discuss it with: what to do and where to run if your husband beats you or drinks, how you should stay strong when you have 3-months old baby and your husband has a new mistress; how to be back to life after chemotherapy. In an ideal situation you should discuss it with mother/sister/friend/psychologist, but what should you do if you don't have mother/sister/friend and money for psychologist. Hang yourself? Girls_only is group psychotherapy, and it helped many people, and I'm saying that absolutely seriously. And now all these posts, comments, private stories of real people turned to stupid show and exposed to everyone. What for? To prove that there are no confidentiality on the Internet? Someone's life is better after it? <…>

The case of girls_only community raised a significant dilemma in regard to online privacy and security. A few thousand people shared their very private information. Lj-user sviridenkov reminds readers that restricted posts on Livejournal can be exposed without any difficulty and that the administration of Livejournal fairly warned that the confidentiality of these posts can’t be guaranteed. He made [RUS] a clear conclusion from the whole story:

Вообще, рассчитывать на какую бы то ни было приватность во всемирной паутине, по меньшей мере, недальновидно. И происшедшая история просто в очередной раз это подтверждает… Таким образом, есть два варианта. Либо следить и строго контролировать всё, что делаешь в сети, чтобы потом не было обидно. Либо сразу плюнуть на всю приватность и анонимность.

Counting on any kind of privacy on the World Wide Web is at least not a clever thing to do. This story is another prove for it…
Thereby, we have two options. Either watch and strictly control everything you do online, in order to prevent unpleasant situations, or stop to care about all this privacy and anonymity.

A week later after the mirror was created the moderators successfully stopped the updates of the mirror, so the girls_only forum continued to work in the restricted mode (however, now probably some of the members will think twice before sharing private information). The identity of the mirror creator hasn’t been announced. The members of the community discussed if it was an act of male aggression or maybe retaliation by one of the former members of community. Feminist community even suggested [RUS] that the attack on the girls_only was a result of an “everyday war” between men and women.

There is still a significant legal problem if exposing information from a restricted blog community can be approached as a violation of law. According to [RUS] Alexander Militskiy information from a restricted community can’t be categorized as secret according to the Russian law. The Russian penal code also has a chapter about violation of secrecy of mail exchange or phone communication (article 138) [RUS] and violation of private life (article 137) [RUS]. However, according to legal expert Alexander Chromichev, in can’t be applied to community with a few thousand people even if the community is closed. Another option is article 272 [RUS] of Russian criminal law that focus on illegal access to computer information, but it usually applied only if illegal access caused any failure in the work of computer system.

It looks like the moderators of the community focus primarily on the point that the mirror violates the copyright rights, since members of community didn’t give a permission to copy their texts. However, Chromichev is skeptical about the ability of moderators to prove that they have the right to represent all the members of the community. However from the legal perspective, this path is probably the most promising.

The scandal around the girls_only community is going to be another page in the history of RuNet. No doubt the community is a unique document about the world of modern Russian women. The self irony and imagination of community members is far reaching and should be approached with a lot of respect. It also shows what challenges women meet in general, and in Russia specifically. It won’t be a surprise if one day, the girls_only community will become a source of inspiration for a Russian version of “Sex and the City”. And who knows, this project might be even more successful than the original version.

1 comment

  • “Thereby, we have two options. Either watch and strictly control everything you do online, in order to prevent unpleasant situations, or stop to care about all this privacy and anonymity.”
    That is truth – love it!

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