The New York Times opinion section announced a new hire Tuesday afternoon: Quinn Norton, a longtime journalist covering (and traveling in) the technology industry and adjacent hacker subculture, would become the editorial board’s lead opinion writer on the “power, culture, and consequences of technology.” Hours later, the job offer was gone.
The sharp turn occurred soon after Norton shared her job news on Twitter, where it didn’t take long for people to surface tweets that, depending on how you interpret the explanations Norton tweeted Tuesday night, were either outright vile or at minimum colossal acts of bad judgment, no matter what online subcultures Norton was navigating when she wrote them. Between 2013 and 2014, she repeatedly used the slurs fag and faggot in public conversations on Twitter. A white woman, she used the N-word in a botched retweet of internet freedom pioneer John Perry Barlow and once jokingly responded to a thread on tone policing with “what’s up my nigga.” Then there was a Medium post from 2013 in which she meditated on and praised the life of John Rabe, a Nazi leader who also helped to save thousands of Chinese people during World War II. She called him her “personal patron saint of moral complexity.”
And then, arguably most shocking of all, there were tweets in which Norton defended her long friendship with one of the most famous neo-Nazis in America, Andrew Auernheimer, known by his internet pseudonym Weev. Among his many lowlights, Weev co-ran the website the Daily Stormer, a hub for neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
In a statement, the New York Times’ opinion editor, James Bennet, said, “Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us.” On Twitter Tuesday night, Norton wrote, “I’m sorry I can’t do the work I wanted to do with them. I wish there had been a way, but ultimately, they need to feel safe with how the net will react to their opinion writers.” But it shouldn’t have taken a public outcry for the Times to realize that Norton, despite her impressive background covering the tech industry and some of the subcultures in its underbelly, was likely a poor fit for the job.
Lots of us have friends, acquaintances, and relatives with opinions that are controversial yet not so vile we need to eject them from our lives. Outright Nazism is something else. So how could a self-described “queer-activist” with progressive bona fides and an apparent dedication to outing abusive figures in the tech industry be friends with a Nazi? For one thing, as Norton explained, she sometimes tried to speak the language of some of the more outré communities she covered, like Anons and trolls. Friend can mean a lot of different things, and her motives in speaking with Weev may have been admirable, if possibly misguided. But when you look back at the history of the internet freedom community with which she associated, her embrace of Weev fits into an ugly pattern. She was part of a community that supported Weev and his right to free expression, often while failing to denounce his values and everything his white nationalism, sexism, and anti-Semitism stood for. Anyone who thinks seriously about the web—and hires people to cover it—ought to reckon with why.
Some background: In October, Norton reminded her followers that “Weev is a terrible person, & an old friend of mine,” as she wrote in one of the tweets that surfaced Tuesday night. “I’ve been very clear on this. Some of my friend are terrible people, & also my friends.” Weev has said that Jewish children “deserve to die,” encouraged death threats against his targets—often Jewish people and women—and released their addresses and contact information onto the internet, causing them to be so flooded with hate speech and threats of violence that some fled their homes. Yet Norton still found value in the friendship. “Weev doesn’t talk to me much anymore, but we talk about the racism whenever he does,” Norton explained in a tweet Tuesday night. She explained that her “door is open when he, or anyone, wants to talk” and clarified that she would always make their conversations “about the stupidity of racism” when they did get a chance to catch up.
That Norton would keep her door open to a man who harms lives does not make her an outlier within parts of the hacker and digital rights community, which took up arms to defend Weev in 2010 after he worked with a team to expose a hole in AT&T’s security system that allowed the email addresses of about 114,000 iPad owners to be revealed—which he then shared with journalists. For that, Weev was sentenced to three years in jail for identity fraud and accessing a computer without the proper authorization. Despite being known as a particularly terrifying internet troll and anti-Semite, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (where I used to work), celebrated technology law professor Orin Kerr, and others in the internet freedom community came to Weev’s defense, arguing that when a security researcher finds a hole in a company’s system, it doesn’t mean the hacking was malicious and deserving of prosecution. They were right. Outside security researchers should be able to find and disclose vulnerabilities in order to keep everyone else safe without breaking a law.
But the broader hacker community didn’t defend Weev on the merits of this particular case while simultaneously denouncing his hateful views. Instead it lionized him in keeping with its opposition to draconian computer crime laws. Artist Molly Crabapple painted a portrait of Weev. There was a “Free Weev” website; the slogan was printed on T-shirts. The charges were eventually overturned 28 months before the end of Weev’s sentence, and when a journalist accompanied his lawyer to pick Weev up from prison, he reportedly blasted a white power song on the drive home. During and after his imprisonment, Weev and Norton kept in touch.
And during his time in jail, Norton appeared to pick up some trolling tendencies of her own. “Here’s the deal, faggot,” she wrote in a tweet from 2013. “Free speech comes with responsibility. not legal, but human. grown up. you can do this.” Norton defended herself Tuesday night, saying this language was only ever used in the context of her work with Anonymous, where that particular slur is a kind of shibboleth, but still, she was comfortable enough to use the word a lot, and on a public platform.
Norton, like so many champions of internet freedom, is a staunch advocate of free speech. That was certainly the view that allowed so much of the internet freedom and hacker community to overlook Weev’s ardent anti-Semitism when he was on trial for breaking into AT&T’s computers. The thinking is that this is what comes with defending people’s civil liberties: Sometimes you’re going to defend a massive racist. That’s true for both internet activists and the ACLU. It’s also totally possible to defend someone’s right to say awful things and not become their “friend,” however you define the term. But that’s something Quinn didn’t do. And it’s something that many of Weev’s defenders didn’t do, either.
When civil liberties are defended without adjacent calls for social and economic justice, the values that undergird calls for, say, free speech or protection from government search and seizure can collapse. This is why neo-Nazis feel emboldened to hold “free speech” rallies across the country. It is why racist online communities are able to rail against the monopolistic power of companies like Facebook and Google when they get booted off their platforms. Countless activists, engineers, and others have agitated for decades for an open web—but in the process they’ve too often neglected to fight for social and economic justice at the same time. They’ve defended free speech above all else, which encouraged platforms to allow racists and bigots and sexists and anti-Semites to gather there without much issue.
Defending free speech is critically important. But free speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in relation to social and economic realities that shape our lives with equal force.
In a way, Norton’s friendship with Weev can be made sense of through the lens of the communities that they both traveled through. They belonged to a group that had the prescient insight that the internet was worth fighting for. Those fights were often railing against the threat of censorship, in defense of personal privacy, and thus in defense of hackers who found security holes, and the ability to use the internet as freely as possible, without government meddling. It’s a train of thought that preserved free speech but didn’t simultaneously work as hard to defend communities that were ostracized on the internet because so much of that speech was harmful. Norton’s reporting has been valuable; her contribution to the #MeToo moment in the tech industry was, too. But what’s really needed to make sense of technology at our current juncture probably isn’t someone so committed to one of the lines of thought that helped get us here. Let’s hope the New York Times’ next pick for the job Norton would have had exerts some fresher thinking.