WEB PRIVACY

Trial by public opinion

The advent of the digital age makes privacy an increasingly difficult thing to manage, as the recent case of a local councilor's intimate video shows

Television cameramen jostle for their angle at the council meeting in which Olvido Hormigos announced she would not be resigning
Television cameramen jostle for their angle at the council meeting in which Olvido Hormigos announced she would not be resigning Bernardo Pérez / EL PAÍS

A wife and mother of two children uses her cellphone to film herself masturbating in her bedroom, with the intention of showing the homemade film exclusively to her husband. Unknown to her, somebody manages to hack into her phone, downloads the video, and then sends it to a group of friends. Soon after, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have seen it on the web.

 For the last month Olvido Hormigos, a Socialist Party councilor in the small community of Los Yébenes, Toledo province, has found herself in exactly this situation: in just a few hours her privacy had been shattered, and she found herself the butt of jokes - many of them offensive - from people she had never met.

Then, as the affair hit the national headlines after being picked up by the social networks earlier this month, she has garnered the sympathy of a growing number of people repulsed by the pillorying of somebody who has done nothing wrong or illegal exposed to ridicule and facing calls by her own party to resign.

Sadly, over the internet's short life, such scandals have become commonplace, creating a global version of the village pub or public wash house where gossips can dish the dirt on their neighbors, says Juan Carlos Revilla, a lecturer in social psychology at Madrid's Complutense University.

The initial reaction is to laugh. But then you realize she has done nothing wrong"

"The internet is still being shaped: use will create the moral norms regarding what is unacceptable. For example, if images filmed or shown of somebody without their consent help uncover a crime, then people's response will be different. The widespread anger about the violation of Olvido Hormigos' intimacy is because what she was doing was clearly private, didn't involve anybody else, and was not going to harm anybody."

Esther Romero, a spokeswoman for Adicciones Digitales, an organization that aims to spread awareness of the dangers of overdependence on social networks and the internet, says the public's response to the video is the result of a shared process. "The initial reaction is to laugh, to join in the mockery - but then you realize that this woman has done nothing wrong, and never intended this to be seen by other people, so you start to feel sympathy toward her."

At the same time as having to deal with the spotlight of publicity, Olvido Hormigos has had to make some tough decisions about how to deal with this unprecedented invasion of her privacy. Her initial response in early August was to refuse to make any comment to the media. The affair seemed to be dying down, until last week, finding herself in the glare of the national media, she decided to offer her resignation.

But the day after announcing that she would be standing down, Hormigos held a press conference to say that she would not be quitting her post, pointing out that she had committed no offense, and alleging that there was a political motive behind the theft and distribution of the images, further suggesting, without providing any evidence, that her political opponents in the Popular Party-controlled town hall were behind the affair.

It is like a tenement courtyard: somebody with a grudge starts spreading rumors"

The matter was put in the hands of the police, and a judge has opened an investigation. Since then a local man who has not been named, but identified only as a local soccer player and acquaintance of Hormigos, has been accused of the theft and distribution of the images.

The local division of the Popular Party has denied any involvement in the matter, and has publicly expressed its "unconditional support" for Hormigos.

But Felipe José Romero, a member of the PP's youth organization Nuevas Generaciones, reported the existence of the video on Twitter. Romero, who describes himself as "a democrat, committed to just causes, Roman Catholic, and a Real Madrid supporter," said on his Twitter account: "When I received the link I couldn't help myself and decided to send it on to others," adding: "It's about time that I made an impression on the Twittersphere." But the ramifications of what might initially have seemed like a harmless prank to some soon became clear: a woman's life had been turned upside down, and unable to stand the pressure, her political and professional future was now in the balance.

It was at this point that a growing number of internet users began to question what was going on, pointing out that Spain is awash with "corrupt" public officials, "thieves, bare-faced liars, and incompetent politicians," none of whom have for a moment contemplated resigning, even when facing trial in a court of law. When it then became clear that the video had been stolen from her phone and that she had been put in an untenable situation, there was a sudden change, and Hormigos began to receive messages of support. In a matter of days she had gone from a figure of ridicule to a digital heroine; her life open to all.

"This is the modern-day equivalent of the tenement courtyard, where somebody with a grudge against their neighbor decides to start spreading rumors," says Enrique Dans, a lecturer at the IESE business school and an expert in the use of digital technologies.

Esther Romero says that it "takes just a few seconds for somebody to get close to her phone, or the recipient's, and to hack into it, probably using a public WiFi signal to get her password. It is not that difficult to hack into somebody's email account. We have seen that some newspapers have been able to do this on an almost industrial scale," she says.

The rising tide of sympathy toward Hormigos may in part be due to recognition that we all face the same risk if we use digital technology. Enrique Dans offers some advice: "It is absolutely essential to remember that anything that is stored in a place where it can be accessed via the internet can also be stolen. The only safe computer is one that is turned off and has been stored in a concrete bunker several kilometers underground." In which case, if one wants to avoid the risk of one's personal life being the subject of gossip on the internet, one should never film oneself doing anything that one wouldn't the world to know about? "Yes," Dans answers. "Or at least take the maximum precautions. The old webcams were more secure to some extent, but the moment that an image has been digitalized, the risk of it being stolen increases hugely."

Dans admits that his response to the Hormigos affair was similar to most other people's: "The initial response is that of a cheap thrill, of voyeurism. Then you think about it and of course you realize that this is something private, something that everybody does, albeit without cameras usually, and that distributing this is disgusting, that it is hurting somebody and doing a lot of damage. And of course, it is demeaning to oneself."

The Socialist Party has backed the councilor, issuing a statement that it supports her decision to stand firm. Among Hormigos' most vocal defenders has been Elena Valenciano, who immediately expressed her support on Twitter, describing herself as: "a socialist feminist, Mediterranean, and a mother." Esperanza Aguirre, the PP head of the regional government of Madrid also came out in support of Olvido Hormigos, tweeting from a specially created Twitter account, #Olvidonodimitas (Olvidodon'tresign): "In defense of your privacy."

But María Antonia Trujillo, a former Socialist Party minister, disagrees, saying: "She should resign. If you don't know how to manage your own affairs, then how can you be expected to run the public's affairs?"

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